Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam
Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (b. 5 January 1926, Jaffna, Sri Lanka–d. 30 September 2008, Singapore), better known as J. B. Jeyaretnam or JBJ, was the first opposition member of parliament (MP) in post-independence Singapore. He broke the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) monopoly of parliament in 1981 when he won the by-election at Anson. However, he lost his seat in parliament twice, in 1986 and 2001. Jeyaretnam established the Reform Party in 2008 and announced plans to contest the next general election, but passed away later that year.
An Anglican Christian of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, Jeyaretnam was born in the village of Chankanai in Jaffna, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), while his parents were on home leave from Malaya.1
He began schooling at a French convent in Muar, Malaya. After graduating from the convent, he entered the Government English School in Muar. When his father was transferred to work in Johor Bahru, he enrolled in the English College there. After the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), Jeyaretnam moved to Singapore to study at St Andrew’s School. It was around this time that he became interested in politics.2
In 1948, he left for England to study law at the University College, London. There, he met the woman who would later be his wife, Margaret Cynthia Walker, who was also a law student. He graduated with a bachelor of laws with honours in 1951 and sat for the Bar finals the same year. He was called to the Bar by the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn in London on 27 November 1951 and returned to Singapore the following day. In 1952, he joined the Singapore Legal Service. Walker, who had remained in England, joined him in Singapore in 1956. They married in February 1957.3
While in the legal service, Jeyaretnam served in various posts, including magistrate, district judge, crown counsel, deputy public prosecutor and registrar of the Supreme Court. He left the service in 1963 and entered private practice, eventually setting up his own law firm in 1968.4
He stopped practising law in 2000. He was declared bankrupt the following year, which barred him from practising as a lawyer. However, soon after he was discharged as a bankrupt in May 2007, he obtained a practising certificate and resumed his law practice.5
Jeyaretnam made his political debut in 1971. That year, he joined the Workers’ Party (WP) and was elected as its secretary-general. After the departure of its founder David Marshall in 1962, the party had been dormant. Jeyaretnam rejuvenated the party and led it to a historic victory in the 1981 Anson by-election.6
Jeyaretnam contested in his first election in 1972. He lost, and it was to be the first of five consecutive failed attempts to gain entry into parliament. By the late 1970s, however, he had proven himself to be one of the strongest, if not the strongest, opposition candidate. In the 1980 general election, he lost to the PAP candidate by just 1,046 votes, or six percent, of the valid votes. Finally, in 1981, he won the by-election in Anson with 51.9 percent of the valid votes. With this victory, he became the first opposition candidate to be elected as an MP in the history of independent Singapore. In the 1984 election, he was re-elected in Anson with an increased majority of 56.8 percent of votes.7
In 1986, he was jailed and fined S$5,000 for making a false declaration in WP’s accounts. As a result, he had to vacate his parliamentary seat and was disqualified from parliament until 1991.8 He stood for elections again only in 1997, this time in the Cheng San group representation constituency.9 He was part of a five-member team fielded by WP. The team lost to PAP, but obtained 45.2 percent of the votes. As this was the highest percentage of votes among all the election losers, the party was asked to nominate a candidate for the post of non-constituency member of parliament (NCMP). Jeyaretnam was chosen to take up the seat.10
Known for his fiery speeches at rallies, which earned him the nickname “The Tiger”, and his scathing attacks on the PAP and its system of government, Jeyaretnam was the subject of several defamation suits. The most high-profile cases were those brought against him by PAP leaders. In the late 1990s, to pay off some of the damages arising from the suits that he lost, Jeyaretnam was often seen selling his books outside MRT stations and shopping centres.11
In 2001, however, he was declared bankrupt for failing to pay his creditors and consequently lost his NCMP seat. He was also not eligible to take part in an election until he had cleared all his debts. In October that year, he resigned from WP, upset that the party leaders did not help him pay off his debts. Discharged from bankruptcy in 2007, he set up the Reform Party in 2008 and expressed hopes of fielding candidates in the 2011.12
Jeyaretnam died of heart failure at the age of 82 on 30 September 2008. His death was covered by local and international news agencies, including The New York Times, The Times and the International Herald Tribune. People from all walks of life, including PAP and opposition politicians, attended his wake. Over 1,000 people were present for the funeral service held at the St Andrew’s Cathedral on 4 October 2008.13
Wife: Margaret Cynthia Walker (m. 1957–d. 1980)14
Sons: Kenneth and Philip
Grandchildren: Jared, Tristan, Quentin and Miranda15
Jun 1971: Joins WP and is elected as its secretary-general.
