Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Remembering Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam
5 January 1926 - 30 September 2008
"Lee Kuan Yew thinks he is God," said the legendary David Marshall once.
Like David Marshall, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ) showed the people of Singapore why Lee was no God but a mere moveable mortal.
Lee clearly did not feel comfortable with Marshall and JBJ. As such, he let the late Dr S Rajaratnam deal with these opposition politicians.
JBJ's 1981 by-election win at Anson, which made him the first opposition politician in independent Singapore's legislature, shook the People's Action Party (PAP) at its core. Through the remainder of JBJ's life, the PAP remained scarred. It failed to secure absolute control of Parliament.
I first heard of JBJ at a family party in 1984 held to celebrate the first birthdays of two of my siblings. My family also made it a celebration of JBJ's victory.
I grew up in awe of this man, who had dared to take on Lee. For the authoritative awe that both Lee and JBJ evoked, both I feared to ever meet. It was for this reason, as a young person, I found it easier to reach out to Marshall and eventually interview him.
I attended JBJ's election rallies when he stood up for elections with Tang Liang Hong. He had a presence that rocked! It was an unfortunate sight to see him scorched by lawyers representing politicians of the ruling party. But, even then, he did not flinch and held his head up high.
When I was a student, I would also see him hawking his books. Notwithstanding his past status as a established member of the Bar and Bench in Singapore, he saw no shame in doing so. He did this with pride and an unshakeable voice. In fact, there would be many a day where I would see people walk faster to avoid being seen near him or to look another way to deflect eye contact with him.
Initially, I could not muster up the courage to approach him. He would look people straight in the eye and the stare would only provoke a strange uneasiness. When I found the strength to face my fear, I could only go up to him and shake his hands.
As I had a small school allowance then, I could not afford to buy his books. I knew that I would be in a position to buy his books some years later. I eventually did. Unfortunately, I loaned the books to friends, who were keen to read his views. The books never came back.
I hope Singapore's bookshops will now find the courage to carry JBJ's books because it is the right thing to do. The history of independent Singapore is not the history of one man. Many shaped the Singapore we are today, including contrarians like JBJ.
After returning from England, I agreed to be legal counsel of a cooperative of the National Trades Union Congress. The NTUC supports the PAP in many ways. Doing so was part of an important personal challenge I had given myself.
Around the same time, former AWARE President Dana Lam offered me an opportunity to lunch with JBJ. I had personally desired this opportunity for a long time.
Sadly, my duty and loyalty to the NTUC required that I decline to meet him. I regret to this day having had to decline Dana's invitation.
In March this year, I ceased working for the NTUC cooperative. One of the things that I desired to do was to arrange a meal with JBJ. I wanted so much to know what he would have said to young lawyers today. Alas, that meeting will never be.
His fearlessness, tenacity and passion for public service should be an inspiration for a whole generation of Singaporeans. JBJ made it right for Singapore in his own inimitable way.
I will miss JBJ.
Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?