Inside Story

“I thought that dawn had come to the political landscape of Singapore”

For a decade and a half, Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party had held every seat in the Singapore parliament, writes Chris Lydgate. Then the maverick lawyer J.B. Jeyaretnam made his sixth attempt to break the monopoly

Chris Lydgate 27 March 2015 11560 words

“We play clean to the end”: J.B. Jeyaretnam in 1986. Robert Nickelsberg/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Few societies have been as thoroughly dominated by a single man as Singapore has been dominated by Harry Lee Kuan Yew. Over three decades, Lee reshaped every contour of his fledgling nation. Under his direction, the swamps of Jurong were paved over; kampongs razed; huge swathes of land reclaimed from the sea; and the horizon crowded by towering blocks of flats. The ancient habits and prejudices of three civilisations were broken down, one by one, and replaced with a synthetic ideology. An entrepôt economy was transformed, first into a manufacturing hub and then into a base for multinational corporations.

His biographers, both sympathetic and otherwise, agree on Lee’s utter mastery of the island’s politics. In a decidedly unflattering account of Lee’s life, long unobtainable in Singapore, T.J.S. George, a former political editor for the Far Eastern Economic Review, concluded:

Singapore in the 1970s mirrors not the collective aspirations of a people or a generation but the ideals, convictions and prejudices of Lee Kuan Yew. The country is the man – and the man has had to use extraparliamentary force to make it so.

More than a decade later, Anglican priest James Minchin penned another critical portrait of Lee, also unobtainable in Singapore. He wrote:

[Lee] is the patriot of no fatherland so much as his own will. He has long been a formidable speaker and debater in English, of world class among politicians on a stage where English has only recently become the first language. He has mastered from scratch the other tongue needed for communication with his people. He is the patron of Singapore politics: spotting, hiring and firing top talent; commanding the apparatus of power and various alternative sources of information; able to choose freely when to let well enough alone or when to intervene… His star and that of the island republic have merged almost beyond distinction.

At every level, the inner core of meaning has been hollowed out from Singapore’s parliamentary democracy and replaced with a state ideology now shaped almost entirely by one man.

Born in 1923 to a prosperous Hakka family, Lee enrolled in the elite Raffles Institution and emerged as top Malayan boy in the Senior Cambridge exams in 1939. He served as a stenographer and translator for the Japanese news agency Domei during the Japanese occupation, then sailed to England after the war, where he obtained a rare double first in law at Cambridge.

Returning to Singapore in 1950, he joined a local law firm, specialising in union work, and quickly gained a reputation as a ferocious advocate. He was elected to the legislature in 1955, and became Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959 – a post he held for the next thirty-one years. He ushered Singapore into Malaysia in 1963, and ushered it out again two years later.

Lee orchestrated the island’s metamorphosis from ramshackle colony to urban utopia with an iron hand: rare indeed was the politician, academic, businessman or journalist who dared to cross him. Scarred by the brutal and turbulent struggle for independence, he played hardball with his critics. In 1997, he gave a revealing series of interviews to a team of local reporters:

Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters, and catch you in a cul-de-sac... Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.

It is sometimes difficult for those who have never visited the city-state to comprehend the breadth and depth of Lee’s grip on Singapore. His is not a cult of personality. There are no statues, no murals, no disembodied likenesses gazing sternly from bank notes or copper pennies. But one by one, the sources of power in a democratic society – businessmen, labour unions, lawyers, professors, journalists, churches, mosques, temples – were sucked into his orbit. “Having guided Singapore through the dangerous years immediately following the separation,” writes historian C.M. Turnbull, “the political leaders had an overwhelming popular mandate and were unwilling to tolerate any obstruction to their dynamic programme of nation-building…”

[F]ew individuals or organisations voiced any criticism. Commercial bodies appreciated the government’s vigorous economic policy, radical trade unionism was tamed through far-reaching labour laws, the universities were brought to heel, religious organisations were told to concentrate on charity and keep out of politics, while some local government bodies such as public utilities were hived off into statutory bodies which made decisions without public debate… The press was particularly subdued, with journalists from the Chinese-language press often telephoning official contacts before writing their stories, and young Straits Times reporters producing bland stories that read like government propaganda.

The cumulative effect of these restrictions can be seen in the stratospheric margin achieved by Lee’s People’s Action Party, or PAP, in the 1968 general elections. The weak and divided minor opposition parties fielded just seven candidates for the fifty-eight parliamentary seats – all lost. The PAP’s overall vote was a thumping 84 per cent.

Faced with such a formidable adversary, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, the newly elected secretary-general of the near-moribund Workers’ Party, might have been expected to plan his strategy with an engineer’s precision.

The forty-five-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer had grown up on the Malayan Peninsula, the son of Tamils from Jaffna, in the north of what was then Ceylon. Like Lee, he had studied law in England; unlike Lee, he had fallen in love with an Englishwoman, Margaret Walker, who would later join him in the chaotic, sprawling postwar crown colony of Singapore. There, this charming, eloquent young newcomer, with his 1000-watt smile, would establish a busy legal practice and, for a short time in the early sixties, serve as a judge.

But Jeyaretnam’s first press conference as Workers’ Party leader, which took place in September 1971 at the party’s rundown headquarters in Hill Street, showed few signs of political finesse. Instead, he denounced the PAP for turning Singapore into

a fully capitalist-orientated economy with all the unmitigated evils that such a system produces in a society. We have become an acquisitive society in which the most important thing is money…

We are fast becoming, if we have not already become, a society where money speaks…

On the one hand persons with real and humanistic reasons to come into Singapore – like young children to join their parents, wives to join their husbands – are refused entry without any thought to the breakup of the family; on the other hand persons with a quarter-million dollars to deposit with this government can come into Singapore and bring with them their families.

Jeyaretnam’s remarks reflected a real outrage over the government’s immigration policies. The chaos sparked by the city-state’s sudden ejection from Malaysia meant that thousands of families were split apart, with some relatives living and working in Singapore, while others remained in Malaysia. After separation, however, the PAP had tightened immigration restrictions, making it particularly difficult for overseas women and children to join their husbands in Singapore.

However attractive Jeyaretnam’s lament may have been in moral terms, in political terms it had scant electoral appeal. Although Singapore was a nation of immigrants – indeed, there was virtually no one on the island who did not have relatives abroad – most Singapore Chinese were second- or third-generation residents, who were less likely to marry overseas. While many Malay and Indian families retained stronger ties to the peninsula or the subcontinent, they represented a small minority of voters.

More important, by 1971, many Singaporeans had acquired the PAP’s fortress mentality. They believed Singapore was too small and too precarious to afford the luxury of a liberal immigration policy. They had only to look at the bloody convulsions of Indonesia and the ethnic infighting of Malaysia to see how quickly their fortunes could ebb.

