As a law student in the 1980’s, I was imbued with idealism and a pretty strong sense of justice and how governments should behave in a liberal democracy. I lapped up what my lecturers taught. But before I could even complete my law degree, I discovered that Singapore was not made in the image and likeness of Western democracies.
In 1986, the government decided that it was not happy with the way the Law Society had conducted itself i.e. having Francis Seow as its President, and actively campaigning against restrictions on the foreign press. So it decided to amend the Legal Profession Act to place conditions on who could run for office in the Society. Select Committee proceedings were held and televised. One by one, the lawyers in the Law Society Council were grilled on national television about how they were not fit to hold office. One was even quizzed about her connections with the Workers’ Party. Detentions under the Internal Security Act of alleged Marxist conspirators followed soon after. Exactly what did the rule of law mean in Singapore? As a young law student, I was perplexed, and in need of answers.
At about the same time, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, or JBJ as we know him, was fighting huge personal battles. He was the incumbent MP in Anson constituency, having won the by-election in 1981 and been re-elected in 1984. News broke about him being convicted of an offence involving a donor’s cheque to him; he was seen clutching his Bible as he entered Queenstown Remand Prison to serve a prison sentence. Consequently, JBJ was also disqualified from law practice. He appealed against his disqualification to the Privy Council in London, our highest appeal court then. In the course of their judgment, the Law Lords in London observed that JBJ’s conviction was wrong and that he had suffered a “grievous injustice”. This was basically brushed aside by the authorities. JBJ’s disqualification from law practice and from standing for elections for 5 years remained. Within a few months, the government abolished legal appeals to London in disciplinary cases involving lawyers, specifically citing JBJ’s appeal!
Nearly 10 years later, campaigning began for the General Elections held in Jan 1997. Tang Liang Hong had teamed up with JBJ to contest Cheng San GRC. The atmosphere was meteoric, with the ruling party marshalling its full arsenal to label Tang a Chinese chauvinist. As I think back now, Tang’s shouts of “Merdeka” at a lunch time rally at UOB Plaza still ring in my ears to this day. So high, it seems, were the stakes at GE 1997. On New Year’s Day 1997, on the eve of Polling Day, JBJ stood at the WP rally stage at Yio Chu Kang stadium and said that he had with him Tang’s police reports against “Goh Chok Tong and his people”. For that statement, 8 legal suits were commenced in the High Court against JBJ. Deeply troubled and upset, I wrote to JBJ enclosing a donation. Thus we became friends.
Occasionally, I visited him in his law office. As he was representing Tang in legal suits as well, JBJ’s office was full of piles and piles of legal documents and affidavits filed. It is not an exaggeration to say that one had to tip toe through the piles in order to move around. JBJ would be busy drafting replies with the help of his lone secretary, Mrs Chiu. It gave the David and Goliath story new meaning.
As the months passed, JBJ had to pay all sorts of damages, or face bankruptcy. In early 1999, I remember receiving a work bonus. With all my heart, I gave it to him, hoping it would somehow forestall what was to befall him. I know of many others who made contributions. Indeed, JBJ seemed to be regularly saddled with big amounts to pay, at one point about half a million. What were our contributions in the deep pit of defamation damages?
Around that time, 3 polytechnic lecturers decided to make a short film on JBJ, to be aired at a local film festival. JBJ invited me to lunch with him and then to go to the launch of the film. When we arrived at the launch venue, we discovered to our surprise that the film had been delisted from the programme, because it had not been passed by the Board of Film Censors. The lecturers were not at the launch, and JBJ told me he could not contact them for many days. Later, there were reports that they were being investigated for an offence under an obscure section of the Films Act. That section continues to haunt Singaporeans today, but probably not for much longer, as the People’s Action Party has indicated that they have already made political films videos about themselves which they will be showing once the law is amended!
Around the year 2000, I invited JBJ to a small birthday party at my family home. Several friends and my family were there. As with most of my family occasions, alcohol was always available for merry-making. Though JBJ was a whiskey man, he whispered to me that as it was Holy Week (in the Christian calendar, the days preceding Good Friday), he did not “mean to be sanctimonious” but would not want to drink. As I recall, a clergyman among my friends assured him that his salvation would not hinge on that evening alone…and thus was he persuaded.
After he became a bankrupt in 2001, he resigned from the Workers’ Party. I joined the Party in Nov 2001 when Mr Low Thia Khiang was Secretary-General. Because of this, I believe JBJ was not happy with me and we thus became somewhat estranged. In the last few years, our dealings were minimal and formal. But when he started the Reform Party, the Workers’ Party leadership turned up in force at the Reform Party’s inaugural dinner in July 2008. Despite whatever differences, we could not forget his contributions to the continuity of the Party and his leadership through various crises.
I could not say that I knew JBJ well. But from what I knew, he was a God-fearing man who stuck to his guns and moved many by the deep sacrifices he made for the sake of his beliefs. Did he pay too high a price? If he were alive, I believe his answer would have been an emphatic: “No!”