Why the late J.B. Jeyaretnam is revered by opposition supporters

The late J.B. Jeyaretnam scored electoral victories not by pandering to the establishment or molly-coddling the masses, but by exciting and inspiring the masses, and challenging the establishment with credibility and force of character.

Short Notes from the Editor
28 December 2009

In his no-holes-barred masterpiece Requiem for an unbending Singaporean, former President C.V. Devan Nair recounted how, after J.B. Jeyaretnam had won the 1981 Anson by-election, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that he would make him “crawl on his bended knees, and beg for mercy“.

But the former Worker’s Party leader was made of far sterner stuff, and in Devan Nair’s own words, “he never did crawl on bended knees, or ever begged for mercy, and it is to Lee Kuan Yew’s eternal shame that Jeyaretnam will leave the political scene with his head held high, enjoying a martyrdom conferred on him by Lee.

Despite having unjustly lost his Anson seat soon after the 1984 general elections due to a high court conviction for falsifying party accounts that was subsequently overturned by a late 1980s Privy Council judgment, and despite being subject to ad hominems like being called a “mangy dog” by Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament, J.B. Jeyaretnam soldered on with the opposition cause. He served the Worker’s Party with even greater vigour than before, and he played a very significant role in helping Low Thia Khiang win the Hougang seat in 1991, a seat that the latter has retained to this day.

Starting from 1988, J.B. Jeyaretnam faced numerous defamation suits brought on by PAP leaders, ranging from issues such as calling for an investigation as to how the late Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, had obtained the tablets with which he had committed suicide, to articles he wrote in The Hammer, the Workers’ Party newspaper, to remarks he made at an election rally in 1997 concerning Mr Tang Liang Hong.

But this torrent of lawsuits, his subsequent bankruptcy, and his resignation from the WP in late 2001 as a result of having been ostracized by the colleagues with whom he had worked for so many years did not break JBJ’s spirit. He spend years selling books at City Hall and managed to get himself discharged from bankruptcy in May 2007. Thereafter, he registered the Reform Party in 2008 together with a few long time colleagues and supporters.

Above all, J.B. Jeyaretnam was a man who tested and stretched the limits of our political system, and in so doing, revealed the flawed ways in which the PAP has governed Singapore not in the nation’s interest or with the welfare and dignity of the citizens in mind, but in its own interest.

JBJ was a man who was extremely conversant in bread-and-butter issues, and he was also someone who clearly understood the need to reform our political system and restore to all citizens their rights as guaranteed by our constitution if we are to make real progress as a nation.

Unfortunately today, some people are being mislead by the mainstream media into thinking that JBJ was nothing but a rabble rouser who practiced nothing but confrontational politics in the negative sense. They forget the immense work he was trying to do to tease out the flaws in our system and mobilize the people to challenge the PAP. They forget that the PAP has evolved a sophisticated system to deal with people like him who dare to stand up to them and point out what has gone wrong. They forget that it is the PAP who is to be blamed for setting up this oppressive regime, and not JBJ who is to be blamed for correctly identifying and challenging the oppression.

The late J.B. Jeyaretnam is revered by opposition supporters because he was a man who was thoroughly consistent in what he stood for, and because he spoke to both the minds and the hearts of voters

He scored electoral victories not by pandering to the establishment or molly-coddling the masses, but by exciting and inspiring the masses, and challenging the establishment with credibility and force of character.

He has left a deep void in opposition politics — a void that has not yet been filled.

6 comments on Why the late J.B. Jeyaretnam is revered by opposition supporters

  1. why is the Police Force did not arrest this old fart (LKY) whose has done a lot of damages to our Country—–abusing this power using ISD. Still sitting there collecting $300K of Salary. It is a conspiracy of all this “Top People”. Is the police Force just working for the FamiLEE not for Country Singapore.

  2. I know my website doesn’t look very good, but never mind, I’ll still make the thick skin and give a comments here.

    Yes, JBJ was quite heroic, and LKY was quite unscrupulous.

    But when we go deeper, we find that though JBJ is brave and heroic, he is quite extremist in the sense that he soldiered in not quite the right way, ie he did not work smart. Low Thia Khiang is a much smarter man, and it has been shown that LTK’s method is far more sustainable.

    In LKY’s own words, JBJ was an idiot whom he vanquished easily, or words to that effect. It is in fact LTK who has made more lasting changes to our political climate and created a far more credible opposition. Not to sound ungrateful, maybe JBJ helped LTK along, but I’m sure that resourceful man like LTK would have found help from other sources if JBJ was not available at the time. In playing chess, the winner is not one who just recklessly forges ahead, but is instead a strategist like LTK who use attack, defence, aggression and patience appropriately, and furthermore have the will, foresight and resourcefulness to do succession planning which is why Workers’ Party now has more talent and more coordinated with the likes of Sylvia Lim, Chen Show Mao and the rest.

    Then again, maybe extreme individuals like JBJ are needed to point certain things out, that we might never see otherwise. To shake things up a bit.

    And not to forget that PAP is not all just evil, it has done good as well. It doesn’t do to just one-way glorify opposition and curse PAP. Also, we might need to consider that Singapore might have little room for error, though it is hard to judge whether that is really the case. If indeed there is little room for error, then PAP’s actions over the years become more understandable — trying to create stability and strong government to ensure easier installation of policies and to achieve that to use strong-arm tactics like banning demonstrations and putting opposing individuals in jail. Then again of course, maybe LKY is just plain paranoid.

