Saturday May 19, 2007
Return of the ‘warrior’
INSIGHT DOWN SOUTH
By SEAH CHIANG NEE
Singaporeans have greeted the news of JBJ’s rehabilitation by paying tribute to his dogged battle – despite huge losses – against a powerful force for 30 years.
HOPE to see him fight again, says one writer; another believes his election chances are better now because “the Cabinet pay issue is a powerful ammunition.”
The “him” is Singapore’s old political warrior, J.B. Jeyaretnam, who has just emerged from six years of bankruptcy after paying off the final S$233,000 (RM518,900) fine for defaming government leaders.
He can resume his profession as a lawyer, travel abroad without permission and contest the next election in Singapore due in 2011.
Singaporeans – including some of Jeyaretnam's critics – have greeted the news by paying tribute to his dogged battle despite huge losses against a powerful force for 30 years.
The 81-year-old JBJ, as he is widely known, has signalled that he will continue his opposition role.
How he will do it – such as by seeking a seat in Parliament – is not known. Given his urgency to pay off his bankruptcy, he probably will find a way, health allowing.
Jeyaretnam and Lee Kuan Yew, both in their 80s, are the only remnants of the pre-independence generation of politicians.
They are passionate politicians who had fought many fierce verbal battles in and out of Parliament.
Lee, two years older at 83, went on to help create today’s Singapore while JBJ moved to the other end of the political spectrum. He led the opposition Workers Party until 2001 when he was bankrupted in a S$600,000 (RM1.3mil) government defamation suit.
Taking on Lee had cost the outspoken lawyer dearly all these years, dragging him down with defamation fines of S$2mil (RM4.4mil), instead of enjoying hard-earned money.
His rehabilitation has stirred excitement in Singapore’s placid political waters, with some people predicting he will take on Lee himself in four years’ time.
The mainstream media has generally played down the story. As a result, Singaporeans posted their comments, mostly welcoming his return, on the Internet.
A few, however, said that – in age and in ideology – the former magistrate is past his time to serve as a new force.
Some die-hard fans are hopeful – rather prematurely – to see him back in Parliament to debate Lee again. Major obstacles will have to be overcome.
First, when election rolls around, he will be 85 years old and Lee, 87, and the prospect of seeing one or both contesting in an election is not a certainty.
Second, Jeyaretnam belongs to no party and his return to his old one is slim. This means that his best chance is to stand as an independent in a singles constituency.
Another big “if” is, of course, winning against an entrenched incumbent.
As Workers Party leader, the leftist politician had campaigned to tear down the system built by the PAP, but found little enthusiasm for it among the middle-class, which had benefited from it.
A strategic error – or was it his own ideological leaning – had cost him and his party dearly in the 80s and 90s.
Even as Singapore was prospering, Jeyaretnam stuck to the poorer non-English educated base, his declining support base, and abandoning the broad middle class to the ruling party.
JBJ also failed to attract young leaders into his fold; the result was a party dominated by one man. His successors are today still putting right his mistakes.
But few politicians today, next to Lee, can match Jeyaretnam’s passion, determination and debating skill. PM Lee Hsien Loong once praised him as a loyal Singaporean.
For six years, JBJ had struggled to pay off his debt – a forgotten man. No thanks to a media blackout, Singapore’s apathetic generation has only scant knowledge of him or his past role.
Often the white-haired man would be seen selling his books at busy shopping centres to raise funds, sometimes to the derision of young spectators. One person called him a “dishevelled, wild-looking man.”
But his return to politics could not have come at a better time, at least for himself.
The lingering public unhappiness over the Cabinet pay increase and other policies has propelled JBJ into the limelight, making him more important than otherwise.
The pay controversy may, in fact, have helped him raise the final S$233,255 (RM519,687) payment faster than it would normally have.
At this moment of change, Jeyaretnam’s hard-hitting rhetoric could liven up the political scene in Singapore. The younger PAP MPs will likely find it hard to match his experience and speaking ability.
The ripples may also be felt in the opposition camp, especially his former Workers Party.
JBJ’s hard-hitting style could influence or inspire some of its newer recruits, who had been growing impatient with what they saw was their leaders’ “lack of fire” in opposing authoritarian rule, a view Jeyaretnam shared.
“I don't believe that confrontational politics is wrong, which is what the PAP would seem to imply. They talk about constructive criticism ... (that is) within the parameters they've laid down,” he said in an interview a year ago.
With age, however, he seemed to have become more circumspect about his struggle.
He told TODAY he believes democratic ideals are on the rise among young Singaporeans.
“But, I've also noticed (that) ... once they leave university, either their energies or their enthusiasm are sapped – as a result, I suppose, of the seen and unseen pressures of society.
“It's when you have people who are prepared to stand up, march through the streets of Singapore, hold a public rally, then can they say 'we are no longer afraid',” he added.
That appears totally out of fashion with youths today – or in the foreseeable future.