JBJ: cub & young adult yrs

In Uncategorized on 07/03/2014 at 6:39 am

I’m helping the author of “Dissident Voices” (reviewed here) on his follow-up book (DV II) which will include JBJ and Lee Siew Choh by doing the basic research. Here are my notes and observations on JBJ’s life up to the historical Anson victory. I’m publishing it (and subsequent notes and observations on JBJ etc) because my piece on Lee Siew Choh helped garnered some delicious tit-bits from readers that if verified can be used in the planned book e.g. that he was brilliant academically, winning prizes, and that a son was jailed for refusing to do NS. Hopefully, this berry-picking can be repeated for JBJ etc with yr help.

JBJ: cub & young adult yrs

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam or J. B. Jeyaretnam  or more commonly and affectionately  “J.B.J.” was born on 5 January 1926,  into an Anglican family of Christian-Tamil descent in then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) when his parents were on “home leave” from Malaya.

As his father was working in Muar [Who was his father’s employer? What was his occupation?], Malaya, he first went to school at a French convent in Muar.  He then attended Muar’s Government English School When his father was transferred to Johor Bahru,  he studied at the English College there.

Here’s something from a blogger* (who also said he was the only male in his convent class: wah got harem so young leh) that I had not come across anywhere elsewhere on what he did during the Japanese Occupation.

He enrolled in Japanese classes/schools in JB and Syonan (Singapore’s Japanese name) to further his studies as he put it – ‘at the time we didn’t know if this was truly the end of the British Empire’.

Having gained some proficiency in Japanese, he was quite naive when his Japanese tutor told him to follow him and start a Japanese class in Muar. He wanted to go, but his father put a stop to it and instead found him a job at the Census Dept. Later he moved on as an interpreter in the Transport Dept, when the Census Dept closed down. He was forthright in admitting why – at the time the Japanese started recruiting young men to work in ‘the Death Railway’ at the Siam-Burma border. Having a job meant that he wasn’t likely to drafted in service at the notorious site. The job paid little but it gave him a chance to buy stuff like tapioca which became his family’s staple food during the 44 month Japanese Occupation.

He would go on to admit that the occupation moulded him into what he would become later. He was a shy and timid boy, but war forced him to take initiatives and be a man. It made him more out-spoken and independent.

After the Japanese Occupation, he came to Singapore to study at St Andrew’s school. (TRE and TOC readers’ would be cursing him and the govt for this today?)

The same blogger reports that his father wanted him to study medicine; but he won, via a correspondence course (reported the Guardian in its obituary), a place to study law at University College London. According to the Guardian, “There, a lecture by Nye Bevan inspired his early socialist beliefs.”

But it sure didn’t show because after he was called to the English Bar by Gray’s Inn, on his return home, in 1952, he joined the Singapore Legal Service.  Not for him the life of a socialist activist in private legal practice, the path followed by one Lee Kuan Yew (LKY). But to be fair to JBJ, he came from a less wealthy background than LKY.

JBJ served as a magistrate, crown counsel, deputy public prosecutor and district judge (becoming the equivalent of today’s Chief District Judge), and as the registrar of the Supreme Court+. He resigned from the service in 1963and entered private practice [Which firm did he join?],  setting up his own law firm in 1968.  The JBJ version was that he was disillusioned with the direction the Legal Service was heading under the govt of LKY. The LKY version was that he resigned because he was bitter at not being appointed a High Court judge. (The usual promotion for the Subordinate Court’s highest judge then and now). Most probably the truth lay in between. LKY and his govt had little time for those who they believed believed in the colonial values. After all, his sons were expensively educated here and in the UK: not for them a local education, where even in schools like RI and ACS, 40 students in a class were the norm. Today our elite schools follow the posh British fee-paying schools with about 25 to a class.

He had married in February 1957, Margaret Cynthia Walker, a British law student he had known in London, and their relationship had endured his return to S’pore. JBJ’s best man at his wedding was Tan Boon Teik, who would become Singapore’s longest serving Attorney General (AG), and JBJ’s nemesis in later years.

The 1960s and early 70s must have been the time that his eldest son Kenneth J, alluded to when he said that the family had a driver, lived in a bungalow and had a dog called “Rusty”. It was a gd time to be an upper middle class professional. But JBJ must have been restless.

In 1971, Jeyaretnam led a group of lawyers [Any idea who they were? Was Gopalan Nair one of them?] who took over the zombie that was the Workers’ Party and became the party’s Secretary-General.  The WP had been founded in 1957 as his personal vehicle by S’pore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall, after he resigned office. It now became JBI’s personal war chariot until he was deposed as the WP’s leader in 2001, 30 years later.

