TODAY: JBJ’s death caught many by surprise

ANSLEY NG
ansley@mediacorp.com.sg

HE WAS not his tireless, indomitable self in court on Monday.

At the Supreme Court where he was defending Win Bo company in a civil case, lawyer Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam – better known as Opposition icon JBJ – complained of breathlessness.

The 82-year-old asked for an hour’s adjournment, said good friend Ng Teck Siong. “It was already 3pm so the judge adjourned the case to another date. He looked sick, so I told him to go home and rest.”

Criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, who bumped into his old colleague in the Bar Room, also observed he wasn’t his “usual energetic self” and seemed tired.

That night, Mr Jeyaretnam had a light dinner of porridge with vegetables, then turned in. But at about 1.30am, complaining of discomfort, he told his elder son, Kenneth, to call an ambulance. By the time the medics arrived, Mr Jeyaretnam had collapsed.

He died in Tan Tock Seng Hospital of the heart attack – one year and 11 days after he was allowed to practice law again following a seven-year hiatus.

According to Kenneth, 49, recent ill health had done nothing to dampen the former district judge’s excitement over getting his practising certificate back,
once he was discharged from bankruptcy last year. “He was very happy to be working all the time, working long hours and going to court,” said Kenneth, a hedge fund manager.

Mr Jeyaretnam had sought treatment last year at the Singapore Heart Centre for a constricted heart artery. “His wish was not to have an operation,” his son
said. “He was trying to live with it, he was increasingly short of breath.”

News of the death of a passionate political “fighter” – as Mr Jeyaretnam was described by both former adversaries and allies – spread quickly, via SMS, blogs and a radio bulletin at 7am.

The unexpectedness of it shocked many, especially given how Mr Jeyaretnam had been making his political comeback with the recent registration of his Reform Party, and was due in a fortnight to argue in court the case for a by-election in Jurong GRC, which the new party had expressed interest in contesting.

The condolences and tributes quickly flowed. And it didn’t matter if they shared Mr Jeyaretnam’s political views or not.

Mr Pang Kim Hin, the People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate who lost to the then-Workers’ Party chief in the watershed 1981 Anson by-election, told Today: “Whether you agree or disagree with him, he was a fighter till the end.”

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said in response to press queries: “Even though I did not agree with his political cause, I respect his fighting spirit to advance it and his willingness to pay a price for it.”

In a letter to sons Kenneth and Philip, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that while their father had “sought by all means to demolish the PAP”, “one had to respect Mr JB Jeyaretnam’s dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age”.

Indeed, political observers agree, Mr Jeyaretnam will be remembered in history as the “man who ended the PAP monopoly”, in Mr Simon Tay’s words, as the first Opposition member elected to Parliament since independence.

Said the former Nominated MP: “Even if this first victory (in Anson) did not grow into a two-party system, it is an important marker. His legacy is also a number of legal suits and cases, with ups and downs for him.”

Mr Jeyaretnam’s career was dogged by defamation suits and bankruptcy, which saw him barred on and off from electoral politics and legal practice.

His first comeback in 1997 saw his team lose by a narrow margin in Cheng San GRC, and sued by PAP leaders for defamatory remarks made at a rally.

Said Mr Pang: “He could have done much more, been more constructive and less destructive. The very fact that he never got re-elected (in 1997) is partly because he had not shown political savvy. He got personal to the point of being libelous.”

After losing his non-Constituency MP seat in 2001, Mr Jeyaretnam went off the radar for a younger generation of Singaporeans – many of whom, when told of his death yesterday, said they had only vaguely heard of him or did not know his name at all.

Still, Workers’ Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang called Mr Jeyaretnam a “giant in Singapore politics” responsible for the WP’s rejuvenation.

“Throughout the decades, Mr Jeyaretnam has remained unflinching despite the many obstacles he faced and the sacrifices made by him and his family,” he said.

But for his son, Philip, wife and three children, the memories were of a man who always made time for them.

“Most Singaporeans probably think of Dad as someone combative, fierce,” he said.

“For us, he’s always someone who had a kind word, and would take time and trouble to talk to us individually and take the grandchildren out for dinner. We wish we could have a week more, a month more – but that’s our loss.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TEO XUAN WEI

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