Thursday, October 2, 2008

BJ Jeyaretnam, global citizen

I met Singapore's first elected opposition leader, J.B. Jeyaretnam (1926-2008) two years ago. He was standing with another man a shopping center holding a sign critical of the country's founding leader Lee Kwan Yew. Beside him was a box filled with books.

I asked Jeyaretnam and his colleague if it was legal to hold a sign and protest the government.

Jeyaretnam -- an minority Indian in the predominantly Chinese country -- replied in typical Singapore fashion.

"Let's just say this is a gray area."

Filled with admiration for the man, I bought a copy of the book.

Recalling the encounter, I am reading through the obituaries that have been published in the Financial Times and Associated Press.* So many of the sources quoted in the articles about Jeyaretnam are connected with the Singapore government. Since when did Western journalists presume that officials of a one-party state should have the final word on the life's work of an outspoken opposition leader? AP called his death " . . . a body blow to a feeble movement." FP refers to "The problems caused by Jeyaretnam's tactics. . . " WTF?

Jeyaretnam had been a wealthy lawyer; but the Singapore governnment bankrupt him, filing one defamation lawsuit after another against him. The Wikipedia biography is thorough. Some key passages:

Representing the Workers' Party, Jeyaretnam defeated the People's Action Party's Pang Kim Him in the 1981 Anson by-election with 51.9% to 47.1% of the vote to become Singapore's first opposition MP. He was again re-elected to the same seat in 1984 with 56.8% of the votes, and became one of only two opposition politicians to win in that election.

Two months after his 1984 re-election, he was charged for allegedly mis-stating his party accounts.Later, however, Jeyaretnam was brought down by a series of politically-motivated charges and fines in a successful effort to disbar him and prevent him from taking part in future elections.

In 1986, a district court found him innocent of all charges but one; the prosecution appealed and the Chief Justice ordered a retrial in a district court. At the retrial, Jeyaretnam was declared guilty on all charges. The judge sentenced him to three months' imprisonment (later commuted to one month), and fined him SGD5,000, sufficient to disqualify him from standing for election for a period of five years. He was also disbarred.

Since the trial had been held in a district court, and not the High Court, Jeyaretnam was able to appeal against his disbarment to the Privy Council in Britain. The Council duly reversed the judgment. This was what the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had to say on this episode when they delivered their judgment, allowing Jeyaretnam's appeal against being struck off from the roll of Singapore lawyers:

"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."

The right of appeal to the Privy Council was severely restricted by a change in the law the following year.

Following the decision of the Privy Council, Jeyaretnam then wrote to the President to ask that the convictions be removed as a result of the Privy Council's decision. The President, on the advice of the cabinet, refused to remove the convictions and Jeyaretnam remained disqualified until 1991. Singapore judges also refused to reverse his convictions or reverse the fine, which prevented him from standing for office until 1997.

In 1997, Jeyaretnam was selected as a non-constituency MP. After the election, eleven defamation suits were filed against him for saying the following words in one of the election rallies: "Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me, two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his people".

In 2001, after his damages installment was overdue by one day, Jeyaretnam was declared bankrupt, disbarred and prevented from taking part in the elections that year. He resigned from the leadership of the Workers' Party in October 2001, and subsisted by hawking on the street, copies of his book, entitled Make it Right for Singapore, which mainly contains his parliamentary speeches between 1997 and 2000. He also authored another book, entitled, The Hachet Man of Singapore,

The book Jeyaretnam sold me was The Hachet Man of Singapore. Jeyaretnam fought the good fight, and his sacrifices will surely not be forgotten.

In marked contrast to the FT and AP articles, an article about Jeyaretnam published in Australia's The Age is good.

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