Jeyaretnam raised another point at his maiden press conference: corruption. It was, at first glance, an unorthodox criticism to make. One of the cornerstones of the PAP philosophy was an uncompromising stand against corruption in the civil service, and by 1971 there could be no doubt that Singapore was one of the least corrupt nations in Asia, if not the world. Nonetheless, no bureaucracy in the world is completely immune from the temptations of bribery, and Singapore was certainly no exception. As Jeyaretnam said:

Hardly a day passes without there being some report in the newspapers about corruption in the public life.

However, we do not think that corruption can be stamped out just by prosecuting offenders. We have got to create a climate in which corruption is no longer attractive.

This we believe can only be done by paying every man and woman an adequate living wage and ensuring him security in his job and creating conditions in which he can take pride in himself and so be able to resist any temptation that comes his way.

The government inherited what we think could be termed without any fear of exaggeration a very efficient and honest civil service but what has this government done to it?

It has totally undermined the service, robbed it of its security and harried and harassed its members so that they no longer feel secure in the service nor pride in their work.

A man who has given a lifetime of service and looks forward to retiring on a pension can be deprived of his dream on some flimsy charge.

Is it surprising that in these circumstances corruption is on the increase?

Jeyaretnam was of course drawing on his own experience as a civil servant, and as a lawyer representing government workers. Nonetheless, in the absence of specific examples, his remarks struck a discordant note. One letter-writer to the Straits Times responded:

Unless Mr Jeyaretnam is specific, a vague charge without substantiation is not good for the country. Our politicians must show depth of understanding of our problems and not merely make a lot of statements.

To some degree, Jeyaretnam’s remarks about corruption and immigration policy were misunderstood. He saw both phenomena as symptoms of an increasingly materialistic society – a diagnosis that would gain widespread acceptance in decades to come.

Politically, however, both points were duds. Why, then, did Jeyaretnam raise them at his maiden press conference, when media exposure was practically guaranteed? One reason was his inexperience as a politician. But the more important reason had to do with his personality: Jeyaretnam believed in right and wrong. Time and again, his sympathy for the common man would lead him to take the moral high ground at the expense of practical realities. However honourable this philosophy, it was the polar opposite of the PAP’s pragmatic approach. It may have won him admirers, but it lost him votes.

In 1972, it became clear that the PAP would hold a general election by the end of the year. Despite his short tenure as secretary-general, Jeyaretnam wanted the Workers’ Party to contest as many seats as possible. The party published its first manifesto: it called for abolishing restrictions on newspapers, declawing the Internal Security Act, easing travel barriers to Malaysia, greater freedom of speech, a national health care system, a national bus system, and a two-China policy in the United Nations.

As he hammered together the party’s platform, however, Jeyaretnam demonstrated his political naiveté. In July, prime minister Lee reminded Singaporeans to stand ready to defend the nation in case of a military invasion. A few days later, Jeyaretnam responded. “Nobody seems to have asked the question whether our present way of life in Singapore is worth defending,” he said.

This statement reflected Jeyaretnam’s growing unease about the trajectory of Singapore society and his scorn for the toadyism that was creeping into public life. In addition, Jeyaretnam felt that the threat of invasion was essentially a bogeyman hoisted by the PAP simply to rally popular support. He supported dramatic cuts in defence spending to make more money available for social programs.

But Jeyaretnam did not realise how this statement would sound when taken out of context. There followed a series of blistering letters to the Straits Times lambasting Jeyaretnam for his “anti-Singapore” stance. One read (in part):

If any aspirant to leadership in Singapore, after looking at the non-secular basis and style of politics and societies in our immediate neighbourhood, is of the view that the principle of multiracialism, secularism and political democracy on which our society is based, is not worth defending, then the most decent thing he can do by Singaporeans is to take his politics elsewhere...

“Is it, perhaps, because he believes our way of life is not worth defending that Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam maintains a home, away from home in Johore Bahru?” added this correspondent, referring to the town just across the border in Malaysia. “In which case, his initials are certainly appropriate. For more than one eyebrow in Singapore has been raised by the latest utterances of Mr J.B. (‘‘Johore Bahru”) Jeyaretnam.”

The letter, signed “Singapore Sam,” had all the marks of master rhetorician S. Rajaratnam, a former journalist and essayist who was now deputy prime minister. Rajaratnam was, like Jeyaretnam, a Jaffna Tamil, and often wrote pseudonymous letters to the Straits Times.

Another letter writer, “Singaporean,” criticised Jeyaretnam’s dovish stance and accused him of wanting a “dirty, bankrupt, defenceless and politically turbulent city.” He went on to say:

Some leaders of the Workers’ Party are so repelled by our way of life that they send their children not to our schools but to British army schools and expatriate schools in Singapore.

Presumably they do not want their children to be infected by the Singapore way of life.

It was quite true that Jeyaretnam’s sons, Kenneth and Philip did not attend government schools. Margaret was anxious not to expose the boys, aged eight and ten, to the risk of reprisals because of Jeyaretnam’s politics. At her insistence, the boys went to private schools: St Andrews, Raeburn Park, and (later) United World College. Singapore Sam’s taunt about the home in Johor Bahru was especially unfair. In fact, Jeyaretnam had bought the bungalow for his parents. Now that his parents were both dead, his sister Emily, a schoolteacher, lived there. Jeyaretnam and his family visited her several times a month.

As the general election loomed nearer, anonymous critics stepped up their attacks, pouring vitriol on Jeyaretnam and the Workers’ Party. “Bright Eyes” accused the party of being a “Trojan Horse posing as an opposition party.”

For his first parliamentary contest, Jeyaretnam selected the constituency of Farrer Park, a central district near Little India. Farrer Park included a large number of Indian Singaporeans, but Jeyaretnam chose it because it also contained several private housing estates, bulging with middle-class voters.

Singapore’s election laws were patterned after the British model, but evolved in a unique fashion. Elections must be held no more than five years apart. But within this limit the actual timing depends on the prime minister, who advises the president to dissolve parliament and call elections. Naturally, this confers a tactical advantage on the incumbent party.

This advantage is compounded by another feature of Singapore elections: a breathtakingly brief campaign season. Typically there are just nine days between nomination day, when candidates declare which seats they are running for, and election day, when citizens cast their compulsory vote. Political parties in Singapore are prohibited from engaging in a host of political activities – holding processions, organising rallies, even putting up posters – until nomination day, meaning that the entire election cycle is compressed into a period of 240 hours.

Such short campaigns certainly avoid the staggering costs (and tedium) that characterise elections in many democracies. But they also put opposition parties at a tremendous disadvantage. There is little time to organise, meet voters, craft platforms, hammer home messages, explain positions, hold debates, plan strategies, or do any of the other things that help candidates get elected.

As Jeyaretnam courted voters in Farrer Park, the campaign against the Workers’ Party grew more strident. The PAP planted doubts about Jeyaretnam’s loyalty, warning voters against “foreign proxies” who wanted to drag Singapore back into Malaysia. This strategy played on the suspicion with which many Singaporeans regarded their neighbour to the north, especially Chinese Singaporeans who worried that Malaysia’s bloody anti-Chinese riots threatened the Lion City.

