Ng Teck Siong, Chairman of the new Reform Party, introducing the party at a press conference on Friday, 18 Apr 2008, at the Quality Hotel at Balestier Road
JBJ talks on Reform Party’s action plan and constitution
Q & A – Part 1
Q & A – Part 2
Cartoon from my sketchbook
SINGAPORE (AFP) – – A tough-talking new political party vowed on Friday to fight what it called the “enslavement” of Singapore after nearly half-a-century of rule by the People’s Action Party (PAP).
“Our people have been enslaved all this while,” J.B. Jeyaretnam, 82, interim secretary general of the Reform Party, told a news conference.
He said Singaporean society has been “castrated” and its people left powerless by an executive that holds “absolute power.”
For Jeyaretnam, a rare voice criticising the PAP over the past decades, the party’s formation marks his full return to politics after emerging from bankruptcy and being reinstated as a lawyer.
“We now in the Reform Party are not going to play pussy-foot with the PAP,” he told reporters at the close of a lengthy address which outlined what he sees as the country’s social, political and economic problems.
“I think it’s time now to ask questions and hold the PAP to account,” he said.
Party officials said they held the news conference a day after filing documents to register their party.
The opposition plays only a marginal role in Singapore but Jeyaretnam made political history in 1981 when he became the first opposition politician elected to parliament. He was then secretary general of the Workers’ Party.
The lawyer was disbarred when he was declared bankrupt in 2001 after failing to pay libel damages to members of the PAP, including former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.
During his bankruptcy, he was reduced to hawking his self-penned books outside city subway stations.
Last year Jeyaretnam paid 233,255 Singapore dollars (now 172,578 US) to clear his bankruptcy, which had prevented him from running for political office, after help from friends and his prominent lawyer son.
He was also reinstated to the bar and has resumed legal practice.
On Friday, Jeyaretnam said he did not care whether Singapore’s “obedient press” reported his comments — which continued for 80 minutes.
“Some things have to be said,” he stated as he began the speech.
He said Singapore, which prides itself on having ‘First World’ status, faces a widening gulf between rich and poor.
Government leaders earn millions but many families survive on one or two thousand dollars a month (605-1,1210 US), yet nobody speaks up, he said.
“There is, I don’t have to tell you, a fear culture in Singapore,” Jeyaretnam said. “It’s a total enslavement of the people.”
He said the party’s registration documents contained the names of only 10 people — and even attracting that many was not easy.
“People are still afraid,” he said.
Asked whether his news conference in a hotel meeting room was being monitored by police, he replied: “I’m sure that it is.”
Jeyaretnam said he hopes not only to reform the structure of the Singapore system but also people’s way of thinking, to rouse them from a PAP-induced “slumber.”
Jeyaretnam said that, if he is physically able, he will stand as a candidate in the next general election due by 2011.
He called for a complete overhaul of the electoral system, which he said places opposition parties at a disadvantage. The PAP won all but two seats in last year’s polls for the 84-member parliament.
The country’s leaders say its tough laws against dissent and other political activity are necessary to ensure the stability which has helped it achieve economic success. Thousands of foreign firms are based in Singapore, one of the most politically stable countries in the region.
The leaders dismiss criticisms from human rights groups who have said the government uses libel laws to silence critics, saying they have to protect their reputations.
Jeyaratnam spoke at a table with two other party officials beside him. To their left stood a white board which carried only two words in blue ink: “Reform Party.”