In the 1972 and 1976 general elections he was thrashed by the PAP candidates he stood against. But he kept on battling away even though he was thrashed again in by-elections in 1977 and 1979. He exemplified what Samuel Beckett the playwright wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

In 1978 (or was it 1977?), Lee Kuan Yew successfully sued him for defamation. The courts found that JBJ had accused him of nepotism and corruption, and of being unfit to be prime minister**. Mr Lee was awarded damages and costs. An appeal to the Privy Council in London was defeated. While I find most of the other defamation suits problematic because they were petty whatever the law says, in this case, I think that LKY had every moral right to sue and win damages.

JBJ and his groupies, ang moh journalists, anti-PAP paper warriors, and ang moh tua kee S’poreans make such of the fact that  “such comments in many democracies would not lead to libel actions but be regarded as part of the cut-and-thrust of parliamentary politics.”. True but up to a point only. They forget that the leaders of political parties don’t make remarks alleging corruption about govt leaders unless they have evidence. When was the last time you heard Republican presidential candidates or the Republican leader of the House or a Republican senator call or imply the president of the US corrupt? Or the leader of the opposition in the UK call the PM corrupt? JBJ went too far this time as he did in the 1990s where he published a defamatory letter the contents of which he didn’t understand (it was in Tamil) and getting not only himself, but other WP leaders into trouble. More on this when I cover that period.

In 1980, he lost again in a general election, though the margin was now a very respectable by 47.0% to 53.0%. His wife died that year of cancer, leaving him a single parent with two sons, and debts. It was not a good year for him. But “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” seemed written for him.

In 1981, he became the first opposition politician since Singapore’s independence in 1965 to win a seat in Parliament.  He defeated the candidate of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) at a by-election in the Anson constituency. It was a famous victory; made sweeter because the by-election had been held because the govt nominated Anson MP and NTUC Chief, CV Devan Nair for the post of president, on the death of President Sheares.

In subsequent posts, I’ll share my notes and takes on his later life and what I see as his enduring legacy. Certainly not the WP or the Reform Party or his style of defamatory rhetoric, but still a legacy, though there are parts that would pain him.



**At a rally in 1977 he said “… I’m not very good at the management of my own personal fortunes, but Mr Lee Kuan Yew, has managed his personal fortunes very well. He is the Prime Minister of Singapore and his wife is the senior partner of Lee & Lee and his brother is Director of several companies including Tat Lee Bank in Market Street, a bank that was given a permit with alacrity, banking permit license when other banks were having difficulty in getting the license”. He paid dearly for these words with damages and costs being awarded to LKY. And as his son Kenneth J said, the family lost the driver, bungalow and dog.

+Update on 14th March 2014 at 6.30pm: He was also tutor in legal philosophy and criminology at the University of Malaya in S’pore. (The WP 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book 1957-2007)



  1. JBJ’s version of why he resigned from the Legal Service is more likely to be correct. He was the District Judge and First Magistrate in 1963 when he delivered two judgments against the unions advised by LKY finding guilty of the criminal tort of conspiracy. His chances of being elevated to the High Court after this would have been nought. Earlier on, he was the legal officer representing the Income Tax Department at the Buttrose Commision of Inquiry set up by the Lim Yew Hock government to look into LKY’s allegation of corruption by the government in receiving $500,000 from unknown sources through the Education Minister Chew Swee Kee. The Commisioner lambasted Kenneth Byrne for not telling the whole truth about the source of the information when he claimed to have been given the secret through the telephone from the a man with an English accent who had worked in the Income Tax Department and had seen Chew Swee Kee’s file. This ‘Englishman’ was supposed to have been the Comptroller who was on home leave. It turned out the Mr. Casey was not an Englishman but an Australian who spoke with an Australian accent. Dr. Toh Chin Chye also testified at the Inquiry and he later recounted his discomfort in the book Lee’s Lieutenants.LKY’s version of the events can be found at pages 293 -295 of his book, The Singapore Story. The Commission’ Report is published and should be available in the National Library. I have wondered if this episode was the beginning of LKY’s dislike of JBJ and you can sense this in his reply to JBJ’ naive question in Parliament – Do you hate me?

  2. You could do your research by asking primary sources and his family? Good effort but a lot of errors so far.
    Also you could read Chris Lydgate’s Lee’s Law. Chris did a lot of research and interviewed a large number of people and family.

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