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The Memories of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (1926-2008)

By Claire Yeo, Oral History Specialist

Former opposition Member of Parliament and the 3rd Secretary-General of the Workers' Party, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (better known as JBJ) passed away on 30 Sep 2008 at the age of 82. The Oral History Centre interviewed him from 2005 through August 2008. Although the interview was in progress and expected to complete only by early 2009, the approximately 20 hours of audio and video recordings give an insight to JBJ's life. The audio interview covered his family background, growing up years, educational background, experiences during the Japanese Occupation, marriage and legal career in the Legal Service before he went into private practice in end 1963. The video interview covered his entry into politics via the 1981 Anson By-Election.

The third of four children, JBJ was a Jaffna Tamil born on 5 January 1926 in the village of Chankanai in Jaffna. He received his formal education in Muar; English College, Johor Bahru; St. Andrew's School, Singapore; University College, London and finally Barrister-at-Law, Gray's Inn. In his oral history interview, JBJ revealed a little known trivia that he first started school in a convent for girls when he was about six years old:

"I first went to the convent with my eldest sister who was already there... I think it was the French convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Mission. All the teachers were women and I think I was the only boy in the Primary One class that I joined."

Although JBJ enjoyed school as a young boy, he was not inclined to physical activities.

"What I want to say is that I really enjoyed my school days and I think that's very important that students should enjoy their school days. It wasn't, in those days, there wasn't that pressure on us and the teaching was good. Most of the teachers were Indians largely. There were in Muar, perhaps one or two Chinese teachers and one or two Malay teachers... One thing that I do remember with some amusement is that I wasn't very good at physical activity and I'm still not good at physical activity. But it's... we used to have what they called the drill periods, half an hour or 45 minutes when we went out... So I dreaded it. I was almost praying sometimes that it would rain and then the drill periods would be cancelled. But it wasn't always that I had to somersault. It was more humiliating because in the end he had to get someone to hold my legs up and help me to somersault..."

JBJ's education was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. His family evacuated out of Johore Bahru town to a plantation estate about 16 miles away where he witnessed the last phase of war.

"While we moved in there and within three or four days, we saw Japanese soldiers. So we knew that they had already reached and there was only about 16 miles from Johore Bahru. I remember very vividly two British soldiers - this was after we had seen the Japanese soldiers - coming to our huts completely fear stricken and asking us whether that we knew there were any British soldiers still around anywhere that they could go to. We were so frightened even to talk to them because in case the Japanese found out that we were talking to the British soldiers. So we told them we didn't know and we asked them to leave. But the fear in their eyes haunted me for some time. Because by then, there were stories of the Japanese atrocities were beginning to come through. It was while in the estate that I witnessed it myself a little."

Uncertainties during the Japanese Occupation did not stop JBJ from studying. He attended Japanese language classes which enabled him to have an easier time finding jobs.

"We didn't know whether we would become part of the Japanese empire. The war might end and we would be no longer under the British but part of the Japanese empire. So I attended the classes in Syonan - Singapore, I suppose. At the end of it, I had a certificate graduating from the class. I think it was for three months, the course. I was by then fairly proficient with the Japanese language. I could speak it and understand what they were saying. When I returned with this certificate, this man who had started the Japanese classes in Johore Bahru was expanding and he was starting classes in Muar where I had lived. He wanted me to go to Muar to teach the language there in Muar. I suppose I was excited, yes. Getting my first job, going to live alone but I don't reckon with my father. He wasn't going to have anything to do with that. He said, 'No!' and it was final. I was not to go to... I was quite disappointed and I suppose felt a bit of anger and resentment against him. But that was and he said, 'Well, if you want to work, I'll find you a job.' So he found me a job in the Census Department."

Following his short stint in the Census Department, he went on to be an interpreter in the Transport Department.

"After about six months, the department closed, I suddenly saw an advertisement that the Transport Department wanted an interpreter. So I went along and applied and got it, working this time for Japanese bosses, military officers who were heading the department. One of the things, of course that drove me to it was the Japanese from quite early were press ganging boys, youths who were not working and taking them off to work in Siam as it was then called. The Death Railway, they were building a railway there. So we had to avoid that and the only way you could avoid it was to have a job, especially if you were working in a government department.

I don't think I was paid very much. I was paid something like 200, 300 Japanese dollars. But as part of our wages, or as a supplement to our wages, we were given cigarette packets every month. I think besides cigarette packets, we also had biscuits for some. I remember the first thing we did, I used to get the packets and so did the other staff; the first thing was to run with it to the black market and sell those cigarette packs at huge prices. This is more so after a year or so, not immediate. But the prices were going up and then we could sell the cigarette packets more than we were paid. Rice was costing a lot. Anyway, rice was rationed. We had to turn to tapioca. We grew some tapioca in our own compound and quite often our meal was just pure tapioca, boiled tapioca and eaten with chilli samba. It's quite good, yes. Even now, sometimes I ask for tapioca with chilli samba in my house."

