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Watching The World

Published: Sunday March 29, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday March 29, 2015 MYT 7:57:06 AM

That other great Singaporean

LAST week, the world mourned the loss of one of the region’s great statesmen. And rightly so. Love him or hate him, Lee Kuan Yew was undeniably the dominant figure in Singapore’s half century of nationhood.

As I watched thousands line up to pay their respects, I couldn’t help but marvel at the journey that Singapore has taken, the little twists and turns that made us separate when we could have been whole.

I also remembered a magical few hours I spent with another unforgettable Singa­porean, the late opposition MP Joshua B. Jeyaretnam. In 2003, I drove to a house in Taman Desa where this fine gentleman was staying with some relatives.

He was 78 then and in good shape, hale and hearty and ready for battle despite what it had cost him. This was, after all, the man who ended that unbroken run from 1965 to 1981 when Singapore’s parliament contained only MPs from Lee’s People’s Action Party.

He passed away in 2008.

To me, JBJ was also a towering figure. Like Lim Chin Siong, Lee Siew Choh, Said Zahari, Sandrasegeram Woodhull, James Puthucheary, Chia Thye Poh, Fong Swee Suan and Francis Seow, he too paid a heavy price for daring to offer a dissenting voice where it wasn’t particularly welcome.

Given the euphoria of Singapore’s upcoming 50th anniversary and the sentimental appreciation of Lee Kuan Yew’s efforts, it won’t surprise me if the next election (due by 2016) will see a stronger showing by the PAP. By this I mean the opposition parties’ representation will be reduced from their current strength of 10 MPs.

So why did JBJ devote much of his life to and spend much of his personal fortune in battling a system that is so widely praised? Singapore is viewed as having high educational standards, low crime, strong financial reserves and a well-ordered society.

So why did Jeyaretnam fight it?

“My major reason for going into politics was that when the People’s Action Party (PAP) was in the opposition in the 1950s, I had felt that it would be good if they took over,” he told me.

“Its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was a great democrat who didn’t want detention without trial, wanted free speech and defended workers’ rights. I was in the legal service then and couldn’t fully take part, but I thought there was a man after my own heart.

“But when PAP did take over in 1959, it seemed like everything changed overnight and I wasn’t at all happy with what was happening. What I was angry about was the injustice in society, the disparity between rich and poor, and I also felt compelled to leave the legal service because I was not satisfied that it was impartial.”

Jeyaretnam fought a number of elections before finally breaking through in the Anson by-election of 1981. At that time he was the first Singapore opposition MP in 16 years and his presence livened up one of the world’s more docile parliaments.

“My purpose in entering politics was to try and bring about a democratic system of government. The job has not been done yet,” he said back in 2003.

Well, after his passing, Singapore’s opposition went on to enjoy a minor renaissance with the 2011 polls being its strongest showing since independence.

JBJ’s legacy lives on in both the Workers Party, which he led with distinction for more than three decades, and the Reform Party, headed by his son Kenneth.

It will be fascinating to see how Singapore voters react in a world that is now without both Lee Kuan Yew and his old adversary.

> Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan thinks that greatness can come in many forms.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Columnists, Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew

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