The PAP remained vague about the exact identity of these foreign proxies, however, until a campaign rally at Paya Lebar on 25 August, when a PAP candidate named Tay Boon Too accused the Workers’ Party of receiving funds – some S$600,000 (or around A$175,000 at the time) – from a source in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. Government radio broadcast Tay’s accusation across Singapore in the island’s four official languages.

Jeyaretnam was furious. The allegation was “a monstrous lie,” he fumed – the party had less than S$4000 in its bank account, barely enough to cover its campaign expenses. Not only that, but the attack was eerily similar to the Chew Swee Kee affair of 1959, when the PAP had accused the Labour Front of receiving S$500,000 from a foreign source, a charge that demolished the Labour Front and swept the PAP to power. Jeyaretnam threatened to sue Tay for libel unless he withdrew his remarks.

But there was no respite. The PAP questioned Jeyaretnam’s motives at every turn. At an election rally in Farrer Park, Jeyaretnam’s opponent, Dr Lee Chiaw Meng, a high-ranking MP who was minister of state for education, reminded voters of Jeyaretnam’s “challenge” to the Singapore way of life:

In every conflict of interests, each time that Singapore has had to defend its national interests, Mr Jeyaretnam has leapt up in support of another country. In whose interests is he working for?

Is it any wonder that Mr. Jeyaretnam wants national service abolished and all defence spending stopped? He wants our Republic drastically weakened, knowing full well that neither the foreign nor local investor will put their money into our Singapore if we are weak and unstable.

Lee Chiaw Meng made his attack even more personal at another PAP rally at Farrer Park football ground the next evening, just four days before the election:

Who is this JB Jeyaretnam who wants to bring us all down?

Mr Jeyaretnam was born in JB. He voluntarily adopted Singapore citizenship, taking an oath to be loyal and to defend our Republic.

By his own admission, he goes to JB frequently. Four or five times a month to see his sister, he says. His sister seems to have a strange influence on him…

Our Singapore schools are not good enough for him. All children of our citizens are taught to respect our national anthem, “Majullah Singapura.” And they are proud of it. When the Singapore swimmers won the many gold medals at the SEAP Games, our competitors and their supporters were so moved at the playing of the National Anthem, tears glistened in their eyes. That is a measure of our pride in the anthem.

But Mr. Jeyaretnam teaches his children to stand up for “God Save the Queen.”

Jeyaretnam was particularly disturbed by the remark about his sister, which (he felt) implied an incestuous relationship. Never one to shy away from combat, he accused Dr Lee and the PAP of running a “vicious personal” campaign against him. “The PAP is doing a dangerous and mischievous thing,” he said. “Our party is dedicated to Singaporeans not to Malays, Indians or Chinese.”

Jeyaretnam was not the only Workers’ Party candidate battered by personal attacks. Another was the party’s candidate in Crawford, Wu Kher, characterised as a bicycle thief by foreign minister S. Rajaratnam. In fact, Wu had been fined S$30 for attempted theft of a bicycle – when he was fifteen years old.

Jeyaretnam demanded that PAP candidate Tay Boon Too withdraw his allegation about the S$600,000 gift by 1 September. “We play clean to the end,” Jeyaretnam declared. “We want to expose cheap, dishonourable tactics adopted by the PAP.” But Tay refused to back down.

That evening, Jeyaretnam had a final opportunity to put his case to the voters of Singapore. In a four-minute party political broadcast, he made an eloquent appeal for political pluralism:

In the four minutes that I have I would like to leave a few thoughts with you this evening so that you may think over them before you make your choice tomorrow.

The PAP says it comes to you for your votes with its record of twelve years’ government and, of course, we admit it is in some ways an impressive record. But our case and which we say is unanswerable is that in a democratic society an opposition in parliament is absolutely necessary. Democracy without an opposition in parliament providing, as it were, for representation of the people’s view is unthinkable. A one-party parliament wholly subservient to the executive, rubber-stamping all decisions of the executive is not a democracy.

For the last twelve years we have had a government that has not listened to the people and a government that does not listen to the people is an oligarchy, not a democratic government. We have heard from time to time our ministers saying how democratic Singapore is and they appear to be mortally offended when someone suggests that Singapore is perhaps not a democratic country. What baffles us is this: that our leaders in government can resort to threats to try and deny the people a voice in Parliament.

We in the Workers’ Party are striving through perfectly constitutional means to ensure that the democratic way of life finds acceptance in Singapore. We should have thought that a democratic government would encourage this attempt by the people through perfectly constitutional means to make the democratic system work, but on the contrary, for the last nine days we have had false and malicious allegations made against us, we have had threats made against us…

Please remember that the rest of the world will be watching us tomorrow and how you vote will decide whether democracy has become an accepted way of life of our people or whether our way of life is one of authoritarianism. We have no doubt you will do your duty according to your conscience.

It is striking that Jeyaretnam made no mention of his party’s platform of trimming the defence budget and instituting a national health program. Neither did he respond to the attacks against him. The broadcast was a golden opportunity to profess his loyalty to Singapore, to ridicule the “foreign proxy” allegations, and to present his policies without risk of distortion. But he instead focused his criticism on the “rules of the game,” a message unlikely to win new votes. Perhaps he felt that the attacks were so absurd that to respond would only give them more weight.

Despite the odds, Jeyaretnam nursed the secret hope that he would stage an upset. Campaigning in Farrer Park the day before the election, he canvassed one of the Indian cowherds who then plied the streets of Little India peddling glasses of milk. “Take this,” the milkman grinned, handing Jeyaretnam a glass of warm milk. “Take this, and you’ll win tomorrow!”

But polling day proved to be a bitter disappointment. The PAP swept all sixty-five seats in parliament, with 69 per cent of the overall vote. The dark innuendoes against the Workers’ Party took a heavy toll: the WP won just 24 per cent of the votes in the twenty-seven constituencies it contested, and none of its candidates polled more than 37 per cent. In Farrer Park, Jeyaretnam himself drew a mere 23 per cent against Dr Lee.

Publicly, Jeyaretnam put a bright face on the outcome: after all, the Workers’ Party emerged from the election as the strongest opposition party. Privately, he was devastated. The Workers’ Party suffered a crippling lack of the resources that every election demands – money, volunteers and publicity – and stretched those meagre assets too thinly.

After the excitement generated by Jeyaretnam’s takeover of the Workers’ Party, the dismal results of 1972 set off a round of internal recriminations. In December, a breakaway faction, headed by Charlie Seow and Ng Ho, announced they were leaving to form a new left-wing party. Seow and Ng – who had been instrumental in Jeyaretnam’s election as secretary-general – accused Jeyaretnam of freezing them out of strategy sessions.

The split represented a major crisis. The splinter group, later known as the United Front, included several of the party’s candidates from the general election, and about 200 supporters out of a total party membership of 554.

Clearly, the wild rumour about mysterious foreign proxies was wreaking havoc within the party. A similar charge devastated the Labour Front in 1959, and Jeyaretnam feared the same thing might happen to the Workers’ Party. “It was a very serious allegation, which struck at the very life of the party,” he later wrote.

