SINGAPORE, Sept 30 — Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, Singapore’s best known and most dogged opposition leader who fought a lone battle against the powerful ruling establishment despite being driven to bankruptcy, died today. He was 82.
Jeyaretnam, often referred to as J.B.J, died at a local hospital of heart failure, his assistant Ng Teck Sion told The Associated Press.
“It’s a great loss for the country. He really believed in democracy and never stopped fighting for Singapore,” he said.
In recent years, Jeyaretnam — once a wealthy, flamboyant and high-profile lawyer — had stood on street corners and outside subway stations to pedal his own books about Singapore politics because no retailer would stock them.
Jeyaretnam’s one-man street sales were a striking commentary on the iron-fisted control that the ruling People’s Action Party wields over Singapore.
The book sales were also meant to raise money to help pay off damages stemming from defamation suits Jeyaretnam lost to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s father and Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime ministers Goh Chok Tong, and others.
“It’s a very heavy price I have paid” for taking on the government, Jeyaretnam, the first opposition member to be elected to Parliament, told The Associated Press recently.
The government did not immediately respond to Jeyaretnam’s death.
Jeyaretnam served as a MP from 1981 to 1986 and from 1997 to 2001 for the Workers’ Party, which he founded. He left the party in 2001 and helped form the Reform Party this year. He was planning to run in the next parliamentary election, due by 2011.
Jeyaretnam, whose thick white whiskers and misty eyes made him instantly recognisable, often faced jeers and catcalls in Parliament from the ruling People’s Action Party, whose members have always vastly outnumbered the opposition.
At present, the opposition holds two out of 84 elected seats in Parliament.
The PAP has ruled Singapore since independence from Malaysia in 1965. Although it has provided a high standard of living and prosperity to Singapore’s 4.5 million people, the government is often accused of stifling civil liberties, freedom of speech and political space.
A socialist at heart, Jeyaretnam contended that the government’s economic policies created a wealthy upper class and an underbelly of poor citizens who have to work twice as hard to survive. He also often railed against what he called the “Lee dynasty,” a reference to Lee Kuan Yew and his prime minister son.
Jeyaretnam’s views inevitably got him into trouble with the Lees and other government leaders who frequently sued him for defamation. He said he had lost count of how many times he had been sued — and lost.
He estimated that he paid out more than S$1.6 million (RM3.8 million) in damages and court costs over the years.
After losing the last defamation case, Jeyaretnam declared bankruptcy in 2001, unable to pay the fine of about US$367,000 (RM1.2 million) in damages stemming from defamation lawsuits brought by the two Lees and Goh.
He was found guilty of defaming them at a 1997 election rally, when he said a colleague had filed a police report accusing the ruling party leaders of defamation. Jeyaretnam emerged from bankruptcy last year.
“Outside of Singapore … Jeyaretnam’s allegedly defamatory words would not have excited comment — let alone prompted actions of this kind,” Amnesty International said at the time.
The government argues that such defamation suits are necessary to uphold the integrity of its leaders, saying any aspersions on their character would reduce the respect they command and hence compromise their ability to govern the fragile multiracial society properly.
An Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan Tamil decent, Jeyaretnam attended Saint Andrew’s School in Singapore and University College London where he earned a bachelor’s degree in law.
His wife Margaret, whom he had met when they were law students in Britain, died of breast cancer a year before he was elected to Parliament in 1981.
Jeyaretnam is survived by two sons, Kenneth and Philip. The funeral will be held later today. — AP