Speech of Teo Soh Lung delivered at the JBJ Memorial Dinner,
27 Nov 2016.
J B Jeyaretnam inspired a generation of depoliticised young people when he won the Anson by election in a three corner fight in 1981. His victory shocked the PAP and surprised those who assumed that nothing was going to change. The PAP had not anticipated that the working class of Anson would abandon fear and send Jeyaretnam into parliament. Jeyaretnam’s victory ended 16 years of one party parliament.
I am glad to say that being one of the voters in Anson, I had thus, in a very small way, contributed to the change in our political landscape. I recall the night when the results were announced on television. My entire neighbourhood shouted for joy and vehicles sounded their horns for a very long time.
Jeyaretnam’s entry into parliament as the sole opposition member was almost immediately met with aggression from the PAP. Old debts were suddenly revived. In parliament, he faced hostile ministers. He was threatened time and again with breach of parliamentary privileges. Outside parliament, he was sued and charged in court. It is amazing that despite all the unbridled confrontation, he soldiered on and survived.
As a lone opposition member in parliament, without a team of researchers to help him, he was often rebuked. I often hear unfair criticisms that he did not do his research. That was really unkind. Luckily, parliamentary records show that he was a very effective parliamentarian, challenging bad policies and unjust bills and raising concerns about injustice and problems of citizens. He was quick on his feet.
As MP for Anson, Jeyaretnam never fail to meet the residents once a week at the void deck of one of the blocks of flats. He was concerned with the education of children. He sought permission to use the huge Peranakan styled community centre a stone throw away for tuition classes. Permission was denied. He once asked me to research on setting up a childcare centre. Unfortunately, the cost was just too exorbitant. Unable to carry out these plans for his constituents, he organised events such as the autumn festival where children and their parents would enjoy walking along the estate roads with lanterns in their hands. I remember he also organised children’s art competitions when impressive artworks were produced.
Jeyaretnam’s work as an opposition member in parliament inspired a group of young people. They realised that Singapore needed an opposition and it was absolutely important that Anson remain in the hands of the Workers’ Party. Thus before the general election in 1984, they offered to help him in his campaigns. When Jeyaretnam retained Anson, they offered their help in the production of the party’s organ, The Hammer. The irregular newspaper became a regular bi-monthly paper. The sale of The Hammer increased. It did not escape the notice of the PAP.
Jeyaretnam’s popularity and hard work in Anson garnered him 57% of the votes in 1984 which was 5% more than in 1981.
The loss of Anson to Jeyaretnam and Potong Pasir to Chiam See Tong in the general election angered the PAP. Both Jeyaretnam and Chiam were lawyers. It was thus no coincidence that attention was quickly focussed on lawyers. Coincidentally too, Francis Seow, former solicitor general and charismatic lawyer came on the scene when he was elected as the president of the Law Society towards the end of 1985. Lee Kuan Yew was alarmed for it was also the transition of power from him to the second generation leaders. He could not afford to see more opposition candidates in the next general election which had to be held in 1988 or 89. He had to “finish off” Jeyaretnam and all potential candidates.
In 1983, Jeyaretnam was charged for misappropriation of party funds amounting to $2,600 and making of a false statutory declaration. The First District Judge, Michael Khoo acquitted Jeyaretnam of 3 charges and fined him $1000 for the fourth charge. About a year after, Michael Khoo was transferred to the AG’s Chamber to become a Public Prosecutor. It caused grave unhappiness among lawyers as well as the general public.
In parliament, Jeyaretnam raised the issue of Michael Khoo’s transfer. Instead of simply answering his query, Jeyaretnam was referred to the Privileges Committee. All hell broke loose when complaints against Jeyaretnam was brought before the Committee of Privileges and the appeal against Michael Khoo’s judgement went before the High Court.
To cut a long story short, Jeyaretnam was ultimately fined $5000 and jailed for one month. He was therefore disqualified from being a member of parliament on 9 Dec 1986.
With Jeyaretnam out of the way, it was the Law Society and its president, Francis Seow who came under scrutiny. Again to cut a long story short, four lawyers and all those who helped in the publication of The Hammer were ultimately arrested and detained under the ISA in 1987.
Jeyaretnam offered to be legal counsel to his volunteers but due to coercion from the ISD, his offer was rejected. Jeyaretnam together with two other party members protested outside the Istana, seeking the release of the detainees. They were arrested and charged in court for attempting to conduct an unlawful assembly. Fortunately, the law in 1987 was not as severe as it is today. It needed five people to form an unlawful assembly. So they were all acquitted.
A year later, in 1988, several ISA detainees who were released issued a joint press statement and were immediately rearrested. Shortly after, two of their lawyers, including Francis Seow were also arrested under the ISA. That year, the electoral system was changed and GRCs were introduced. Anson was merged into Tanjong Pagar.
1988 however ended with the best news for Jeyaretnam. His appeal against the High Court barring him from practising law was heard before the Privy Council. In October, the Privy Council delivered a judgement exonerating Jeyaretnam and severely criticising the Singapore judiciary. He had finally won a major victory. But the Privy Council was powerless with regard to Jeyaretnam’s convictions and his seat in parliament.
The attacks on Jeyaretnam did not end with his exoneration by the Privy Council. Immediately after the 1997 general election, Jeyaretnam was again sued for defamation by PAP ministers represented by their army of senior counsels. He was ultimately made a bankrupt in 2001.
When Jeyaretnam was fighting his legal battles and trying to avoid bankruptcy proceedings, he was a very lonely person. He worked all he could to stave off bankruptcy. He stood at street corners to sell his books. Yet many of us shy away from him. Understandably, he developed a psychological complex. When friends tell me that he did not smile when they greet him on the street, I told them that it is difficult to trust strangers. He had been played out by strangers who offered assistance only to be disappointed and humiliated. I never encounter such problems with him. He was always glad to have coffee with me. And even when he was down and out, he would insist on paying the bill.
As Singaporeans, we have failed Jeyaretnam miserably. He used to tell me that if only every Singaporean would give him $1, he would not have to become a bankrupt. Jeyaretnam was a gentleman and a true warrior. We should always remember his huge sacrifice for us and honour his memory by doing what he tells us. Get rid of Fear and Wake Up!
It is unlikely that we will ever have another JBJ, at least not in my lifetime.