J B Jeyaretnam 1926-2008: Passing of a legend


The legendary Singapore opposition icon, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, better known as JBJ (photo credit: Wikipedia), passed away early this morning of heart failure.

After having left the Workers Party, he had just formed the Reform Party to mount a new challenge to PAP dominance. He was the interim secretary general of the party.

He was Singapore’s Mr Opposition, having broken the PAP’s 15-year monopoly in Parliament in the Anson by-election in 1981, winning 52 per cent of the votes to become Singapore’s first opposition MP.

He suffered much personal hardship after being at the losing end of a string of defamation and libel law suits and was forced to pay substantial damages, which eventually left him bankrupt for a number of years.

The first time I met him was some years ago in Johor, where I was speaking at an inter-faith conference and JBJ, an Anglican Christian, was in the audience.  Apparently, he was spending a lot of time in Johor back then due to some of his ‘problems’ in Singapore.

During the break, he came up and had some encouraging words for me. And that made a deep impression on me – to actually meet the legend in person.

All through the long, dark years of persecution, he kept the flame burning. For many, his perseverance with what sometimes appeared like a lost cause was an inspiration.

Today, Singapore’s opposition politics is here to stay. In the last general election in Singapore, for instance, huge crowds – usually not shown over the mainstream media – attended the Workers Party’s election rallies.

For his heroic role in keeping the flame of democracy blazing, Singaporeans owe a debt of gratitude to the solitary figure who was often seen in the past at street corners, selling his Workers Party publication, The Hammer, during all those lonely years of struggle.  ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven!’ Matthew 5:10.

Rest in peace, JBJ. You have fought the good fight; you have completed the race.

Here is a selection of your tributes:

Says blog reader Richy:

I did not meet him personally. But somehow just as you, he too created an impression on me. His speeches, writings and interviews were very impressive. His last interview with The Star made my heart moved for him. I would like to quote those words of his during the interview:

“At times I feel tired and say to myself: “Don’t you think you should give up now?” But that is only momentary. It is followed by the thought that if I have started on a job and as long as I have the health and strength, I will have to go on with it. And there are people who look to you especially when you walk the streets of Singapore. It is just my conviction that when things are wrong, and if there is anything I can do to put them right, then I should do that. I think every citizen should feel like that. It is a citizen’s duty.

“I did not have many properties but I had to sell a bungalow in a very fashionable area in Singapore to pay the judgment obtained by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Having sold that, three years later I bought a small apartment, and then I had to sell that too. All in, I had easily about 12 to 13 suits to pay off. Some people say I was a fool. All I can say is I do not regret it because, to me, life is not all about making money and acquiring wealth. Life is doing something for the people around you.”

JBJ had lived his purpose. He had no material wealth but his human values would be hard to earn even with millions of dollars.

Peace be upon your soul, JBJ!

Adds Antony G:

JBJ was indeed a giant among men. He will be remembered as one of the few truly great Singaporeans. I hope that the powers-that-be who hounded him during his life time will now take a minute to stop and think of what JBJ stood for and his contribution in moulding Singapore to what it is today. Without JBJ things would certainly have been different.

I did not have the opportunity to meet this great soul but I have seen him many a time in some Indian Restaurant in Johore Baru all alone over his dosai and sambar.

You have indeed fought the good fight.

Parli-Man pays tribute to JBJ’s fighting spirit:

JBJ will definitely go down in my books as a heroes’ hero. What a man! – who bravely stood up against the system. No matter how many times LKY tried to bring him down, JBJ got back up. He is the true ‘Rocky’ (politically, that is) of our era.

Long live JBJ in our thoughts and in our minds.

May you rest in peace.

JMD says there is a lesson for us all:

Despite all the materialism around him it would have been so easy (for him) to give up, join the crowd, make money and live a luxurious life. What is important is for all (here and in Singapore) to appreciate and understand the why.  Why did he continue when it would have been so easy to do otherwise?

There is a lesson in that for all of us, since we (Malaysians and Singaporeans) are cut from the same cloth: The price of democracy and liberty is not cheap. It is innately human to want to be free, to think freely,  to act freely and not to be coerced by the State.

RIP JBJ. Gone but not forgotten.

And he was an eloquent speaker, recalls Shyam:

What a lion of a man! It’s a pity that the Singapore of today will not produce anymore like him. It stifles dissent. But where will your creativity come from if you only want to be surrounded by yes men?

I used to enjoy watching Singapore’s parliamentary sessions when JBJ was in Parliament. What a great speaker. The whole bunch of MPs were no match for him. It needed LKY to attend Parliament often to fend off the attacks from JBJ.

To JBJ’s family, he was indeed a man who was greatly respected on both sides of the causeway!

What a great loss for Singapore and the region. Pay your tribute in the comments below.

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Dawn Lee
4 May 2011 11.55pm

A time to remember Mr Opposition. A truly inspiring figure not just in politics but also in life.

19 Feb 2009 4.16am

A man other men can only hope to imitate

7 Oct 2008 6.45pm

uncle jeya,RIP.