Jeyaretnam knew he had to take action. He pledged to make the party’s accounts public, and followed through on his threat to sue PAP MP Tay Boon Too for defamation. There was a problem, however. Tay had made his speech in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien. Although the speech had been translated and broadcast in Singapore’s four official languages (English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil) Jeyaretnam was unable to obtain a transcript of his original words.

During the trial, attorneys for Tay and the Department of Broadcasting argued that this oversight was fatal – that the lawsuit could not proceed without Tay’s exact words. The judge, justice F.A. Chua, agreed, dismissing the suit and ordering the Workers’ Party to pay Tay’s legal costs, which amounted to S$14,000.

Jeyaretnam was outraged by the ruling. In an interview more than twenty-eight years later, the tension in his voice still betrayed his emotions. “I did find it frustrating, yes,” he said in 1998. The case was frustrating for another reason, too: the lawyer for the Department of Broadcasting was none other than Jeyaretnam’s estranged friend Tan Boon Teik, who had been promoted to attorney-general.

The Workers’ Party dragged its heels about paying Tay. According to Jeyaretnam, the reason was plain. They didn’t have the money.

It may seem strange that the Workers’ Party would procrastinate over such a paltry sum, but fundraising was a chronic headache. “Finding monies even to pay for the day-to-day political activities of the party was and still remains one of the biggest obstacles that confront an opposition party in Singapore,” Jeyaretnam wrote in his memoir. “People are too frightened to contribute any monies to an opposition party.”

This is somewhat overstated. The Workers’ Party had dedicated supporters who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. The vast majority faced no sanction. But some Workers’ Party supporters were penalised for their political beliefs. Their example persuaded hundreds, perhaps thousands of others to keep their head down and not to risk trouble by donating money to the opposition.

Whether the reason, the Workers’ Party made no effort to settle its debt with Tay – a fact that was later to have profound consequences.

Jeyaretnam’s next shot at elected office came in the general elections of 1976. Candidates in Singapore need not live in the constituencies they represent. In fact, political parties frequently shuffle nominees from ward to ward in an effort to pit their strongest contenders against weak opponents.

In the 1972 campaign, Jeyaretnam had been accused of standing in Farrer Park because of its high percentage of Indian voters. This criticism stung him. Playing ethnic politics was regarded as a cardinal sin in Singapore, and he was anxious to demonstrate his appeal to blue-collar voters of all races. So in 1976 he decided to challenge the PAP in Kampong Chai Chee, a predominantly Chinese constituency. Not only was Kampong Chai Chee a working-class ward, but Jeyaretnam also thought he stood a good chance against the two-term PAP incumbent, Sha’ari Tadin, who had squeaked into office in 1972 with 47 per cent of the vote in a three-cornered fight.

Initially, he was reluctant to reveal which constituencies the Workers’ Party would contest, in order to prevent the PAP from switching its weaker candidates to uncontested wards. But other WP members argued that the party should make its plans public. Jeyaretnam eventually held a press conference two days before nomination day to announce who was standing where.

Candidates in Singapore are required to register in person on nomination day. After Jeyaretnam arrived at the Nomination Centre, just twenty minutes before the deadline, and signed up for Kampong Chai Chee, he was shocked to discover that the PAP had switched its candidates. Instead of Sha’ari Tadin, Jeyaretnam suddenly found himself up against Major Fong Sip Chee, a popular PAP MP whose nickname was “The Rat Catcher.”

Jeyaretnam waged a much more effective campaign in 1976 than he had four years before. At the campaign’s opening rally in Fullerton Square, he demonstrated a new grasp of oratory, as can be seen from the vivid account from the Straits Times:

Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, WP’s secretary-general, went straight for the jugular vein – and drew applause and cheers from the lunchtime crowd that packed the square.

Speaking from a makeshift stage formed by lining two lorries side by side, he was a man in his element, striving hard to be in communion with his audience.

He spoke eloquently and with gusto – his voice becoming hoarse as the modulated tones of the courtroom lawyer gave way to the controlled fury of the street-corner politician.

He urged the crowd to join him in shouting: “We want to be heard” and to shout it so loudly that “Mr Lee Kuan Yew will hear it.” They did. Three times.

His was essentially a well-organised rally though he did not reckon with the elements, and a sudden downpour sent many spectators scurrying for shelter…

He also spoke about the “crawlers” – the many people in Singapore who, he said, went crawling to the PAP begging for favours. “We in the Workers’ Party want you, the people of Singapore, to walk upright. We don’t want you to crawl,” he added...

Mr Jeyaretnam then delivered an attack on the Straits Times Group by referring to what he described as the “press lords” of Kim Seng Road, Times House, as one of the “institutions of the PAP government.”

He charged that the press lords, too, did not want the people to be heard. Therefore, they distorted whatever was said by the opposition parties while whatever was said by the PAP was given full coverage. He did not blame the reporters and journalists who tried to do an honest job. It was the press lords sitting in their air-conditioned rooms in Times House who were denying the people their rights.

The Workers’ Party drew up a detailed manifesto for the campaign. Once again, it called for the abolition of the Internal Security Act. It proposed a National Health Service providing free medical care for anyone earning less than $500 a month, a program which would be funded by cuts in military spending. It also called for the end to the rattan, or cane.

In the Western world, the term “caning” conjures up images of bespectacled headmasters swatting naughty schoolboys. In Singapore, however, caning was a brutal punishment designed to scar its victims for life.

According to a rare report published in the Straits Times in 1974, the prisoner is stripped naked and strapped to a trestle by his wrists and ankles, his body bent like a circumflex. The cane half an inch thick, four feet long, and soaked in brine is wielded by a hefty prison officer who channels the momentum of his whole body into the blow. The cane strikes the buttocks with such force that the skin splits open. After three strokes, the buttocks are covered in blood, and most prisoners are in a state of shock. Some pretend to faint, but seldom fool the medical officer. Others collapse, but are quickly revived so that the punishment may continue. A typical sentence runs anywhere from six to twelve strokes.

The cane was originally reserved for crimes involving unusual cruelty or violence. But gradually it became mandatory for a range of offences, including vandalism and overstaying one’s visa.

Jeyaretnam felt that this custom – a legacy of British colonialism – was barbaric. But, as a campaign issue, the cane flopped. Jeyaretnam didn’t even mention it in his party-political broadcast, televised a few days before polling day. Nor did he articulate the rest of the party’s platform. Instead, he focused on what he considered a more fundamental issue: the hollowing out of the very processes that gave democracy its meaning. Just as Jeyaretnam repeated his central message from the 1972 election, so the PAP recycled the tactics that worked for them before. Once again, they sought to focus on the character of Jeyaretnam and the WP men, trotting out the same personal attacks. The fiercest criticism came from foreign minister S. Rajaratnam, who derided Jeyaretnam as a “pukka English gentleman.”

Mr Jeyaretnam says our educational system is undemocratic. He says his party will raise the standard of vernacular primary education. You know vernacular means the language of home-born slaves. Mr Jeyaretnam does not want his children to mix with the hoi polloi and the vernacular-speaking Singaporeans. How do you explain then that Jeyaretnam is interested in education?

