Biography of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam

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Singapore Politican Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam Biography

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (January 5, 1926 – September 30, 2008); more commonly known as “J.B. Jeyaretnam” or “J.B.J.”) was a Singaporean politician.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam was the first opposition party candidate to be elected a Member of Parliament (MP) in Singapore, 16 years after the country gained independence.

Jeyaretnam served as an MP for the opposition Workers’ Party of Singapore from 1981-86, and again from 1997-2001. Having left the Workers’ Party, he formed the Reform Party (Singapore) to challenge the more than 40-year rule of the People’s Action Party.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam died of a heart failure in the early morning of September 30, 2008 at the age of 82, leaving two sons.

Background and Political Career

An Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan Tamil descent,  Jeyaretnam attended Saint Andrew’s School, Singapore and later read law at University College London.

Jeyaretnam was the leader of the Workers’ Party of Singapore, challenging the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which had effectively ruled Singapore as a one-party state.

Representing the Workers’ Party, Jeyaretnam defeated the People’s Action Party’s Pang Kim Him in the 1981 Anson by-election with 51.9% to 47.1% of the vote to become Singapore’s first opposition MP. He was re-elected to the same seat in 1984 with 56.8% of the votes, and became one of only two opposition politicians to win in that election.

Later, however, Jeyaretnam was brought down by a series of charges and fines which he claimed were politically-motivated in a successful effort to disbar him and prevent him from taking part in future elections. Two months after his 1984 re-election, he was charged for allegedly mis-stating his party accounts.
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In 1986, Senior District Judge Michael Khoo found him innocent of all charges but one, but the prosecution appealed and the Chief Justice ordered a retrial in a different district court, denying Jeyaretnam the opportunity to appeal to the Privy Council in Britain.

At the retrial, Jeyaretnam was declared guilty on all charges. The judge sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment (later commuted to one month) and fined him S$5,000, sufficient to disqualify him from standing for election for a period of five years.

Judge Khoo was transferred from head of the subordinate court to the Attorney-General’s chambers, a move widely viewed as a demotion. When Jeyaretnam called for an enquiry into the transfer, alleging that the chief justice and the attorney general were “beholden” to Lee Kuan Yew, the allegation was dismissed as “scandalous” and Jeyaretnam was expelled from parliament and disbarred.

Appeal to the Privy Council

Since the trial had been held in a district court, Jeyaretnam could not appeal the conviction, but he did appeal his disbarment to the Privy Council. The Council duly reversed the judgment, noting :

“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 have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they are not guilty.

The appellant, in addition, has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and disqualified for a year from practising his profession. Their Lordships order restores him to the roll of advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Singapore, but, because of the course taken by the criminal proceedings, their Lordships have no power to right the other wrongs which the appellant and Wong have suffered.

Their only prospect of redress, their Lordships understand, will be by way of petition for pardon to the President of the Republic of Singapore.”  The right of appeal to the Privy Council was severely restricted by a change in the law the following year.

After Disqualification

Following the decision of the Privy Council, Jeyaretnam then wrote to the President to ask that the convictions be removed as a result of the Privy Council’s decision. The President, on the advice of the cabinet, refused to remove the convictions and Jeyaretnam remained disqualified until 1991.

Singapore judges also refused to reverse his convictions or reverse the fine, which prevented him from standing for office until 1997. In the 1988 election, Jeyaretnam was barred from contesting due to his 5-year disqualification. However, he did attend election rallies to help out his fellow party members.

At an election rally, he challenged the PAP’s claim to being an open and transparent government, and asked whether any investigation had been conducted as to how the Minister for National Development, Teh Cheang Wan, had obtained the tablets with which he had committed suicide, in the midst of being investigated for corruption. Jeyaretnam also asked whether the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, had replied to a letter written to him by Teh.

Further Defamation Suits

After the elections, Lee commenced proceedings against Jeyaretnam, alleging that the latter had slandered him as his words at the election rally were understood to mean that Lee had committed a criminal offence by aiding and abetting Teh to commit suicide, and thereby, had covered up on corruption.

The action was heard by Justice Lai Kew Chai who found a case against Jeyaretnam and ordered him to pay Lee, damages of SGD 260,000, together with interest on the amount and costs.

Jeyaretnam lost the appeal against that judgment. He had wanted to appeal to the Privy Council, but to do that, he had to obtain Lee’s consent before the hearing by the Court of Appeal. This was because the law relating to appeals to the Privy Council had been changed after the Privy Council’s judgement restoring Jeyaretnam to the roll of advocates and solicitors.

Appeals to the Privy Council by lawyers from any order made by a court of three judges under the Legal Profession Act were abolished. In criminal cases, an appeal from the Court of Criminal Appeal to the Privy Council was also abolished. In civil cases, an appeal is allowed only if the other party consented to it. Lee did not give his consent.
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In 1995, Jeyaretnam authored an article in The Hammer, the Workers’ Party newspaper, that alleged that a number of those involved in an event called the ‘Tamil Language Week’ were government “stooges”. For this, he was sued twice for libel, resulting in total damages of SGD 465,000 and SGD 250,000 in court costs.

