By Ahmad Osman
AT ELECTION rallies, the crowds loved it when Workers’ Party treasurer A. Balakrishnan entertained them with speeches in Tamil.
His eyeballs would roll, one finger would stab the air and his voice would change in pitch as he took potshots at the People’s Action Party.
The insurance salesman spoke as compellingly as a leading actor in a Bollywood movie. Bollywood, in Bombay, is India’s answer to Hollywood.
Every performance of his was applauded – even by those in the audience who did not understand a word of Tamil.
But his popularity in the party dipped after it was sued over an article that he wrote in 1995. And Mr Balakrishnan is no longer the party’s treasurer.
That article, written in Tamil, was published in the August 1995 issue of the party’s newsletter, The Hammer. The newsletter is edited by its secretary-general and Non-Constituency MP, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam.
In the article, Mr Balakrishnan criticised the organisers of the first Tamil Language Week, which began on April 8, 1995. Ten members of the event’s organising committee claimed that they were portrayed in the article as a bunch of government stooges out to curry favour with the authorities.
They sued Mr Balakrishnan, the Workers’ Party as the publisher of the article, and Mr Jeyaretnam as the editor of The Hammer.
The plaintiffs won and have presented the three defendants with a bill of S$511,643 for defamatory damages and legal costs.
That money can be paid individually or collectively by the defendants. They have appealed against last December’s judgment ordering them to pay the damages.
The outcome of the appeal is expected to be known in the next month or so. It will be crucial to the fate of the party, Mr Jeyaretnam and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang, its assistant secretary-general.
If the appellants lose, this will pave the way for the High Court to hear a petition by the 10 Tamil Language Week committee members to wind up the party which, they say, is insolvent and unable to pay its debts.
The 10 people have also filed a second petition to make Mr Jeyaretnam a bankrupt. Last year, he had said that he could be made a bankrupt and lose his seat in Parliament as he has no money to pay the damages and legal costs for defaming Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at an election rally.
Dr Tan Bin Seng, the WP chairman, says the party has not decided what to do now because it has to wait for the outcome of the appeal, which was heard yesterday.
Mr Jeyaretnam is now away in the US with the Singapore Democratic Party chief, Dr Chee Soon Juan.
They are there to talk about the political situation and highlight the plight of the opposition in Singapore.
Dr Tan said the WP has also not decided on what it would do if the two petitions against it and Mr Jeyaretnam are successful.
Several lawyers interviewed believe that if the party is wound up, both Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Low are likely to lose their seats in Parliament.
The Singapore Constitution does not allow an MP to remain in Parliament if he ceases to be a member of the party that put him up for election. Some WP members expect a by-election to be held in Hougang if Mr Low has to leave Parliament. And they are confident he will be re-elected even if he stands as an independent candidate.
He was re-elected with an increased majority in the last General Election and has a good rapport with the voters there.
Several WP cadres say it is also possible for their leaders to apply to register a new party.
This will give Mr Low a new political vehicle that he needs and can use in future to try and achieve the opposition’s dream of capturing its first Group Representation Constituency.
Dr Chee was fined more than S$2,000 recently for giving a public talk without a permit. This means hecannot stand for election for five years unless he gets his conviction overturned on appeal.
To avoid being forced to close down, the WP can try to raise funds to pay the damages owed to the people who sued the party.
It will be tough, some WP members say, for it to raise such a big sum here in the midst of the recession, despite some public sympathy for the plight faced by the party and its leaders.
But the immediate issue, as Dr Tan said, is the outcome of the appeal in court by the party, Mr Balakrishnan and Mr Jeyaretnam.