Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Farewell comrades

J.B. Jeyeratnam, veteran Singapore opposition politician, aged 82, died this morning. By all accounts, JBJ, as he is often referred to, was a brave and courageous man. Whether out of stubbornness born of a deep conviction and/or a dogged in his beliefs, he remained, unfortunately, an outsider in mainstream Singapore politics for much of the last 20 years.

When he first entered Parliament through the Anson by-election, there was much promise for people hankering for an alternative voice. He was the first one in many years to break the PAP monopoly in Parliament and ultimately forced a rethink of electoral politics within the ruling party. The now entrenched Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, the reluctance to hold by-elections, and the Non-elected Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme probably dates from the PAP's debacle in Anson '81.

His win was quickly followed by another opposition politician's, Mr Chiam See Tong, in 1984, where the PAP, represented by Mr Mah Bow Tan (currently the National Development Minister), was beaten soundly by Mr Chiam's 60% majority vote.

Sadly, JBJ never could hold his tongue. He was sued multiple times in Court for defamation, which resulted in him losing his Parliamentary seat, his money and his influence in Singapore politics over the last 10 to 15 years. Just when he had formed another opposition political party - the Reform Party - to wrest back his opposition mantel, death would deny him for the last time.

I met him once, in Raffles Place many years back, when he was selling his party's newspaper, The Hammer, to raise money for one reason for another. I never talked to him, nor bought his paper. I thought he cut a forlorn figure, and thought of how much he had 'fallen' - a former MP and District Judge reduced to selling newspapers on the streets for a $1. Truly, what a waste of talent. If he had been more circumspect and careful about avoiding the pitfalls which his political foes would certainly set for him, he could have done so much more.

Yet in spite of all his failures, history will show that he did stir the giant that is the PAP from its inertia to forward the cause of all opposition politicians that will follow.

JBJ - Rest in Peace.

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