Sep 1972: Loses the general election for Farrer Park.
Dec 1976: Loses the general election for Kampong Chai Chee.
May 1977: Loses the Radin Mas by-election.
Feb 1979: Loses the Telok Blangah by-election.
Dec 1980: Loses the general election for Telok Blangah.
Oct 1981: Wins the Anson by-election.
Dec 1984: Wins the general election for Anson.
Dec 1986: Loses his Anson seat after being convicted of making a false declaration in WP’s accounts.
Aug 1993: Applies for a certificate of eligibility to run for the post of president but was rejected.
Jan 1997: His WP team loses the general election for Cheng San GRC, but obtains the highest percentage of votes among the opposition losers. Jeyaratnam returns to parliament as an NCMP.
May 2001: Steps down as secretary-general of WP.
Jul 2001: Loses his NCMP seat after being declared bankrupt.
Oct 2001: Resigns from WP.
May 2007: Discharged as a bankrupt and announces plans to form a new political party.
Jun 2008: Reform Party is registered.
1. Jeyaretnam, J. B. (2003). The hatchet man of Singapore. Singapore: Jeya Publishers, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 345.59570256 JEY)
2. Jeyaretnam, J. B. (2003). The hatchet man of Singapore. Singapore: Jeya Publishers, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 345.59570256 JEY)
3. Yeo, C. (n.d.). The memories of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (1926–2008). Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
4. Lum, S. (2007, September 20). JBJ gets cert to practise law again. The Straits Times, p. 31. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Singh, K. (2008, January 26). JBJ back in court action after 8 years. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6.Au Yong, J. (2008, October 1). His integrity and passion praised. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Peh, S. H. (2008, January 11). The last hurrah. The Straits Times, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Jeya’s disqualification came into effect on Nov 10. (1986, December 10). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Peh, S. H. (2008, January 11). The last hurrah. The Straits Times, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. The return of the tiger. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Au Yong, J. (2008, June 19). JBJ’s Reform Party registered. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Chuang, P. M. (2008, October 1). JBJ, 82, dies of heart failure. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Kor, K. B. (2008, October 1). JBJ dies from heart failure. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Jeyaretnam, J. B. (2003). The hatchet man of Singapore. Singapore: Jeya Publishers, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 345.59570256 JEY)
15. Vengadesan, M. (2003, September, 7). Still standing. Star, Malaysia. Retrieved from http://www.singapore-window.org/sw03/030907st.htm
16. Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam 1926–2008. (2008, October 1). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Ahmad Osman, & Henson, B. (2001, October 24). JBJ resigns from Workers’ Party, 10 more to leave. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Hwang, T. F.,.& Davidson, B. (1978, November 24). ‘Never my intention to impute dishonesty or corrupt motives’. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Jeya loses NCMP seat, Speaker declares. (2001, July 26). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Jeyaretnam says yes to offer of NCMP seat. (1997, January 11). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Jeyaretnam seeks certificate of eligibility to run for president. (1993, August 8). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 266.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
Kor, K. B. (2008, October 2). Outpouring of love and respect for JBJ. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Lee, L. (2007, May 21). JBJ looking to set up new political party. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
PM, 10 others file suits. (1997, February 6). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Tan, O. (2000, May 6). High Court declares JBJ a bankrupt. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Teng Cheong, Chua can run for president; Jeya rejected. (1993, August 17). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved on from NewspaperSG.
WP’s leader Jeya declared NCMP. (1997, January 16). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The Workers’ Party. (2007). The Workers’ Party: 50th anniversary commemorative book, 1957–2007. Singapore: Author.
(Call no.: RSING 324.25957 WOR)
The information in this article is valid as at 2008 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.