By Gillian Wong, Associated Press Writer, 18 Apr 2008

J B JeyaretnamSINGAPORE – A veteran Singapore opposition figure said Friday his new political party will press for more help to the city-state’s poor and strive to empower citizens by raising awareness of their rights.

Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, who turned 82 in January, also said that he will contest the next parliamentary election, due by 2011, if his health permits.

“If I’m still here, if I’m still fit – of course,” he said when asked if he planned to run in an election. “I thank God that I’m still able. I don’t suffer from any major illnesses, diabetes, or asthma, or anything.”

In 1981, Jeyaretnam became the first opposition politician elected to Parliament since Singapore’s independence from Malaysia in 1965.

He was declared bankrupt in 2001 when he failed to pay more than S$600,000 (US$367,000; euro308,500) in damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s predecessors Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and others.

Jeyaretnam emerged from bankruptcy last year after paying off damages from defamation lawsuits filed by the country’s leaders. Being solvent again makes him eligible to run in elections.

He told reporters he submitted an application Thursday to register the Reform Party as a political party and that it would take up to two months to be approved.

The new party would first reach out to Singaporeans to remind them of their political rights, of which Jeyaretnam said they have been deprived by the ruling People’s Action Party, or PAP, in the tightly controlled city-state.

“The battle plan is to try and energize our people, to rouse them from this slumber into which the PAP has led them,” Jeyaretnam said, while pledging to press the ruling party on a number of issues affecting the poor.

The PAP, which came to power in 1959, holds 82 out of 84 elected seats in Parliament.

He said the party will ask the government to remove a sales tax for basic necessities, including some foods, medicine and schoolbooks; improve the public health care system; and question the million-dollar salaries of Cabinet ministers, among other issues.

“I think it’s time for us to ask the questions and hold the PAP to account,” he said.

The party currently comprises ten members, the minimum required to register a political party, but would recruit more after it is registered, Jeyaretnam said.

He acknowledged that finding the first ten members just to register the party had been a challenge, which he attributed to a fear of joining the opposition.

“It’s not been easy, let me tell you, because simply that people are still afraid,” he said. “You can’t scoff at this idea of fear in Singapore. It’s very real, I know it.”

Singapore says its political system has democratic features, including elections, but that it does not seek a freewheeling, Western-style democracy that could foment tension and even chaos. Authorities tightly restrict speech and assembly, saying such controls provide the stability that has helped turn Singapore into a global economic powerhouse.