Shortly before polling day, Jeyaretnam issued a challenge to prime minister Lee Kuan Yew over the question of the secrecy of the ballot. In a letter to the prime minister, Jeyaretnam described the constant refrain he heard from voters on the hustings, a reluctance to support the Workers’ Party for fear of retaliation:

Many people have telephoned me or spoken to me on receiving their polling cards. The fear, however irrational it may seem, is in the minds of many of our electorate, particularly the uneducated, that your government will discover how he or she has voted in the elections and they are terrified of the consequences. You must be the first to agree that a vote given under these circumstances, under this fear, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a free vote.

Jeyaretnam then asked the prime minister to issue a public announcement guaranteeing the secrecy of the ballot. In one sense, this letter, which he also sent to the secretary-general of the United Nations and to several foreign embassies, was a crafty electoral gamble. If Lee remained silent, he would cast doubt on the integrity of the ballot. But if he stated publicly that the vote was secret, he might allay the fear that kept many voters from casting their ballot for the opposition.

Characteristically, however, Lee rose to the challenge. He insisted that the ballot had always been secret, and that opposition parties bore responsibility for impugning its integrity.

After the hard-fought campaign, tensions ran high on election day. On a final walk through the streets of Chai Chee, Jeyaretnam and his supporters encountered his opponent, Major Fong, flanked by PAP supporters.

“So, you are the rat catcher,” Jeyaretnam said.

“I am going to have the best catch today,” Major Fong replied.

The major was right. By midnight, the PAP had won every constituency except for Kampong Chai Chee, where election workers were still tallying ballots. Exhausted by the campaign, Jeyaretnam went home to await the verdict. When the results were announced, at 2.12am, Jeyaretnam had lost by 7177 votes to Major Fong’s 10,729 – a margin of 20 per cent. Once again, the PAP had made a clean sweep of the nation’s sixty-nine seats in parliament, with 72 per cent of the popular vote.

Although the Workers’ Party had pulled more votes than ever before, the election of 1976 showed that the obstacles in its path were immense. Fifteen years later, Singaporean political scientist Bilveer Singh listed several factors to explain the PAP’s dominance:

Its ability to virtually incapacitate all its major political opponents through sanctions and socialisation.

Its ability to gain control of most of the political and non-political organisations as well as to win cooperation from organisations that are able to mobilise political support among the populace.

Its ability to establish and gain control of all grassroots organisations in the country, including the Citizens’ Consultative Committees (CCCs), the Community Centres (CCs) and the Residents’ Committees (RCs), thereby functioning as a link between the government and the people as well as depriving the opposition of a potential source of recruitment.

Its ability to establish strict rules for the media, which in the end, enabled the PAP to use the media almost as its own organ, as well as to deny similar visibility to its opponents.

Its ability to gain credit for all the progress and development that has taken place in the country and hence legitimise its dominance through the performance criteria.

Its ability to present itself as more than a political party, something akin to a national movement, thereby neutralising the need for other competing political parties in the system that could challenge the PAP’s predominance.

Its ability to gain control of the civil service and the trade union movement.

The PAP’s unyielding grip on the levers of power put the Workers’ Party at a tremendous disadvantage, especially in its efforts to attract candidates. While timorous voters could be consoled by the thought that their ballots were secret, at least in theory, potential candidates for the Workers’ Party knew full well that standing on the party’s platform was an act of defiance towards the PAP, a declaration that could never be revoked.

In democratic nations around the globe, standing for office is seldom a pleasant affair. Candidates can expect their records to come under public scrutiny, with occasionally disastrous results. But WP candidates had more to worry about than merely losing their deposit. The threat of imprisonment was never far away: indeed, shortly after the election, the Ministry of Home Affairs accused WP candidate Ho Juan Thai of trying to incite “violent chauvinistic reaction” among Chinese-speaking voters.

Ho had been a student at Nanyang University when the government tried to change the medium of instruction from Chinese to English. As president of the students’ union, he organised a protest in which students refused to write their exams in English, which resulted in him losing his position. During the election, he accused the government of stripping Chinese Singaporeans of their cultural identity. Although he only got 31 per cent of the vote, the government issued a warrant for his arrest under the Internal Security Act. Ho fled across the causeway, and never returned to Singapore.

Undaunted by his defeat in Kampong Chai Chee, Jeyaretnam jumped back into the political arena to contest a by-election in Radin Mas five months later. Vowing to stand up for all the “little, downtrodden people mercilessly stripped of their human dignity by the PAP government,” he plunged into the campaign with renewed zeal. In his opening rally, he declared:

The people of Singapore are going to show, here in Radin Mas, that we refuse to be a mindless people. We will show the PAP that a political party that has no respect for the people will not get the votes of the people…

The PAP government boasts of building beautiful roads, factories, and airport but this is not what we want. It is not these things that matter, it is the people that matter. Before you beautify these things, first beautify our people. And our people can only be beautiful if they are given their fundamental rights instead of being shoved from pillar to post.

Political observers began to scratch their heads. In a blistering editorial, Straits Times editor Leslie Fang castigated Jeyaretnam’s high-minded talk about democracy and human rights:

We will find him standing on a platform with his hands stretched out like a man being crucified, talking himself hoarse about the voice of the people.

His loyal wife will be nearby, dutifully, as loyal and dutiful wives of American politicians stand by their husbands at the hustings.

She will probably be at his side when he invites his audience to join them in prayer – that there shall be light at the end of these long, dark days and that the oppressive PAP will rule no more.

Mr Jeyaretnam will have to pray indeed and pray very hard too if he hopes to win in Radin Mas by merely spouting again these same high-sounding phrases.

Sure, such oratory appeals to the well-educated, the professionals and others. It makes good reading too in newspapers – just the kind of stuff of which headline writers’ dreams are made.

But while I am all for standing up for human rights and justice and democracy, I wonder if Mr Jeyaretnam’s going on and on about it will cut any ice with voters in Radin Mas. I wonder if he understands that Radin Mas is essentially a lower-income group area, the residents of which are concerned with more earthly problems.

Despite widespread scepticism in the press, the Radin Mas by-election presented Jeyaretnam with several advantages. His thirty-five-year-old PAP opponent, Bernard Chen Tien Lap, was a novice campaigner. The blue-collar ward contained several kampongs slated for resettlement, which was often bitterly resented by kampong dwellers, loath to abandon their sleepy village huts for the impersonal apartment blocks that awaited them on the other side of the island.

When the polls closed on 14 May 1977, Jeyaretnam hovered anxiously inside the counting centre at Tiong Bahru Secondary School while the votes were tallied. A few minutes after midnight, he walked out into the night.

“What do you want me to say?” Jeyaretnam snapped at reporters. “That I am tired and upset? The people have decided. Let the Straits Times and the New Nation say what they like.”

The crowd of Workers’ Party supporters, mistakenly thinking Jeyaretnam’s emergence signalled victory, surged forward, shouting “Berjaya!” (“Victory!”) and raised him up on their shoulders.

