JBJ: My Dad, My Hero

22 May 2006, Straits Times

His father is veteran opposition politician JBJ, but lawyer and writer
Philip Jeyaretnam has no plans to enter politics

HE MAY be known best as the offspring of a veteran opposition
politician, but lawyer and Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam does not
want to see his life reduced to the tagline ‘JBJ’s son’. JBJ is how
many Singaporeans refer to his father, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam.

‘It can be annoying,’ says the younger Jeyaretnam, 42, of the tagline.
He’s meeting Life! at his office at law firm Rodyk & Davidson in UOB
Plaza.

It had been more than annoying when he tried to get work here in the
late 1980s, after graduating with first-class honours in law from
Cambridge University in 1986.

The mild-mannered man says, without any bitterness: ‘There was no
doubt in my mind that people were not giving me the job because of who
my father was.’

Two firms, which he declines to name, turned him down, with a senior
partner at one of them divulging apologetically the firm’s concerns
over who his father was. Eventually, Singapore law firm Robert Wang &
Woo took him on as a pupil in 1988.

That aside, he makes it clear that he is glad to be his father’s son.
He remembers excitedly following his father on campaign walks as a
12-year-old.

His Dad, who is now 80, is still struggling with his resulting
bankruptcy and disbarment in the aftermath of losing defamation suits
brought against him by members of the Government.

Asked if he sees his father as a hero, the younger Jeyaretnam replies
emphatically: ‘Yes, of course.’

He is more careful with Life!’s other questions, pausing for long
minutes before he answers. At one point, you ask him something as
simple as what he has been reading lately and he mutters to himself,
brows furrowed in earnest concentration: ‘I’m just trying to work it
through, think it through.’

He laughs often throughout this interview, a nasal chuckle reminiscent
of the character Peter Griffin from the cult animated cartoon Family Guy.

But, aside from the spectacles and chubby cheeks, the resemblance ends
there.

The younger Jeyaretnam is driven by a need to understand, whether it
is by piecing together the arguments for a case or by penetrating the
inner life of a character in one of his many short stories.

A commercial litigator who specialises in the time-guzzling area of
construction law, he handles such clients as Japanese-owned Nishimatsu
Construction Company, which was involved in the 2004 collapse of
Nicoll Highway.

Still, the former Fulbright fellow sees to his work so deftly, he
makes it home for dinner with his family every night.

He and his wife, former stage actress Cindy Sim, also 42, have three
children: Tristan, 11, Quentin, nine, and Miranda, six.

‘The core of anything else is always the family,’ says the man who
finds time to tuck his two boys into bed every night, often with a
poem, and spends an hour with his daughter in the Botanic Gardens
before making it to work by 8.10am daily.

Protected From Politics

HIS own childhood was not so picture-perfect, although it began
happily enough.

The younger of two sons, his father is of Ceylon Tamil descent and his
mother, the late Margaret Cynthia Walker, was British.

His parents, both devout Anglicans, fell in love when they were
reading law at University College London, and ended up as partners
together in Singapore of their own firm, J B Jeyaretnam & Company.

As his father was called to the bar later than his mother, his father
would often refer to his wife as his ‘senior partner’.

His elder brother Kenneth, 47, also a Cambridge alumnus, lives in
London and works in finance.

Growing up, the younger Jeyaretnam was closer to his mother, as she
worked only half-days and, as the elder Jeyaretnam tells Life!, would
protect his sons from the ‘whirlpool of politics’. Recalling holidays
in Britain with his mother, the younger Jeyaretnam says: ‘My father
was supposed to join us but never quite made it. An election was
called, or there’d be a pile-up of cases, or whatever.’

So it was a cruel blow to them when, in 1980, his mother died after a
three-year-long fight with breast cancer.

Recalling when he learnt of her illness, he turns sober, his lawyer’s
memory for dates suddenly seeming a liability: ‘It was April 10, 1978,
and I had just turned 16.’

Not long after that, his father won the 1981 Anson by-election and
became an opposition MP.

The elder Jeyaretnam later found himself fighting a series of
defamation suits and, as his son puts it, ‘there wasn’t anyone to
protect us’ now that his mother was gone.

The legal action against his father took its toll on his family.

‘It was kind of touch-and-go… If I had been two or three years
younger, my father wouldn’t have been able to send me to university at
all.’

But when asked if he thinks his father sacrificed family for the sake
of politics, he pauses for a long while and says finally: ‘No, I think
my father’s always done what he could to protect his family.’

Having chalked up 18 years in the law – and the coveted title of
Senior Counsel – himself, the younger Jeyaretnam now leads his legal
brethren here.

He has been president of the Law Society here since 2004 and is an
adjunct professor at the Department of Building in the National
University of Singapore.