However, it was war and the 44 months of Japanese Occupation that transformed JBJ from being a shy person to becoming out-spoken and independent:

"Looking back, I had by then completely grown out of my shyness and even my timidity. I think the Japanese Occupation saw to that. I was able to even take my own initiatives and things and looked after myself. So I think, that was one of the valuable lessons that I'd learnt during the Japanese Occupation. You're forced to grow up and take care of yourself and be responsible for your life in some ways."

After the Japanese Occupation, JBJ continued his education in St. Andrew's School in Singapore. Despite pressure from his parents to study medicine, he went on to do law in University College, London.

"Then 1948... or before 1948, the son of Dr D D Chelliah whom my father had gone to see to get me admitted, left for England and I think he told me was going into University College London to study law. So I think that probably decided the college for me and of course, I had known of University College being the premier college for the London University and that it had been founded by Benthem. That Mahatma Gandhi had studied law at the University College. So sometime in 1948, before I even sat for my entrance, I sent in my application to University College for admission as a law student... To my great delight, I was told some two months later that I had been accepted..."

JBJ graduated in 1951 and joined the Singapore Legal Service the following year. In the next ten years, he rose to the post of Registrar of the Supreme Court and finally head of the Subordinate Court Judiciary.

"My first inclination, as I said, or liking for law began in Muar when I went to see Temple Philips and Anbi Pillai in court battling as it were. I suppose at that time, it was this stage drama that appeal to me. But over the years after that, I could see that if one wanted to take any part in public life, one had... or that law was the better training than any other profession and of course, it is. But I think partly because in 1946, 47, it was people like John Laycock was a lawyer, who was in the Legislative or Executive Council; someone the British had appointed. All the time inside me was this urge to go into public life, not so much achieving high office but to do public service. That was one of the reasons why I joined the Legal Service when I graduated. I didn't immediately think of going into private practice. My idea that, or my thinking was that life should be one of public service rather than serving oneself first. So I think it's just a combination of all these."

JBJ was elected to Parliament on 31 October 1981 after winning the Anson By-Election. He recalled how he felt at that time:

"My immediate feeling was one of great relief... I thank God for the victory and I said, "There was a new dawn, a new beginning for Singapore... The crowd burst into thunderous applause... The one person whom I would have liked to be present with me (referring to his wife, Margaret Walker) was not present. But I am sure she would be happy. I know my son (Philip) was in the crowd and I called for him and he came forward and we hugged one another and we stood embraced for, it could not have been more than a minute. But the next day, the newspaper reported that it seemed eternity."

Entering into politics did not affect his family commitment. To his family, JBJ was a devoted husband and father of two. He married Margaret Cynthia Walker, whom he met when they were both studying law in University College, London in February 1957, after an eight year courtship.

"I can honestly say that ours was a happy marriage together. Or course we had our quarrels. I can't think of a marriage life where there were no quarrels from time to time. But none of the quarrels threatened the marriage, threatened the breakdown, I think it is fair to say that we were still deeply in love with one another."

In 1977, Margaret was diagnosed with cancer. JBJ stood by her during her treatment and until her passing on 10 April 1980.

"I used to go and see her when she was in hospital. She was in Gleneagles. Before I went to work, I used to go and see her. Once I really got a shock because when I went, I saw someone sitting at the window, the hair has become completely white. I didn't think it was Margaret but it was... But on one of these mornings she told me that she had been told, I don't know if she had said it was God but she said, "Do you know I have been told I have to go through the door and I have to go alone. That you and Kenneth and Philip will not follow me." I think that was the message to her that she was going to leave. She has to go through the door herself...

I think it was very very painful for her although she had her sister and I think that was one consolation for her. But it was quite painful for her. But she was still very thankful that she had found in me somebody because she told me about... The nurse telling her that, how regular I was in visiting her and spending time with her. And Margaret told someone, who told me later that, she regretted not having joined me much earlier because we waited almost six years before we eventually came together."

Quotes are extracted from the oral history interview of JBJ which is open access. To find out more, please refer to his interview, accession number 002932.

Workers' Party vote for Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam
Election poster of the Workers' Party featuring J B Jeyaretnam, 1980
Source: National Archives of Singapore, PO 4506/2006

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam meet the press
Member of Parliament for Anson, J B Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party, attending a forum chaired by Minister without Portfolio Ong Teng Cheong during his tour of Anson constituency and Bukit Purmei, 14 Oct 1984
Source: National Archives of Singapore, PCD 19980006742 - 0075

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam giving speech
J B Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party speaking during an election rally, 26 Aug 1988
Source: National Archives of Singapore, PCD 19980006384 - 0085

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam pledging
Workers' Party Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) J B Jeyaretnam taking oath as NCMP at the swearing-in ceremony during first session of the ninth parliament at Parliament House, 26 May 1997
Source: National Archives of Singapore, PCD 19990000353 - 0023