“Put me down!” he shouted, shaking his head, frustration and disappointment drawing him to the verge of tears. “Put me down! Stop it!”

His supporters lowered him to the ground, and walked with him to the street. Moments later, the results were announced. Chen had beaten Jeyaretnam by 12,053 to 5021 – a margin of more than seven thousand.

Even as he grappled with this defeat, Jeyaretnam faced two serious crises. The first came when Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer. The diagnosis was a terrible blow. The existing treatments for breast cancer – a particularly lethal form of neoplasm – were expensive, painful, and ineffective. Margaret flew to England to undergo a mastectomy and radiation treatment, but the outlook was grim.

There was also trouble on the legal front. During the run-up to the 1976 general election, prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had ridiculed Jeyaretnam for offering to run the nation’s finances when he was having trouble with his own (a sly dig at Jeyaretnam’s law practice, which had suffered since he joined the Workers’ Party). At the campaign’s opening rally, Jeyaretnam responded to this charge, saying:

Mr Lee Kuan Yew has managed his fortune very well. He is the prime minister of Singapore. His wife is the senior partner of Lee & Lee and his brother is the director of several companies, including Tat Lee Bank in Market Street; the bank which was given a permit with alacrity, [a] banking permit licence, when other banks were having difficulties getting their licence.

After the election, Lee demanded an unconditional apology: a standard manoeuvre in libel proceedings. The demand put Jeyaretnam in a bind. If he apologised, he would be conceding that there was something to apologise for – an admission that could be used against him in court. But if he did not apologise, Lee could argue that Jeyaretnam was aggravating the damage by refusing to retract his remarks.

Nonetheless, Jeyaretnam did not think the case could succeed. He had simply made a statement of fact. If the facts were true, how could he lose a libel suit? Jeyaretnam refused to apologise, and Lee duly filed suit in court, setting the stage for a sensational trial with major political implications.

Jeyaretnam had lost an important libel suit once before: when PAP MP Tay Boon Too had accused the Workers’ Party of receiving $600,000 in foreign funds. This time, however, he had an ace up his sleeve: he engaged the famous British barrister John Mortimer, author of the popular book and television series, Rumpole of the Bailey.

A product of Oxford and Harrow, Mortimer’s remarkable success as a writer, journalist and playwright at times overshadowed his career at the bar. It is easy to forget that, as a Queen’s Counsel in the 1960s, he was one of England’s most prominent defence lawyers, specialising in free-speech issues, or what his colleagues sometimes referred to as “dirty-book cases.” Indeed, he once defended a British magazine against obscenity charges for publishing an illustration of Rupert the Bear sporting an enormous erection.

The five-day trial, held in November 1978, made front-page headlines in the Straits Times. On the witness stand, Lee said Jeyaretnam’s accusations were so grave they could have brought down the government:

If the allegations are believed, I am destroyed. The allegations have been hanging over my head since December 18, 1976, when all other allegations by all others have been withdrawn.

But what were the allegations? All Jeyaretnam had done was to point out a strange coincidence and invite his listeners to draw their own conclusions.

It is difficult to deny that the bare facts of the Tat Lee case invited speculation about undue influence. In 1969, the chairman of the Tat Lee Company, Goh Tjoei Kok, applied for a banking licence from the Monetary Authority of Singapore, or MAS, proposing an initial capital of S$20 million. For almost three years, the application gathered dust in the halls of the MAS. Then, in 1972, Tat Lee hired the law firm of Lee & Lee to shepherd the bank’s application through the bureaucratic maze. It was a shrewd choice: Lee & Lee was started by Lee Kuan Yew and his wife, and had become one of Singapore’s most successful law firms. Although Lee himself had severed all formal ties with the firm, it retained a formidable reputation as having access to the corridors of power.

Tat Lee also pulled in another individual with close ties to the prime minister: Lee’s brother, Lee Kim Yew, who was one of the proposed directors. Five months later, MAS approved the deal in principle, and ultimately issued a licence in February 1974.

It is important to understand that MAS was notoriously slow to grant banking licences. The last licence had been issued in 1968 to the Development Bank of Singapore, which had a large government stake.

At the trial, the managing director of MAS, Michael Wong Pakshong, strenuously denied that the involvement of Lee & Lee or the prime minister’s brother had anything to do with MAS’s decision to give Tat Lee the green light. The reason for MAS’s change of heart, he said, was its belief that $20 million was too small a capitalisation for a local bank, an objection that Tat Lee overcame by raising its stake to $32 million.

Mortimer argued that Jeyaretnam’s remarks were fair comment and that he could not be responsible for all the implications or innuendo that could be read into his words. Indeed, Mortimer told the court, the ability to engage in robust debate was the essence of democracy.

Despite Mortimer’s oratory, Jeyaretnam lost the case. In January 1979, Justice F.A. Chua – the same judge who had ruled against the Workers’ Party in the Tay Boon Too case – ordered Jeyaretnam to pay Lee S$130,000 in damages and costs.

Jeyaretnam was devastated by the judgment. He appealed the decision to the High Court, and even attempted to bring it before the Privy Council in London; but he lost both efforts. In the end, his liability in damages and costs amounted to S$500,000. And he learned the answer to an awful question: how does a man raise half a million dollars? He sells his house, with its swimming pool and garden, dismisses his servants, and moves into a rented apartment.

By January 1979, Jeyaretnam’s political career was, to put it kindly, in a shambles. He was fifty-two years old. He had lost three times at the polls. He had lost two major libel suits. He was short of cash, the Workers’ Party was struggling, and his wife was dying of cancer.

But on the morning of 31 January, at fifteen minutes before noon, Jeyaretnam made a dramatic appearance at the Victoria School Nomination Centre to declare his candidacy for parliament in a by-election at Telok Blangah against the PAP candidate, a young accountant named Rohan bin Kamis.

Coming so soon after judge Chua’s ruinous verdict, Jeyaretnam’s announcement shocked reporters covering the by-election. But, characteristically, he remained as fiery as ever, saying it was the “paramount duty” of opposition parties to challenge the PAP.

Jeyaretnam’s obvious relish for the campaign was echoed in the exuberant atmosphere of his rallies. While he continued, as always, to focus on democracy and human rights, he had become increasingly adept at raising bread-and-butter issues. He slammed the government for failing to increase pensions in line with inflation; for high taxes; and for sharp hikes in water, gas, and electricity bills.

Despite Jeyaretnam’s crusty accent, his British education, and his Indian heritage, working-class Singaporeans were beginning to identify with him. His stubborn refusal to give up, even after so many defeats, earned him grudging respect. As the Straits Times reported:

The crowds turned wild when Mr Jeyaretnam ended his delivery and held high a wooden hammer – the party’s symbol. Then, to the chants of “We want Jeya,” the opposition leader was chaired to his car. More than one hundred people surged round him, cheering and shouting.

