Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam

Singapore Infopedia


Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (b. 5 January 1926, Jaffna, Sri Lanka–d. 30 September 2008, Singapore) was the first opposition member of parliament (MP) in post-independence Singapore. He broke the People’s Action Partys (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. Better known as J.B. Jeyaretnam or JBJ, he established the Reform Party in 2008 and announced plans to contest the next general election in 2011, but passed away later that year.

Early life
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 Johor Bahru to work, 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.

In 1948, he left for England to study law at the University College, London. There, he met Margaret Cynthia Walker, also a law student, whom he later married. 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 year. In 1952, he joined the Singapore Legal Service. Walker remained in England and joined Jeyaretnam in Singapore in 1956. They married in February 1957.

Legal career
Jeyaretnam began his legal career as a magistrate in Singapore in 1952. While in the legal service, Jeyaretnam served in various other posts, including crown counsel, deputy public prosecutor and registrar of the Supreme Court. In 1963, he was appointed the first criminal district judge and first magistrate in the Singapore Legal Service. Later that year, he resigned 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

Political career
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 1963, 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 the first of five consecutive failed attempts to gain entry into parliament. By the late 1970s, however, he had proven himself to be a strong, if not the strongest, opposition candidate. In the 1980 general election, he lost to PAP’s 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

The Anson by-election of October 1981 was a landmark poll that ended the PAP’s monopoly of parliament.8 Anson had been a hotly contested constituency since the 1950s, until it was scrapped in 1988.9 In February 1979, C. V. Devan Nair, then secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), contested a by-election in the Anson constituency to fill the vacancy left by the death of PAP's Member of Parliament P. Govindaswamy.10 Nair retained his seat during the 1980 parliamentary general election but had to resign as member of parliament when he was elected as Singapore's third president in October 1981.11 On 31 October 1981, a by-election was held to fill the vacant parliamentary Anson seat.12 The three candidates who contested were PAP's Pang Kim Hin, United People’s Front’s Harbans Singh and J. B. Jeyaretnam of the WP.13 Jeyaretnam garnered 7,012 votes or 51.9 percent of the valid votes cast to become the member of parliament for Anson. It was the first opposition victory in more than 13 years.14 He retained his seat in the 1984 parliamentary general election but was forced to vacate it in 1986 due to a criminal conviction.15

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 1991.16 He stood for elections again only in 1997, this time in the Cheng San group representation constituency.17 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.18

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 had lost, Jeyaretnam was often seen selling his books outside MRT stations and shopping centres.19

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 general election.20 

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 TimesThe 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 at the funeral service held at St Andrew’s Cathedral on 4 October 2008.21

Wife: Margaret Cynthia Walker (m. 1957; d. 1980)
Sons: Kenneth and Philip
Grandchildren: Jared, Tristan, Quentin and Miranda

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 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.

Valerie Chew

1. J. B. Jeyaretnam, The Hatchet Man of Singapore (Singapore: Jeya Publishers, 2003), iii. (Call no. RSING 345.59570256 JEY)
2. Jeyaretnam, Hatchet Man of Singapore, iii.
3. Claire Yeo, “The Memories of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (1926–2008),” n.d. (From National Archives of Singapore website)
4. Selina Lum, “JBJ Gets Cert to Practise Law Again,” Straits Times, 20 September 2007, 31 (From NewspaperSG); Low Kar Tiang, ed., Who’s Who in Singapore 2006 (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2006), 206 (Call no. RSING 920.05957 WHO); “Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam 1926–2008,” Straits Times, 1 October 2008, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Khushwant Singh, “JBJ Back in Court Action after 8 Years,” Straits Times, 26 January 2008, 56. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Jeremy Au Yong, “His Integrity and Passion Praised,” Straits Times, 1 October 2008, 13 (From NewspaperSG); The Workers’ Party, The Workers’ Party: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book, 1957–2007 (Singapore: The Workers’ Party, 2007), 22. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 WOR)
7. Peh Shing Huei, “The Last Hurrah,” Straits Times, 11 January 2008, 35 (From NewspaeprSG); Au Yong, “His Integrity and Passion Praised.” 
8. Leslie Fong, et al., “Jeyaretnam Takes Anson,” Straits Times, 1 November 1981, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “1981 Parliamentary By-Election Results,” Election Department Singapore, accessed 29 November 2013.
9. Diane K. Mauzy and R.S. Milne, Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party (London: Routledge, 2002), 149 (Call no. RSING 320.95957 MAU); “Scrapping of 7 Wards Unavoidable – Committee,” Straits Times, 7 June 1988, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Devan Leads the PAP Pack as He Pulls In 84 PC…,” Straits Times, 1 February 1979, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Leslie Fong, “Devan to Be President,” Straits Times, 13 October 1981, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Election Department Singapore, “1981 Parliamentary By-Election Results.”
13. Election Department Singapore, “1981 Parliamentary By-Election Results.”
14. Parliament of Singapore, Disqualification of Member for Anson, vol. 48 of Parliamentary Debates: Official Report, 9 December 1986, cols. 833–34. (Call no. RSING 328.5957 SIN)
15. “Jeya’s Disqualification Came into Effect on Nov 10,” Business Times, 10 December 1986, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Peh, “Last Hurrah.” 
17. “The Return of the Tiger,” Straits Times, 14 June 2008, 75. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Jeremy Au Yong, “JBJ’s Reform Party Registered,” Straits Times, 19 June 2008, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Chuang Peck Ming, “JBJ, 82, Dies of Heart Failure,” Business Times, 1 October 2008, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Au Yong, “JBJ’s Reform Party Registered.” 
21. Kor Kian Beng, “JBJ Dies from Heart Failure,” Straits Times, 1 October 2008, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Martin Vengadesan, “Still Standing,” Star, Malaysia, 7 September 2003.  
23. Low,  Who’s Who in Singapore 2006, 206; “Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam 1926–2008.”

Further resources
Ahmad Osman and Bertha Henson, “JBJ Resigns from Workers’ Party, 10 More to Leave,” Straits Times, 24 October 2001, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Jeya Loses NCMP seat, Speaker Declares,” Straits Times, 26 July 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Jeyaretnam Says Yes to Offer of NCMP Seat,” Straits Times, 11 January 1997, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Jeyaretnam Seeks Certificate of Eligibility to Run for President,” Straits Times, 8 August 1993, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Kor Kian Beng, “Outpouring of Love and Respect for JBJ,” Straits Times, 2 October 2008, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Lynn Lee, “JBJ Looking to Set Up New Political Party,” Straits Times, 21 May 2007, 25. (From NewspaperSG)

PM, 10 Others File Suits,” Straits Times, 6 February 1997, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Tan Ooi Boon, “High Court Declares JBJ a Bankrupt,” Straits Times, 6 May 2000, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Teng Cheong, Chua Can Run for President; Jeya Rejected,” Straits Times, 17 August 1993, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

T. F. Hwang and Benson Davidson, “‘Never My Intention to Impute Dishonesty or Corrupt Motives’,” Straits Times, 24 November 1978, 14. (From NewspaperSG)

The Workers’ Party, The Workers’ Party: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book, 1957–2007 (Singapore: The Workers’ Party, 2007). (Call no. RSING 324.25957 WOR)

Tommy Koh, et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 266. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])

WP’s Leader Jeya Declared NCMP,” Straits Times, 16 January 1997, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.


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