Veteran Singaporean opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam died yesterday. He had waged a long and lonely campaign for greater political freedom in the tightly governed city-state.
He was attempting a fresh political comeback when he succumbed to heart failure.
The 82-year-old British-trained lawyer and former MP was the nemesis of Singapore’s iron-fisted founding leader Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), 85, whose People’s Action Party (PAP) will celebrate 50 uninterrupted years in power next year.
“I haven’t got very many more years,” Jeyaretnam said in July at the launch of the new Reform Party, which was to be his vehicle for a comeback after years in the political wilderness.
Jeyaretnam, remembered by many Singaporeans for his old-school lambchop sideburns and a gravelly voice that thrilled audiences in court, parliament and street rallies, said he feared “no one except God.”
Born Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam in 1926 during a family visit to what is now Sri Lanka, he was often a solitary voice in largely ethnic Chinese Singapore, a prosperous financial center where protests are restricted and government critics complain of limited access to the media.
Despite being driven to financial ruin by costly defamation suits mounted by PAP leaders, and sidelined by younger opposition figures, Jeyaretnam was still plotting a return to parliament when he died.
“He’s such a man who never gives up ... fighting all the way,” long-time political ally Ng Teck Siong said on radio station 938Live after news of Jeyaretnam’s death was carried by the city-state’s pro-government media.
Singaporean leaders maintain that the Western-style democracy Jeyaretnam championed could ruin a tiny republic with no natural resources and surrounded by far bigger neighbors, an argument Jeyaretnam never bought.
During his career, Jeyaretnam spent more than US$900,000 paying off damages awarded to PAP leaders and had to sell off his house in Singapore, settling in his later years in the neighboring Malaysian city of Johor Bahru.
Lee, who ruled for three decades and still serves in the Cabinet of his son, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍), never concealed his deep hatred of Jeyaretnam, calling him a “thoroughly destructive force” who was “all sound and fury.”
Even during his darkest days, Jeyaretnam soldiered on. He helped support his cause by selling books on the sidewalks of Singapore, and managed to clear his debts to pave the way for a fresh stab at public office.
“I get my strength from somewhere else, if you know what I mean,” he said in an interview in 2006. “I refuse to conform to the world.”
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