Once again, the results were a crushing disappointment: the PAP candidate, Rohan Kamis, won 12,687 votes to Jeyaretnam’s 8036, making Jeyaretnam now a four-time loser. However, Jeyaretnam could not help but take note of a very significant fact: his share of the vote was greater than ever before. And each time he stood for office, it seemed to creep a few points higher.

By this time it had become clear that Margaret had only a short time to live. As her health declined, Jeyaretnam became increasingly despondent. He was utterly devoted to her. In an interview conducted almost twenty years later, his voice quavered with despair and frustration.

“There was nothing I could do!” he told me in January 2000. “To see her crying sometimes, what could I do? And it still troubles me, because there’s no question that because of my political career, she must have suffered terrible stress. Her cancer was diagnosed after Lee brought his first suit against me. She used to say she wanted to go back to the UK. She was very loyal. But I could see she was worried. I wonder if I had given up politics and returned to the UK with her, she might still be living with me today.”

Margaret died of cancer on 10 April 1980, at the age of fifty. They had been married twenty-three years; Jeyaretnam was crushed. “She was with me on every platform,” he told the Straits Times. “I feel as if half of me has been cut off. She was my whole strength in lots of things.” He kept a picture of her above his office desk, and bought a fresh red rose for it every day a ritual he would repeat for many years.

For a while, Jeyaretnam considered retiring from politics. After all, his predecessor, Workers’ Party founder David Marshall, had abandoned politics and returned to a successful career at the bar. But Jeyaretnam would not and could not abandon the struggle. Ironically, Margaret’s death was the final catalyst that cast him irrevocably on his long crusade against the PAP. As he wrote in his memoirs:

After her death I thought I would give up. But then it was brought on me that the time for giving up was before her death and I had no reason for giving up after her death. It would be an act of betrayal of her to give up so I forced myself back into picking up again an active political role.

To overcome his grief, Jeyaretnam hurled himself into politics as never before. He came tantalisingly close in the general election of 1980, polling 46.3 per cent of the vote in the Telok Blangah constituency, against 52.2 per cent for the PAP candidate, Rohan Khamis. If 600 voters had switched sides, Jeyaretnam would have won.

Then, in 1981, Jeyaretnam got another chance. The PAP nominated party stalwart C.V. Devan Nair, a popular trade unionist and founding member of the PAP, to the largely ceremonial post of president. In order to accept the nomination, Nair had to resign his seat in parliament. This left his constituency, Anson, up for grabs.

Straddling Keppel Harbour on the southern shore of the island, surrounded by some of Singapore’s most valuable real estate, the district of Anson was considered one of the PAP’s safest seats. To the northeast, the office towers of the financial district loomed over Robinson Road; to the north, the massive buildings of Singapore General Hospital glowed late into the night.

At the previous election, Nair had trounced his last opponent with 84 per cent of the vote. Indeed, Anson was considered such a PAP stronghold that many of Jeyaretnam’s supporters begged him not to run. The seat, they said, was unwinnable and a loss would squander the psychological advantage he had built up in his recent battles.

But Jeyaretnam was undaunted by the long odds. Avoiding the challenge, he argued, would be perceived as cowardice. In addition, there was an encouraging historical parallel. Twenty years before, David Marshall, the founder of the Workers’ Party, had scored an upset victory against the PAP in Anson. Jeyaretnam was convinced that, given the right opportunity, the district’s voters would show their independent streak again. At 11:35 am on nomination day, barely twenty-five minutes before the deadline, Jeyaretnam appeared at the Nomination Centre and officially threw his hat into the ring.

Publicly, PAP officials were brimming with confidence. “I don’t think there is any way Mr Jeyaretnam can win,” PAP organising secretary Goh Chok Tong told a press conference. But almost as soon as the nine-day by-election campaign began, it became apparent that the PAP had for once miscalculated.

Anson may have been surrounded by gleaming monuments to the nation’s prosperity, but the constituency itself was dominated by wharves and railyards. The majority of Anson’s 14,500 residents had been left behind by the island nation’s boom. Roughly one-third of the households earned less than US$230 a month, and another one-third earned less than US$460.

Anson was also a microcosm of the resentments that had built up over two decades of PAP rule. First among these issues was housing. In the early sixties, the Housing and Development Board had embarked on a massive construction program throughout the island, bulldozing the rickety kampongs and squalid shophouses, and erecting high-rise flats in their stead. By 1981, the HDB had created more than 300,000 units – surely one of the most impressive spurts of residential construction anywhere – and more than 70 per cent of the nation’s 2.4 million people lived in public housing.

Despite this spectacular record, however, Singapore was still suffering a tremendous housing shortage: roughly 100,000 Singaporeans were still waiting to buy their own flats from the HDB, with 13,000 on the waiting list to rent. There were 62,000 one-room flats with more than three people living in them. And the government seemed to be falling further behind: in the first ten months of 1981, the waiting list grew by 46,000 people, while the official target for the entire year was just 15,000 flats. The average waiting time for a HDB flat was roughly five years.

Against this backdrop, the Port of Singapore Authority wanted to evict 700 families from nine high-rise blocks in Anson to make way for a new container complex. The neighbourhood, known as Blair Plain, was primarily occupied by port workers, who bitterly resented being pushed out by their own employer. What’s more, the HDB refused to give them priority in applying for new flats.

While the government’s official inflation rate stood at just under 10 per cent, that figure masked sharp increases which had hit low-income Singaporeans particularly hard. The average purchase price for HDB flats had jumped 38 per cent in a single year. Rice was up 19.4 per cent; meat and poultry was up 13.9 per cent; public transportation rose 17 per cent. There were rumours that the government was planning to hike bus fares.

In addition, there was grumbling over the government’s “Speak Mandarin” campaign, launched by prime minister Lee in 1979. Most Chinese Singaporeans trace their ancestry to southern China, where the vernacular tongue was not Mandarin but dialects such as Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese. The government wanted Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead, reaffirming their cultural heritage and simultaneously opening new links to China. Singapore’s Chinese dialect groups were proud of their regional traditions, however, and the government’s attempts to impose Mandarin infuriated them. (Imagine walking into an Italian restaurant and finding that the menu has been written in Latin.)

The PAP also made several tactical blunders. The first was its choice of candidate: a thirty-two-year-old mechanical engineer named Pang Kim Hin, with no political experience. By traditional measures, Pang had good family connections: his uncle was Lim Kim San, a powerful PAP minister. But, paradoxically, this was a liability in Anson, because his uncle was also chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority, the agency responsible for the Blair Plain evictions.

Second, the PAP’s master campaigner, prime minister Lee, was noticeable by his absence. Lee had decided that the Anson by-election would be a good opportunity for the younger PAP leaders to get a taste for electoral politics. The party’s long stay in power had produced an echelon of so-called “second generation” leaders who had never undergone the rigours of a closely fought election. Accordingly, the up-and-coming minister of health, Goh Chok Tong, took charge of the PAP’s campaign, even making speeches in the stead of the hapless Pang. And while Goh aimed several jabs at Jeyaretnam, he never showed a knack for the vicious form of political ju-jitsu that came so naturally to Lee.