In 1997, Jeyaretnam was selected as a non-constituency MP. After the election, eleven defamation suits were filed against him for saying the following words in one of the election rallies: “Mr Tang Liang Hong has just placed before me, two reports he has made to the police against, you know, Mr Goh Chok Tong and his people”.

Goh Chok Tong alleged that his “reputation, moral authority and leadership standing have been gravely injured both local and internationally”, and during cross-examination by Jeyaretnam’s counsel George Carman Q.C., likened the statement to throwing a Molotov cocktail.

However, on further questioning, Goh also stated that “it has been a good year” for him and his standing as a leader had not been injured. Trial judge Rajendran J found Jeyaretnam liable and ordered him to pay “derisory” damages of SGD 20,000. However, upon the plaintiff’s appeal, the damages were raised to SGD 100,000 plus SGD 20,000 in court costs. Rajendran was later dismissed from the bench.


In 2001, after his damages installment was overdue by one day, Jeyaretnam was declared bankrupt, disbarred and prevented from taking part in the elections that year.

He resigned from the leadership of the Workers’ Party in October 2001, and subsisted by hawking on the street, copies of his book, entitled Make it Right for Singapore (ISBN 9810422261), which mainly contains his parliamentary speeches between 1997 and 2000. He also authored another book, entitled, The Hatchet Man of Singapore (ISBN 9810485131), in which it depicts his trials in court over the statement he made during an election rally in a stadium (see above).

Documentary on J.B. Jeyaretnam

On January 4, 2002, a documentary on Jeyaretnam, entitled A Vision of Persistence, which showed Jeyaretnam, a former MP and erstwhile leader of the opposition Workers’ Party, selling his books in public places and meeting with his supporters, was withdrawn from the Singapore International Film Festival on fears that it could have violated a law banning political films.

The makers of the 15-minute documentary had submitted written apologies and withdrew it from being screened after they were told that they could be charged in court.

The film-makers, all lecturers at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, had claimed that they had just chanced upon a man selling books on a street and decided to make a documentary on him, unaware at first that he was an opposition figure.

A little-known law, called the ‘Films Act'[12], bans the making, distribution and showing of films containing “wholly or partly, either partisan or biased references to, or comments on any political matter.”

The source, which was not named, said a government official went to the school and asked : “How can your staff do this sort of thing?” A person familiar with the case told the newspaper: “It’s a sort of paranoia on the part of the authorities.”

Philip Cheah, the director of the film festival, said that he saw the documentary, but declined to comment on its contents. “It should have been shown at the festival. Then people can decide,” he said, adding that, as far as he knows, this was the first film that was considered political under the Films Act.

Discharge from Bankruptcy

On October 25, 2004, Jeyaretnam appealed for an early discharge from bankruptcy so that he could contest in the coming election that year. He appeared before a three-judge Court of Appeal, Singapore’s highest Court, asking to be discharged.

The official assignee, however, opposed the appeal, claiming that Jeyaretnam had lied about his assets. Representing himself during the two-hour hearing, Jeyaretnam appealed on the grounds that he wanted another chance to contribute to society.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam offered to pay one-third of the more than SGD 600,000 he still owed his claimants. Thus far, Jeyaretnam had paid up less than SGD 30,000. Sarjit Singh, the official assignee, opposed Jeyaretnam’s appeal, claiming that he was “the most dishonest bankrupt I have ever come across”.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam said this because Jeyaretnam had not declared a property he had bought in Johor Bahru, worth more than SGD 350,000. At the same time, Davinder Singh, the legal counsel acting on behalf of eight of the claimants, argued that this case threw up issues far wider than just Jeyaretnam’s appeal.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam said that if Jeyaretnam was discharged as a bankrupt, it could set a dangerous precedent and the courts could be flooded with similar appeals from bankrupts seeking early discharge.

On March 7 2006, Jeyaretnam announced that he was making a last-minute bid to get out of bankruptcy in time for a shot at the upcoming polls. He applied to pay off all his debts, totalling about SGD 600,000, to wipe his slate clean.

A court hearing was set for March 20 2006. He told The Straits Times he had enough money finally to settle the debts, which arose from defamation suits in 1996 and 1997.

Jeyaretnam was discharged from bankruptcy in May 2007 after paying S$233,255.78, and reinstated to the bar in September of the same year.

Formation of Reform Party

On June 18 2008, it was announced that the Registry of Societies had approved the Reform Party (Singapore)’s formation a day before, and Jeyaretnam was the interim secretary-general of the party.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam Death

Jeyaretnam complained of breathing difficulties in the early morning of September 30, 2008, and was rushed to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Doctors were unable to revive him and he died at the age of 82 with his family by his side. He leaves two sons (Philip and Kenneth Jeyaretnam), and four grandsons.

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