Legal fiction friction

Does the title of this book say it all? Here is a study of Singapore’s veteran opposition leader, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam—JBJ or Ben—the man with the broad mischievous smile, the mutton-chop whiskers, the educated voice, the distinctive mien. Yet the book is called Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent. Lee Kuan Yew, now for 12 years senior minister after 41 years as prime minister, has long been Jeyaretnam’s and many others’ nemesis. If unable to tame them quickly, he toys with them as a cat torments mice when tossing up whether to despatch the poor creatures or not. That Lee has not killed Ben Jeyaretnam’s spirit is, I suspect, a matter of irritation but ultimate indifference to the former; it’s an amazing tribute to the latter.

Why should anyone’s life story be subsumed, for whatever reasons, under the name and modus operandi of a formidable and detestable enemy?

With these rhetorical gauntlets thrown down, it must be stated with pleasure that Lee’s Law is a carefully drawn and affectionate portrait of a fine man. Chris Lydgate, an American freelance journalist, followed his wife to Singapore in 1997. There he first encountered the solitary figure of Ben Jeyaretnam on the street, selling books of speeches and memoirs.

A Jaffna Tamil and male scion of a devout Christian family, Jeyaretnam grew up to prize education and to espouse faith-based values and social obligations. Attracted from an early age to law, he went on to become a barrister and solicitor, district court judge, parliamentarian and party leader. He adored his late wife Margaret, an Englishwoman, herself a lawyer; and is a fond father and grandfather. (His younger son, Philip, is well respected for his own legal skills and socially sensitive fiction.)

Jeyaretnam has also been bankrupted, imprisoned and treated shamelessly by a compliant judiciary playing out exquisite symbolic parodies of due process at Lee’s behest. One thinks, for example, of key public moments when he would appear before a fellow Tamil or the only Anglican on the Supreme Court for some further humiliation. Repeatedly tried for defamation of Lee and other People’s Action Party leaders, his show trials meant that he was himself systematically defamed.

(On a personal note, it saddened me that from the early 1980s many of his pastors and co-religionists abandoned him or decried him as a sinful and nominal believer.)

Lydgate’s book catalogues Jeyaretnam’s triumphs, the quiet decent ones in the service of a poor or wronged client and the noisy surprising ones such as his entry to parliament via the Anson by-election of 1981. Inevitably the reader must also contemplate the many injustices done to him from which he rarely escaped unscathed. The one, famous vindication came with his 1988 appeal to the Privy Council, which elicited a 22-page verdict damning in its indictment of various Singapore judges:

The appellant and his co-accused ... have suffered a grievous injustice. They have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences for which they are not guilty. The appellant, in addition, has been deprived of his seat in Parliament and disqualified for a year from practising his profession.
Unfortunately, their Lordships’ call for redress fell on deaf ears.

The figure that this book portrays has a palpable authenticity—virtues, warts and all. He is no straightforward hero or martyr. But like other Singaporean political figures who started out as—or eventually felt obliged to become—opponents of Lee’s ruthless and idiosyncratic social engineering, JBJ has an integrity that cannot be denied. His belief in the rule of law is unshakeable, an astonishing thing given the treatment he has received from its Singapore version.

Jeyaretnam may not be in the same league as some of Lee’s earlier adversaries, men like Lim Chin Siong or Chia Thye Poh. Perhaps he has been too much an individualist, too often hoist on his own petard, to be a team player or policy strategist. Nor has he been as foully and falsely besmirched as his younger colleague, Dr Chee Soon Juan.

But his story, told with thoroughness in Lydgate’s book, is eloquent testimony to his Jesus-inspired conviction: ‘That no force outside can destroy a person. That the human spirit is indomitable.’ Against all the odds, this dissident has refused to be crushed by Lee Kuan Yew’s designer future—brilliant, pervasive, neat, racist, astringent, robotic, grandiose, fearful, sterile, banal, and ultimately unsustainable. Lee only gets away with blue murder because his island republic is so small that it can dance in and out of reckoning and because he builds domestically and internationally on others’ interests and benefits sufficiently to gain privilege for his own agenda. And up against a seasoned gamesman, only a fiercely independent person would pursue valour above discretion.

For Jeyaretnam’s and Singapore’s sake, I trust you will take heart that the book’s title overstates the case. But why not read it, and make up your own mind?

Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent, Chris Lydgate. Scribe Publications, 2003.
 isbn 090 801 189X, rrp $33

James Minchin is Vicar of Christ Church, St Kilda. He served in the Anglican Diocese of Singapore 1968–1971, and returns there regularly. He is the author of No Man is an Island: A Study of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Allen & Unwin, 1986.



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