Marjorie Chong
Marjorie Chong
3 Oct 2008 11.39pm

A man who could not be bought – when as a gifted, connected lawyer it would have been so easy to succumb to the low road – who was willing to take on the yoke of ridicule and destitution for what he believed in. Nerves of steel, an unflinching eye on what he thought to be true … you didn’t have to agree with him, but the sheer strength and integrity of the man….

navena rajaratnam
navena rajaratnam
3 Oct 2008 1.24pm

He was a man who believed in himself and his mission. A man who trod on a road most dare not take. A man who carried the heaviest load that he could bear without faltering and stumbling. I salute your resoluteness and your bravery. You have left a deep imprint in the memories of others like myself in not giving up for what you believe in. “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”–Dr. Suess Good- bye Mr Jeyaratnam, rest in peace for now you have seen… Read more »

2 Oct 2008 10.52am

Singapore’s gentle revolutionary South China Morning Post. Nov 30, 1998. BY Barry Porter CHIA Thye Poh, a willowy, softly spoken, 57-year-old bachelor, leads a quiet, simple life these days in a spartan third-storey flat on one of Singapore’s sprawling suburban public housing estates, dutifully looking after his elderly parents, both in their 80s. He rarely goes out or sees anyone. He is poor-sighted, suffers from prostate and lung problems, a weak bladder and earns a meagre living of just a few hundred Singapore dollars a week working as a freelance translator from home. Yet, for the past three decades, this… Read more »

2 Oct 2008 10.47am

Appeal to the Privy Council Since the trial had been held in a district court, and not the High Court, Jeyaretnam was able to appeal against his disbarment to the Privy Council in Britain. The Council duly reversed the judgment. This was what the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council had to say on this episode when they delivered their judgment, allowing Jeyaretnam’s appeal against being struck off from the roll of Singapore lawyers: “Their Lordships have to record their deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgements, the appellant and his co-accused Wong, have suffered a grievous injustice. They… Read more »

1 Oct 2008 11.05pm

To add on further, Chiam See Tong, another “great” opposition in Singapore sued PAP and won IN 1980s. So, the court there is still fair

1 Oct 2008 10.52pm

Sorry, accidentaly press the button. Please delete my mail To be frank and fair to Singapore government, however unfair those charges were against JBJ. He got a fair trial. Well Malaysian oppositionists got to eat “kali fan” in Kamunting. To be fair and fair to Singapore government, his sons Kenneth and Philips were not and are not discriminated. Kenneth is a hedge fund manager whose salary is 100x higher than I am. Philips is the President of the Singapore Law Society. However bad you guys wanna protray about Singapore as well as LKY, they still at least nail that person… Read more »

1 Oct 2008 9.33pm

I had the honour of meeting with the late JB Jeyaretnam in the 70s while I was working in Singapore. He was a great legend of a man and was a lawyer by profession. May his soul rest in peace.

Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.
Mahatma Gandhi

1 Oct 2008 1.23pm

By “Li Xie” (ex- 933 DJ) Translation into English by Fang Zhi Yuan Dear JBJ, How are you now ? I do not know where you have gone to. Because I do not believe there is a Heaven. Wish you left in peace. Though your wish, with your departure, become unfulfiled. You used your entire life, having experienced bankruptcy and slander. Working hard to preserve and protect your dream. Who is going to continue it ? I do not know. Don’t know who will be as tenacious as you. Though somebody said, that is naivety. 30 September 2008 Is a… Read more »

Tan Ban Cheng
Tan Ban Cheng
1 Oct 2008 1.12pm

Dear Anil Here’s another one for your record: THEY DON’T MAKE ‘EM ANYMORE LIKE HIM … written by Dipendra A/L Harshad Rai, Tuesday, September 30 2008 02:44 pm Say what you wish about this man, he stood up for what he truly believed in. He was willing to be bankrupted and humiliated for standing up to his belief. Ultimately defeated by a slew of defamation and bankruptcy petitions, he still doggedly fought and fought. You cant say that he had no supporters. When he could stand for elections, some 40% of the voters beleived in him. JB possessed an extremely… Read more »

Tan Ban Cheng
Tan Ban Cheng
1 Oct 2008 10.20am

My dear Anil Here are three comments from the Malaysian Bar website for your website: SALUTE TO A COURAGEOUS SOUL written by Stephen Tan Ban Cheng, Tuesday, Sept 30 2008 11:30 am Man’s inhumanity to man is a blindness of the sentiment. It dehumanises the predator more than as it does the prey. Even spectators are dehumanised. This inhumanity was what the French Revolution of July 14, 1789, tried unsuccessfully to address through its third cry of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” Jaye fell prey to his detractors who threw him into the deep end of the law of defamation. Nevertheless,… Read more »

Kok Keong
Kok Keong
1 Oct 2008 10.12am

Thanks, Anil, for this posting. It is truly a sad occasion to face the passing of such a gentle soul with an unshakable sense of justice and a mighty heart. But it is just as heartening to know that everyone who has written here has only kind words for JBJ. He deserves them all. Whether the PAP government and LKY appreciate him or not speaks of their humanity. For JBJ did his best and gave his all. He should be resting well in peace now.