Jeyaretnam also benefited from the awkward timing of the Trade Disputes (Amendment) Act, passed by parliament a week before polling day. The law banned strikes which would inflict hardship on any sector of the community – a vague provision that seemed, on its face, designed to outlaw industrial action altogether. Although the trade unions had long since come under the sway of the PAP, and although industrial action had therefore become exceedingly rare, the new law was a stark reminder of the unions’ castration. During a three-hour rally at Blair Plain, Jeyaretnam skilfully exploited the issue.

Finally, Jeyaretnam also enjoyed an unusual degree of cooperation from the other opposition parties, which stood aside to avoid splitting the anti-PAP vote. The newly formed Singapore Democratic Party, headed by lawyer Chiam See Tong, did not field a candidate, and the Barisan Sosialis and the Singapore United Front even sent in their workers to help campaign for Jeyaretnam. This temporary ceasefire may seem an obvious stratagem, but it was seldom encountered among the bickering chieftains of Singapore’s puny opposition parties. (The only other contender was perennial candidate Harbans Singh, secretary-general of the United People’s Front, who told one reporter he was in the race as an “agent of God.”)

Tension mounted as election day drew near. Two days before the election, Goh Chok Tong told a press conference that no opposition member of parliament could serve Anson residents as well as a PAP member:

A PAP MP is in a better position to help than a non PAP MP, that’s all I’m saying… It will be more difficult for anybody who is not familiar with PAP government ministers to get things done. The PAP MP mixes with other MPs and ministers, and he can raise with them problems and issues the constituents may have on a friendly basis.

Although Goh took pains to express himself in a non-confrontational manner, many Singaporeans read the speech as a blunt threat to Anson voters: if you elect Jeyaretnam, don’t expect any help from us.

It is difficult to know how many votes were motivated by Goh’s statement. Certainly, some voters were outraged by it: at one PAP rally, a plastic packet of cooked noodles was hurled at Goh as he stood at the podium – a brazen act of defiance almost unheard of in Singapore.

In sharp contrast to Pang’s political inexperience, Jeyaretnam, now fifty-five, was a seasoned campaigner, having fought the PAP no fewer than five times before. Although he continued to emphasise human rights, he also hammered away at bread-and-butter issues: medical fees, bus fares, and the rising cost of government-built flats. Thousands of Singaporeans flocked to the Workers’ Party rallies: the huge crowds forced some onlookers to stand so far from the platform that they couldn’t even hear the speeches. They stayed nonetheless, just for a chance to see Jeyaretnam in action. By the end of the campaign, he told a reporter: “I have done all that is humanly possible. It is now in the hands of God.”

On the evening of 31 October, polling day, Jeyaretnam and Workers’ Party chairman Wong Hong Toy drove up to the counting station, located in the Gan Eng Seng Secondary School. Crowds of people, both WP and PAP supporters, jammed Anson Road, waiting for the results to be announced.

Inside, poll workers counted the ballots, bundling them into groups of fifty, and stacking the bundles in trays for each candidate. Jeyaretnam and Wong stood hypnotised as the trays filled with bundles: now Jeyaretnam’s tray was higher, now Pang’s, now Jeyaretnam’s. As the hours dragged on, and the last ballots were counted and recounted, Wong’s heart soared. “They were almost equal, but I could see that ours was a little higher,” Wong remembered. “I told Mr Jeyaretnam we are going to win. He said really? I said yes, I see the ballots.”

At 10.53pm, returning officer Richard Lau stepped up to the microphone outside the counting station, and announced the result:

Mr Harbans Singh: 131 votes.
Mr Jeyaretnam: 7012 votes.
Mr Pang: 6359 votes.

But the last three digits of Pang’s tally were drowned out by a roar from the crowd. By a margin of just 653, the voters of Anson had staged the most dramatic upset in Singapore’s political history. They had elected Jeyaretnam as their member of parliament. The PAP’s spell was broken.

The years of pent-up frustration had finally found an outlet. WP supporters jabbed their hands in the air and chanted, “We want Jeya! We want Jeya!” As word spread, so did the delirium. Anson Road was a solid mass of revellers shouting and cheering from Palmer Road to Telok Ayer market.

Taxi drivers were honking their horns and waving at one another. Standing in the schoolhouse, Jeyaretnam himself was gasping with disbelief. As the crowd outside chanted his name, he knelt on the floor and murmured a prayer for Margaret. Then he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and stepped up to the microphone. The crowd surged forward but was restrained by the police. “I went towards them and tried to shake the hand of as many as I could,” he later wrote. “They were wild with excitement.”

His voice choked with emotion, Jeyaretnam thanked his supporters:

This victory is yours. It is not mine. It is the people’s victory against the might of the PAP and all the government agencies. In the face of all this, I feel very, very humble. I thank God for answering the prayers not only of myself but also of hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans. This is also my saddest moment. One person who has fought for your cause as fiercely as I did, is not here. But I know that she is here in spirit. I am sure she will rejoice tonight, seeing you cheering me.

Calling his seventeen-year-old son, Philip, to the platform (Kenneth was studying at Cambridge), Jeyaretnam hugged him for several minutes. “We’ve won, son,” he said to him before turning back to the microphone:

I think we all need a rest and need to go back and thank God for this victory. Let us go home with jubilation and cheerfulness. There is a new sun breaking out tomorrow morning. Let us welcome the dawn of a bright, prosperous, happy Singapore, a Singapore we can all be proud to call our own.

I pray to God that I will have the strength to serve not only the people of Anson but also the whole of Singapore. I am sure the Anson voters want me to regard myself not only as their MP but the MP for the silent majority.

Twenty years after Jeyaretnam’s triumph, a retired police officer grinned like a hyena when asked to recall the events of that night. He was off duty, drinking in a pub, when he got a telephone call: “The old man is in!” He rushed over to Anson, where he saw a crowd he estimates at 20,000 people.

“People were cheering, shouting, banging on things…” he told me. “It was so overjoyous, so overwhelming. All races – all were cheering in defiance. I found a group who I didn’t know, and I followed them to a hawker centre. We all spent money, we didn’t know who was who, it didn’t matter, we were in a mood of jubilation. We hugged and kissed each other. Even people outside the constituency came to join us.”

After years of negative coverage from the local press, Jeyaretnam was delighted the next morning to see the front page headline in the Straits Times: JEYARETNAM TAKES ANSON. “It was pure joy,” he later wrote.

A week later, Jeyaretnam led a procession of cars, vans, and motorcycles through Anson to thank residents for voting for him. Police officials had denied him a permit to lead a procession on foot, but not even this bit of bureaucratic pettiness could dampen the spirits of his supporters, who adorned him with garlands of flowers.

Local journalists covering the election were amazed – and some of them ecstatic – that Jeyaretnam had finally won. “I was happy that there was finally someone who’s broken the stranglehold, who has beaten them at their own game,” said one reporter who covered the event. “I thought that dawn had come to the political landscape of Singapore. But it turned out to be the other way around.” •

This is an edited extract from Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent, by Chris Lydgate (Scribe, 2003).