He says he is concerned about the future of young lawyers – whether he
is pushing for better life-work balance for them or simply teaching
them the finer points of advocacy and arbitration. Somehow, he has
found time to serve on the boards of the National Arts Council, the
Singapore Tourism Board and the new National Kidney Foundation Board.

Such a CV is the stuff of future politicians, but he says he is not
switching careers anytime soon.

He says: ‘I’ve thought about it over the years. So far the answer has
always been no.’

Then, bursting into laughter, he adds: ‘I’m a very gentle soul;
sensitive. I don’t have the stomach for it.’

He then muses: ‘My father was more than just materially secure; he was
very well-off, certainly one of the top criminal lawyers in Singapore.
And where is he now?’

He says he respects his father for having ‘sacrificed everything for
what he believes in’ but adds that he does not think anyone would want
‘to repeat that kind of career trajectory’.

As he puts it: ‘He’s deeply loved by many people, but maybe love isn’t
enough… You can’t live on admiration and respect.’

That said, he says he is close to his father today and sees him at
least once a week. His father lives alone, splitting his time between
Singapore and Johor Baru. They discuss law, politics or simply talk as
fathers and sons do.

While son has never represented father in court, the elder Jeyaretnam
tells Life! that his lawyer son has given him legal advice – and
financial assistance. ‘They’ve been good sons,’ he says of both his
children.

No More The Scribe

BESIDES politics, writing is another path that the younger Jeyaretnam
has veered from, despite treading it for some years. His first
published short story Campfire, which he wrote during his National
Service stint, won him second prize in the 1983 National Short Story
writing competition.

He went on to publish short stories, a novella and two novels, winning
the Young Artist Of The Year award in 1993 and the South-East Asia
Write Award in 2003.

To be fair, bearing the name Jeyaretnam has also helped him. As he
puts it: ‘If people remember your name, the chance of them buying your
book… is that much greater.’

Indeed, he had become such an icon of home-grown literature that his
last novel, Abraham’s Promise (1995), had recently been part of the
O-levels syllabus.

But he hardly writes now, citing the increasing demands of his family
and legal work.

Writing is, as he puts it, ‘a luxury which I can’t afford at the
moment’. He doubts his novel- in-progress, which he has not touched in
years, will ever ‘see the light of day’, even as he says that his
possibly decades-long time-out from writing is just a ‘holiday’.

That is ironic coming from a man who bemoans: ‘It’s one of the real
problems of Singapore now… the way work eats up people’s time to the
extent that they have no time for anything else’. Too often, he says,
Singaporean writers come out with an interesting book when they are in
their 20s – and then simply disappear after that.

He thinks he is following the same route, but remains a ‘great
believer in the value of writing’.

Like his father, he has his own vision for Singapore, saying that his
involvement in the arts, tourism and the law are all connected.

He says he’d like to see ‘more untidiness and openness’ in the
Singapore of the future.

His plan of action to that end, however, differs from his father’s.

‘You have to find the centre, the point where you can bring together
agreement from enough people in order to make that change happen.’

So, while he thinks voices from the margins are crucial, he believes a
middle ground needs to be forged between what he sees as the otherwise
‘fossilised’ roles of establishment and anti-establishment.

As he puts it: ‘The outsider role can become rather comfortable; it is
one without responsibility, perhaps.’

Philip Jeyaretnam on…

Why he chose to study history and literature instead of law: ‘If one
has no social responsibilities and has no need to compromise, then
obviously the pursuit of knowledge is the most exciting and enjoyable
thing for a human being’

What he sees as the work-efficiency- materialism trap in Singapore
today: ‘They lead ultimately very miserable lives which they enliven
by spending money. They don’t have time, they have only money, so they
buy themselves a nice car or whatever, but in the end they don’t have
the time to enjoy these things – or life’

His belief that there is a lack of political discourse among
overworked Singaporeans: ‘Singapore is not comfortable politically;
Singapore is not comfortable economically. Anyone who is complacent in
Singapore is putting a paper bag over his head’.

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About soci
Lived in Singapore for 6 wonderful years and has been blogging since 2003, under various names but always on Singaporean issues.

4 Responses to JBJ: My Dad, My Hero

  1. Anonymous says:

    Then why didn’t he help to get his father out of bankruptcy??

    Dun tell me that he, being a lawyer, did not have the $$$ to pay for his dad???

  2. Anonymous says:

    Then why didn’t he help to get his father out of bankruptcy??

    Dun tell me that he, being a lawyer, did not have the $$$ to pay for his dad???

  3. Anonymous says:

    as soon as that came near, someone decided that JBJ had to pay more money, and prevented him from clearance before the election (I expected the delay would happen)

    so maybe Philip J thought it was all a waste of time and money

  4. Anonymous says:

    as soon as that came near, someone decided that JBJ had to pay more money, and prevented him from clearance before the election (I expected the delay would happen)

    so maybe Philip J thought it was all a waste of time and money

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