Home Singapore News J B Jeyaretnam: The iconography begins

J B Jeyaretnam: The iconography begins

In its immediate commentary following the death of opposition leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam on 30 September 2008, the Straits Times wrote: “Yet, the old warhorse refused to believe that he was irrelevant to Singaporeans.” [1]

In the days following, the actions and words of both the newspaper and its political masters demonstrated they didn’t believe themselves. Over and over again, one saw attempts to downgrade the man and his passing. Yet the fact that such attempts were necessary belied the newspaper’s own assertion that he meant little.

J B Jeyaretnam: The iconography begins
A candlelight memorial for J B Jeyaretnam was held at Hong Lim Green on 4 October 2008.

Leader writer Chua Lee Hoong opined: “With the benefit of hindsight, it could even be said that it was Mr Jeyaretnam’s highly combative style that led the PAP government to develop an aversion to confrontational politics, Westminster-style.” [2] It’s a rather strange assessment. Just ask the Barisan Socialis, Singapore’ s main opposition party in the 1960s, who were crushed by a liberal use of the Internal Security Act. Or ask any leader of independent trade unions and publishers of newspapers of that era. Blaming Jeyaretnam for the PAP’s habit of crushing its opponents is far-fetched to say the least. And again, the very laying of (false) blame contradicted the claim that he was irrelevant, for if he was so pivotal in making our politics the way it is, then he can’t be irrelevant, can he?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong were even more artless. In their condolence messages, released to the media, they came across as self-serving, taking the opportunity to burnish their own reputations, painting themselves as principled and magnanimous.

PAP leaders never wanted their fight with Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam to affect his two sons, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday.

In their condolence messages, they referred to a letter that the late opposition politician’s elder son Kenneth had written to then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1993.

He wrote to Mr Goh to say that he had found employers in Singapore reluctant to offer him a job.

Mr Goh replied with a letter that could be shown to prospective employers.

In it, Mr Goh stressed that the Government did not hold anything against Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam and urged employers to evaluate him on his own merits.

In a statement yesterday, Mr Goh said: ‘As prime minister, I did not allow the PAP’s fight with Mr Jeyaretnam to affect his sons’ place in society.

— Straits Times, 1 October 2008, JBJ’s fight with
PAP did not affect his sons: PM Lee, SM Goh

What that has to do with expressing sympathy escapes me. They then went on to accuse Jeyaretnam of wanting to destroy the People’s Action Party (PAP), oblivious to the fact that in the public’s eye, it’s been the other way around. Everybody sees it as the PAP who has been obsessive about persecuting Jeyaretnam, through the last 27 years.

Quoting Lee Hsien Loong’s letter,

‘Perhaps it was because he and the PAP never saw eye to eye on any major political issue and he sought by all means to demolish the PAP and our system of government.

‘Unfortunately, this helped neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our parliamentary tradition. Nevertheless, one had to respect Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam’s dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age.’

— ibid

Hello, who has destroyed the parliamentary tradition that we inherited from the British? Who invented Group Representation Constituencies? Who resorted to defamation suits for stump speeches that are normal in every true democracy?

See how rabid they are in mauling the man even posthumously?

Reporting the funeral

When it came to reporting the funeral, the Straits Times again demonstrated how much of a PAP mouthpiece it was. Whereas AFP reported that eulogies delivered by Jeyaretnam’s sons Kenneth and Philip made references to his ideals, and his political trials and tribulations, the Straits Times reported not a word of that.

First, the AFP story:

In a eulogy, Jeyaretam’s eldest son Kenneth compared his father to a raging bull who, despite the blows he received, remained “undefeated and unbowed”.

Another son, Philip, a prominent lawyer, said his father’s principle of “giving voice to the silent” led him to enter politics.

— AFP, 5 October 2008, Hundreds pay final
respects to Singapore opposition leader

You can verify for yourself, through the YouTube videos put up by The Online Citizen that Kenneth said the above and quite a lot else about his father’s political life, including: “I think of my father as a man who received blow after blow and yet remained undefeated and unbowed.”

He also noted that his father, through his “bravery and tenacity in fighting for the cause of individual freedom and human rights in Singapore”, showed fellow citizens that “they were not powerless to change [things]…. and that through the democratic process, they possess the means to control their own destiny.”

Rebutting the rush to judge him as irrelevant: “And despite the government’s denial that my father had any impact on their attitudes and policies towards the electorate, every Singaporean knows the legacy of his victory.”

Younger son Philip Jeyaretnam recalled the “savage attacks on his patriotism” that his father faced in the 1970s when he first stood for election, losing 5 times, often narrowly, before the ground-breaking 1981 by-election victory in Anson that shot him to fame.

“For him,” Philip said, politics “was law and advocacy in a new guise, speaking for those who might not otherwise be heard, arguing always for fairness, due process, and equity.”

When Jeyaretnam was disqualified from the bar as a result of PAP accusations, those were the “worst times of his life.”

Then Philip got even more pointed: “Notwithstanding this, he was the epitome of grace, even though others failed to accept the true implications of the Privy Council’s restoration of him as an advocate and solicitor, and so he was not pardoned or reinstated to his seat in Parliament. He bore it all stoically, fully confident that right was on his side.”

“Away from his political battles, where he had to fight heart and soul, he was gentle and committed when helping individuals around him. Throughout his life, the way [my father] helped people earned him the friendship and love of many. He lived among the people, preferring the bus to a taxi even in his last days. Perhaps he felt embarrassed that so often taxi drivers refused to take the fare from him.”