Justin Choo
1 Oct 2008 9.28am

Jeyaratnam stood taller than Harry Lee.
It is unfortunate that a respected statesman the calibre of Lee Kuan Yew would use brute power to deny a gentleman Jeyaratnam the right to even practise the freedom of speech, let alone other things.

The late Jeyaratnam was the Hero, the other person ….no comment less I get sued left right top and bottom.

May the Honourable Jeyaratnam Rest In Peace, and may he forgive those who had wronged him.

1 Oct 2008 12.54am

I remember during the height of the I.S.A. detentions in Singapore, in the 1980’s, there was a public forum in Federal Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. The speakers were Param Cumaraswamy, Gurmit Singh and Dr.Chandra Muzaffar.

Dr.Chandra Muzaffar said that the democracy in Singapore was growing and the people realized that their great “God” LKY had “feet of clay” when they saw on televised parliamentary debates how he was challenged by J.B.Jeyaretnam. Dr.Chandra also stated that many Singaporeans didn’t like the way LKY dealt with him….”the way he was smashed to smithereens”.

J.B.J. Journey well and May God Bless Your Great Soul.

1 Oct 2008 12.07am

I’m Singaporean and I’m really ashamed that I didn’t really know the guy who got bankrupt, disgraced and left on the streets to sell books for fighting for the rights of the people, like me, who are too damn scared to speak up. But you can’t blame me for not really knowing him cuz i was brought up in a society where everything is basically controlled. Thus compliments to the governing party for a job well done. Those who call Jeyaretnam a fool for going through the things he went through doesn’t know how much fuller life is when you… Read more »

30 Sep 2008 10.24pm

I have met him many times at the Kerala Reastaurant,Jalan Ibrahim JB and chatted with him about his WP. He was a man worth his salt.His steadfastness and righteousness was there for all to see.It is a shame that we do not have anyone,and I repeat anyone, on both sides of the border to match him. He was a very approachable person and talks to anyone who acknowledges him.A simple man, with his trade mark side-burns, collared T shirts and short pants and sandals…..pops into JB very often for his thosai and air suam. My first encounter wih him was… Read more »

Praveen kumar
Praveen kumar
30 Sep 2008 7.44pm

JBJ,he has fought a great battle but could not win.

History will remember him, I feel Singapore government should recognise his efforts.

May he rest Peace………

A true Malaysian
A true Malaysian
30 Sep 2008 5.55pm

JB Jeyaratnam left a legacy and wisdom that mankind can be proud on.

My condolences to his family.

Paul Warren
30 Sep 2008 4.56pm

The death of conscience in Singapore. So what’s left?

In life, the majority robably would not be caught pausing to take not of him, lest Singapore’s infamous Special Branch take note.

Now in death, will Singaporeans mourn the passing of conscience?

The few times he has come to Kuala Lumpur in the last few years, he has attended the Sunday service at my church, an Anglican Tamil Church. No pomp or pagentry. Indeed, the last time, hardly anyone realised it was him.

May JBJ rest in peace.

30 Sep 2008 4.28pm

Our deepest heartfelt condolences to the bereaving family of the true lion of Singapore.

30 Sep 2008 4.25pm

After the famous Anson victory, a cartoonist vividly portrayed him as David hammering the toe the Goliath (PAP). Despite my admiration for PAP governance, I must say it was terribly to mistreat JBJ who steadfastness in fighting for justice will make LKY’s Father of the nation status pale by comparison. I had the honour to have once bought a copy of Hammer from him at one hawker center. The very image of the determined “Lion of Singapore” peddling party paper amongst the masses will surely be missed by Singaporeans. JBJ, you derserve a rest and in great peace you will… Read more »

Fist of Asia
Fist of Asia
30 Sep 2008 4.02pm

sadly, the political scenario in Singapore has more or less ensured that the majority of the youth in Singapore (and MOST Singaporeans) haven’t a clue who the late-JBJ is or what he stood for.. some prolly think he’s a fool.. they can’t be blamed.
its due to the powers-that-be writing history from their perception..
much like how chin peng has been demonised..
perhaps LKY is getting just desserts after all.. suffering in his old age whilst the good man, JBJ, died a peaceful death.

R  R Sethu
R R Sethu
30 Sep 2008 3.51pm

I had met him professionally when he was facing defamation suits in Singapore brought by the senior Lee. He was very humble and geunine in his beliefs. He struggled and fought for freedom and never gave up the fight on principle. He still had the energy, after all the exhausting struggle, to launch a new party for the betterment of his countrymen. He was a former Malaysian from Johore. He never compromised on principle. His book reproducing his speeches in the Singapore parliament reflect his views and struggle. Perhaps it should be republished to re-educate some of us on true… Read more »