    Of course, times change, and system of government may need to change also. There is always danger that one dominant party may make huge error without checks and balances. Though it is hard for me, a small humble individual, to see exactly how to achieve the balance, how to implement changes if necessary. We can all hope that the balance will be achieved and the right things done, whether it be continue PAP dominance or change to a multi-party system in government. Whichever is the correct one, plus fine-tuning to get things right. But as I said, I am just ordinary person and cannot see things clearly, so I’m not sure what is right.

    My point is, it’s difficult to see truth, so we must keep open mind. Just like when so-called experts predicted that Germany and Japan economy will overtake America, but we have seen that over time that is not the case. Of course, only time will tell whether one-party system or multi-party system works in Singapore. We shall all have to pray that things work out well in the end, whichever way. Yes, I pray fervently that things will go well, the alternative is too terrible to think about. Or maybe Singapore’s geographical position is an overwhelming advantage and pull us through no matter what, but that is debatable and hard for me to see what is the truth. Let’s hope for best whatever the case.

    Just my two cents’ worth.

  3. in response to Fumi: “Extreme individuals like JBJ”????

    The only reason you consider him extreme is because of the suffocating climate of political repression in Singapore. I think what would be considered healthy public discourse and debate in most parliaments around the world will be considered “confrontational” and “extreme” behaviour in our farcical little kindergarten hybrid democracy. The idea that we must support politicians who are “sensible” and do not rock the boat is a dangerous once because it allows the PAP to dictate how our political culture is defined rather than letting the people decide. Everytime someone repeats that people like Chee or JBJ are “extremists” it only serves to cement the narrow idea of political normality that the PAP has created to entrench its power. This serves as a huge barrier to entry for more plurality in government.

  4. Hi Josh,
    In the end it is not exactly up to us to decide the fate of our country. There are external forces that are much more powerful than our intelligence or our willpower. Once we lose our competitive edge, say as a center in Southeast Asia, then our talent will move away at very high rates and we will simply decline, just as is happening in Greece.

    Singapore is what it is, because it is a young country. If it continues to prosper, then perhaps it will become more democratic. If it is absorbed into Malaysia, then its fate will depend on the government of Malaysia. On a longer time scale, it doesn’t really matter, does it? In human history, people have lived or prospered or fallen or died. How many people? Countless, obviously. When will America decline? Who knows? Some have argued that Europe is already in decline. How long will Singaore last, and how much is this in our hands to control, really?

    Is democracy really everything? I believe it is simply a reflection of how healthy a country’s economy is, and how long it has prospered. Western Europe has already been prosperous for a very long time, and its democracy is a reflection of this. America rose to power quickly because it has had geographical advantages and luck on its side, and it most definitely can afford to be democratic. How long has Singapore prospered? Furthermore Singapore is an Asian country, and that has somewhat dampened its democracy. Consider the Japanese who defer to authority, Japan is an authoritarian society, where is true democracy? Consider India where you have horrible class divides and gender inequality. Has democracy really improved matters in India?

    Freedom and democracy are luxuries which are possessed by extremely lucky nations. If you have it, well and good. If you don’t have it, then just concentrate on improving your own life, and improving the lives of others, helping others. Only when we have high standards of living, and we become a gracious people, will democracy come to us, will democracy and freedom have any real meaning.

    Granted, Lee Kuan Yew is somewhat paranoid, and he is very combative and ruthless. But he is just a reflection of the times. Singapore as a society has not really matured, and this is reflected by the nature of its government. Only when the people become more mature will its government become more mature. Only when the people become less afraid will the government become less paranoid. Only when the people become gracious will the government become gracious. Can we truly say that Singaporeans are a really gracious people? I’m afraid not. So we do not have a truly gracious government. Judging from your rebuttal to my comment, Josh, you are quite idealistic and have not truly grasped all of life, and its realities. In fact you are, to put it honestly, somewhat naive. True democracy will come after the people have matured as a society, not before. That won’t be for some time yet. That is why it amuses me when people shout for democracy, when they do not realize the responsibilities that come with democracy, or the pre-requisites for true democracy.

    My political views have somewhat matured as I absorbed new knowledge, ideas, and facts. I wonder if yours have matured as well. I now no longer blindly support the PAP, hopefully your views have also rounded out and become more in-depth and more considerate of multiple issues other than freedom and democracy?

  5. Hi Josh,

    After some further reading of Singapore’s political history, I feel I have been overly dismissive of your views. I get the feeling that the PAP has been somewhat high-handed in dealing with its political opponents, and the political environment is indeed somewhat oppressive.

    Also the government could perhaps benefit from getting alternative viewpoints from several other political parties in Parliament other than the PAP, and that the PAP should be forced to listen to the people’s voices more.

    It might seem strange that I have done an about-turn in opinion, but that is what I’m like (my opinions can change like the weather).

  6. Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam is a great man. He would not forsake his tenets and suffered greatly for it. He would now kowtow to the Great Oppressor and Bully, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. R.I.P. Mr Jeyeretnam.

    We may or may not agree with Mr JBJ. That’s OK. That he was punished, humiliated and so unjustly treated is abhorrent. Singaporeans of goodwill and fairness must now step up and speak up and never allow this to happen again. As someone has said: ‘Evil thrives when good men say nothing’.

    Hopefully, we’ll get to see someone of Mr JBJ’s calibre. This time round with the benefit of hindsight and mindfulness that discretion is indeed truly the better part of valour.

Comments are closed.