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.

Dharmendra Yadav

Please consider the environment - do you really need to print this?


Anonymous said...

The one and only father who fought all the way for human rights has left this sinful earth. He has lost everything for the people and still wanted to fight for justice at this age. I've never seen such a man in all these years. HATS OFF SIR. May God Bless Your Kind Soul. We Singaporeans must be proud to have a Father like him who didn't give up till his last days. I hope the government will do something for the young generation and the upcoming generation to know who was JBJ. He was defeated but he is always Singapore's number one HERO. And the best thing about him is, being nailed down so many times, he didn't migrate or went low profile. He was still standing strong. Dear Sir, I'll company you till the last rites.

ted said...

Personally, I think if you really so wanted to dine with the late Mr. JBJ, you should have gone ahead with it.

I don't see why working or the NTUC should prevent you or any of the staffers there from making informal relationships with figures from the non-ruling party circle. Unless it's considered a heinous social/professional crime to be seen in the company of such said figures?

Beats lamenting over a missed opportunity. Please don't do that any more.

Anonymous said...

The NTUC( NEVER TRUST UNION CHIEFS ) after the Devan Nair and Phey Yew Kok affair has a symbiotic relationship with the PAP so one can expect our friend here to toe the line. In one of JB's election campaigns the guy who drove him was a Sikh driving a Comfort taxi.That was really gutsy.
I met JBJ a couple of times. In fact once we came face to face early in the morning when I turned a corner at Silat Road where he was given an office on the void deck. . I did not really see him. Someone said," Good morning." I turned around to see JBJ grinning at me.I returned the compliment and before I could recover my composure he was gone.
Once I saw him at a bus stop opposite the now defunct Singapura cinema near Joo Chiat.He was waiting for a bus. He was that kind of man - the peoples' man.
He was and will always remain my hero.
As you are a JBJ supporter like me, you are my brother. So no more Dharmendra Yadav jokes from now on.
Thanks for your tribute to JBJ.

Priya Caldwell said...

JBJ is a hero. Although he lost a lot in his legal battles, he won won them by his own standards by which he led his life. I truly admire him.

And your post was really insightful. Thanks..

Anonymous said...

"He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither."

Time for Singaporeans to learn this lesson. Shame JBJ won't be around to teach it.

Anonymous said...

A Tribute to JB Jeyaretnam

You could have make it big, you could have been very rich

But you have gave it all up, to what is your belief.

You could have given in, you could have given up, to all the troubles and the fights

But for the love of your country, it a thought you have neither haboured nor take flight.

Alas, a son of Singapore had left us with honour and dignity

But his name and his spirit will always be in our history.

Lin Yu (May you be well and happy wherever you are)

The Pariah said...

Whether we agree with the man or not, 30 Sep 2008 was a sad day because JBJ stood up for what he believed in. That's something few in Singapore had the courage to do.

Whenever I saw JBJ trying to sell his party's newsletter or his book in Raffles Place, I felt sad - not just for the man but for Singapore because we Singaporeans played our part in DISallowing Diversity and Divergence.

Even under the best of circumstances, even in the face of overwhelming unanimity and convergence, that little lonely voice of diversity and divergence has its role - to question, to push, to re-validate ourselves. That's how science, art and humanity progressed in civilisations from time immemorial!

The last time I saw JBJ in person was in Sep 2007 at Eleanor Wong's play "The Campaign to Confer the Public Star on JBJ", riding up the escalator towards the theatre hall and taking an ovation at the end of the play when his presence was acknowledged.

JBJ has passed on. And he has left his mark in his own way for Singapore. Yes, "for" Singapore, not just "on" Singapore.

The Pariah

kelly said...

Dharmendra, JBJ knows you love him!

It's been some time since his death but I still think of him. Partially he was my dad's chess partner.

If you want to make him last from generation to generation, have pics of JBJ and your blogs of him backed up for future generations to discover and see for themselves.