But none of that was reported in the Straits Times. Instead, you’d learn from the newspaper’s story unceremoniously relegated to the bottom of page 11, deep inside, that Philip told the congregation “how dedicated [his father] was to his faith and how devoted he was to his wife.” Kenneth recalled, the Straits Times said, that his father “always insisted on accompanying [his grandson] Jared to Robinsons at Christmas time to choose him a present.” [3]

Excuse me, but these are things one hears at every eulogy. They are not news. What was news -– because it is not said everyday at eulogies -– was the way Jeyaretnam’s sons spoke of his political life. In its complete silence, the Straits Times once again abandoned its journalistic craft.

And unknowingly underlined everything that Jeyaretnam had been pointing out about the state of democracy in Singapore.

Maybe he *was* irrelevant

A few days ago, a young lawyer seemed surprised when I told him that much as we speak of the Worker’s Party’s 2006 showing in Aljunied as some kind of high water mark, others, including J B Jeyaretnam, had actually done better in previous Group Representation Constituency contests.

Whereas the Workers’ Party (WP) team in Aljunied 2006, led by Sylvia Lim, got 43.9 percent of votes polled, Francis Seow got 49 percent in 1988.

J B Jeyaretnam: The iconography begins

The young lawyer didn’t know that. In that sense, it spoke to the generally low level of political awareness in Singapore, which is associated with widespread apathy and fear of being “political”.

You could argue then that this young man, and the many like him, might indeed see Jeyaretnam as irrelevant to their lives. Yet, by the same token, wouldn’t Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister (and former Prime Minister) Goh Chok Tong or former student-activist, now born-again PAP believer, Vivian Balakrishnan also be irrelevant? For isn’t all politics “irrelevant” to this entire class?

Indirect importance

On the other hand, even politically apathetic Singaporeans tend to share certain views about the system we live under. There is a consensus that the PAP can be brutes, that our political order, justice system, and certainly the mainstream media, are nowhere near as fair as should be ours by right, that we have an arrogant government which bulldozes its way through a voiceless people.

But from where did people learn these? Who has opened their eyes for them? Certainly, J B Jeyaretnam, through his struggles and dogged outspokenness, must have played a big role in even this minimal level of political consciousness. So, even if people cannot say how they know what they know, that they know, must owe something to the life work of the man. That they are dissatisfied — and dissatisfaction is the driving force of change — is the legacy Jeyaretnam has left us.

How many remember Lim Chin Siong?

Fine, so subliminally, Jeyaretnam’s impact is there, even among the politically disengaged. But how long before they forget the physical man and his place in our political history?

It is sobering to ask how many Singaporeans know about Lim Chin Siong, and be able to describe the significance of his life and politics. Lim was at least as well-known as Lee Kuan Yew in the 1950s and 1960s, and equally popular too. Lim paid an even heavier price for his beliefs than Jeyaretnam, arrested in the 1950s and spending 6 years in detention without trial in the 1960s (1963 – 1969). After his release, he spent a further 10 years in exile in London. He died in 1996 at a relatively early age of 62.

Lim’s constituency of supporters was drawn mostly from the Chinese-speaking majority of a different generation. This demographic group is one that is dying off. Furthermore, he died before the internet took off, and so his memory did not have the opportunity to be articulated and spread through a popular medium. Unlike Jeyaretnam who fought to his last day, Lim became politically inactive after being released from detention, but this is probably not from choice. A common condition of release from detention is that the person should not engage in further political activity.

For these and perhaps other reasons, Lim is fading from our collective memory. The question is: Is Lim’s fate a harbinger of Jeyaretnam’s?

J B Jeyaretnam: The iconography begins

Enduring significance?

It could be worse. He could end up as just another fashion symbol like Che Guevara’s visage.

Whether it goes that route or not, almost surely, the process of iconography will begin. The real Jeyaretnam will slowly be forgotten (or fashionalised) by the majority, but those who remain doing political work will start to use him for their own purposes.

It is the nature of politics that we create symbols, distilled to their essence, sometimes retooled to represent whatever is needed for a new age (Examples: Robert F Kennedy, or Stonewall [4]). Remade into a symbol, Jeyaretnam will be beyond rational debate; it will no longer be whether his ideas are good or bad, practical or dreamy. Instead, he will represent idealism and hope; his example will provide proof to his successors that their struggle reaches back in time, and therefore must surely endure into the future, which in turn must testify to the indestructibility and ultimate righteousness of whatever cause his memory is hoisted over.

Detractors will use every chance to point out that this is empty symbolism; that he was never relevant to the “heartlanders”, the “average Singaporean”, the “majority”, even in his time.

But to formulate it thus is to forget an even more enduring lesson of politics: In the long run, the centre never matters. History is a continuing story of how margins conquer the centre, wave after wave, whether we’re referring to “unpopular” political ideas, “immoral” social trends, “useless” technological inventions, or even “outlandish” fashion.

Of course, margins are always multiple; they compete to seize the centre. For every one which succeeds and carry their icons to the mantle, countless other margins fade into oblivion, their icons with them. The interesting question, therefore, is not whether J B Jeyaretnam lives in the hearts of the many today, but whether his memory and symbolism mean anything to the few who, by the dice of history, turn out as the ultimate victors for the soul of Singapore.


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