Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chairman Paul Tambyah remembered the late opposition legend J. B. Jeyaretnam on his 12th death anniversary and called the political icon a “lion” in a Facebook post published on Wednesday (30 Sept).
Earlier that day, the Facebook page of SDP mascot ‘Danny the Democracy Bear’ shared an old video of SDP chief Chee Soon Juan paying tribute to Mr Jeyaretnam on his first death anniversary. Re-posting the video on his own Facebook page, Prof Tambyah wrote: “We lost a lion”
Mr Jeyaretnam, who had crossed swords with Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in his prominent legal career well before Singapore gained independence, made his first foray into politics in 1971. He led a group of lawyers who took over the Workers’ Party (WP), which had been founded in 1957 by Singapore’s former Chief Minister, David Marshall, but had become a fairly small and insignificant party during the 1960s.
He became the party’s Secretary-General and first stood for parliamentary elections in the 1972 general election, when he contested the Farrer Park constituency and lost to the PAP’s Lee Chiaw Meng with 23.1 per cent of the vote. At the 1976 general election, he contested Kampong Chai Chee, and lost to the PAP’s Andrew Fong with 40.1 per cent of the vote.
In 1977, he contested a by-election in Radin Mas and was defeated by PAP candidate Bernard Chen with 29.4 per cent of the vote. He then contested Telok Blangah at a 1979 by-election and the 1980 election, losing to the PAP’s Rohan bin Kamis both times by 38.8 per cent in 1979 and by 47.0 per cent in 1980.
Despite being defeated at the polls so many times, Mr Jeyaretnam persevered and in 1981, at a by-election in Anson Single Member Constituency, he defeated PAP candidate Pang Kim Hin to become Singapore’s first opposition Member of Parliament (MP) with 51.9 of the vote in a three-corned fight.
He was re-elected as the constituency’s MP at the 1984 general election, with a larger vote share of 56.8 per cent.
Mr Jeyaretnam was subsequently brought down by a series of charges which he claimed were politically motivated to remove him from Parliament and prevent him from taking part in future elections. Two months after his 1984 re-election, Mr Jeyaretnam and the WP’s then-chairman Wong Hong Toy were charged for allegedly misreporting party accounts.
In 1986, Senior District Judge Michael Khoo found him innocent of all charges but one. The prosecution appealed the decision to the High Court. Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin ordered a retrial in a different district court. At the retrial, Jeyaretnam was declared guilty of all charges.
The judge sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment (later commuted to one month) and fined him S$5,000 – a sentence sufficient to disqualify him from serving in Parliament and prevent him from standing in parliamentary elections for a period of five years. He was also disbarred as a lawyer in a separate proceeding.
When Mr Jeyaretnam called for an enquiry into the transfer, alleging that Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin and Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik were “beholden” to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the allegation was dismissed as “scandalous”.
Mr Jeyaretnam exercised his right to appeal his disbarment to the Privy Council, which duly reversed the disbarment in 1988, noting:
“Their Lordships have to record their deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgements, the appellant and his co-accused Wong, have suffered a grievous injustice. They have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they are not guilty.
“The appellant, in addition, has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and disqualified for a year from practising his profession. Their Lordships order restores him to the roll of advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore, but, because of the course taken by the criminal proceedings, their Lordships have no power to right the other wrongs which the appellant and Wong have suffered.
“Their only prospect of redress, their Lordships understand, will be by way of petition for pardon to the President of the Republic of Singapore.”
Following the decision of the Privy Council, Mr Jeyaretnam wrote to President Wee Kim Wee to ask that the convictions be removed. However, the Singapore government strongly condemned the judgment and President Wee, on the advice of the Cabinet, refused to remove the convictions. The opposition politician hence remained disqualified from Parliament until 1991.
Though Mr Jeyaretnam was barred from contesting the 1988 general election, he spoke at election rallies held by the Workers’ Party during the campaign. Mr Lee Kuan Yew commenced proceedings for slander against Mr Jeyaretnam for remarks he made at one such rally.
Mr Jeyaretnam lost the court case and was ordered to pay damages of S$260,000 plus costs to Mr Lee. He also lost an appeal against the judgment. He had wanted to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, but to do that, he had to obtain Mr Lee’s consent before the hearing by the Court of Appeal. Mr Lee did not give his consent.
In 1995, Mr Jeyaretnam wrote an article in the WP newsletter, The Hammer, in which he alleged that a number of those involved in an event called the Tamil Language Week were government “stooges”. For this, he was sued twice for libel by Indian PAP leaders, resulting in total damages of S$465,000 and S$250,000 in court costs.
Mr Jeyaretnam was unable to contest the 1991 general election as it was held a few months before his parliamentary ban expired. At the 1997 general election, Mr Jeyaretnam stood as a WP candidate in Cheng San GRC but lost with 45.2 per cent of the vote. He was, however, selected for a Non-Constituency MP position due to his score at the polls.
After the 1997 general election, 11 defamation suits were filed against Mr Jeyaretnam for saying a party member had made police reports against then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Mr Goh alleged that, as a result of this, his “reputation, moral authority and leadership standing have been gravely injured both local and internationally”.
During cross-examination in court, Mr Goh likened Jeyaretnam’s statement to throwing a Molotov cocktail. However, on further questioning, he also stated that “it has been a good year” for him and his standing as a leader had not been injured. Mr Jeyaretnam was nevertheless found liable and ordered him to pay damages of S$20,000.
Mr Goh described these damages as “derisory” and appealed. On appeal, the damages were raised to S$100,000 plus S$20,000 in court costs.
In 2001, after an instalment on his damages was overdue, Mr Jeyaretnam was declared bankrupt. As undischarged bankrupts are barred from serving in Parliament, he therefore lost his NCMP seat and his seat was declared vacant by the Speaker on 24 July 2001.
He was also disbarred and was unable to stand as a candidate in the 2001 general election. In October 2001, he resigned as Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party and was replaced by Low Thia Khiang. Shortly after he stepped down as party chief, Mr Jeyaretnam left the party.
To earn money to pay off his debts, Jeyaretnam sold copies of his book ‘Make it Right for Singapore’ on the streets and also authored another book, The Hatchet Man of Singapore (ISBN 9810485131), describing his legal trials.
On 25 October 2004, Mr Jeyaretnam appealed for an early discharge from bankruptcy so that he could contest in the next general election. Representing himself during the two-hour hearing at the apex court, Mr Jeyaretnam appealed on the grounds that he wanted another chance to contribute to society and offered to pay one-third of the more than S$600,000 he still owed his claimants.
Mr Jeyaretnam was discharged from bankruptcy in May 2007 after paying S$233,255.78. He was reinstated to the bar in September that year.
On 18 June 2008, Mr Jeyaretnam founded a new political party, the Reform Party (RP), and took on the role of Secretary-General. He planned to stand as a candidate for the party in future elections but did not get a chance to do so as he passed away three months after the party was formed, at the age of 82. His son, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, has led the RP since his father’s passing.