World News

Singapore opposition leader's funeral draws hundreds

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Over a thousand people attended the funeral of veteran Singapore opposition figure J.B. Jeyaretnam on Saturday, paying their last respects to a dogged human rights advocate who never gave up despite crippling lawsuits by members of the ruling party.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, popularly known as JBJ, died on Tuesday of heart failure at the age of 82. His funeral service took place at St Andrew’s Cathedral, the city-state’s main Anglican church where Jeyaretnam worshipped.

“I admire him greatly for his courage, his integrity and his perseverance,” said Chan Wai Han, 52, one of several people wearing tee-shirts with Jeyaretnam’s picture at the funeral. “He always spoke up for the common man.”

A fierce critic of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), Jeyaretnam became in 1981, the first opposition politician to break the PAP’s monopoly in parliament, where he frequently clashed with the country’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

He was repeatedly sued by senior PAP members over a 37-year career for making comments the ruling party said were libelous and was made a bankrupt, a status that barred him from standing for parliament.

“He and the PAP never saw eye to eye on any major political issue and he sought by all means to demolish the PAP and our system of government,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in a condolence letter to Jeyaretnam’s sons Kenneth and Philip.

“Unfortunately, this helped neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our Parliamentary tradition. Nevertheless, one has to respect Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam’s dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age,” the prime minister said.

Lee Hsien Loong is the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, who retains a post as “minister-mentor” in his son’s Cabinet.

In June this year, Jeyaretnam won approval to set up the Reform Party after paying off S$265,000 in defamation damages. The veteran politician said the new party would “reform the system of government, all sectors of society.”

Amnesty International on Saturday described him as “an unflinching campaigner for the rule of law - and for the whole spectrum of human rights.”

Over the years, Jeyaretnam paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in defamation damages to PAP leaders. Critics say PAP politicians use legal action to crush opposition, but party leaders say libel suits are necessary to protect their reputations.

Reporting by Kevin Lim and Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Valerie Lee