Interview for Today newspaper in 2010, which explains a little bit about me.
SINGAPORE: It has been almost a year since Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam was persuaded to take over the leadership of the Reform Party, following the death of its founder – his father JB Jeyaretnam (JBJ). The 50-year-old former hedge fund manager, who gave up his job to focus on politics full-time, says that at the time the Opposition party was a “drifting, rudderless empty vessel”.
While Mr Jeyaretnam sees his work as a continuation of his father’s lifelong mission, he also wants to be seen as “his own man” with his own brand of “economically-competent” politics. And perhaps having witnessed firsthand his father’s costly legal battles, he recently told Loh Chee Kong that he wants the Reform Party to steer clear of legal minefields.
‘I’ve got nothing to hide’
Why did you enter politics? Was it what your father expected of you? And is the JBJ legacy a boon or a bane to your own political career?
My father had always hoped that one of us (Kenneth or his younger brother Philip Jeyaretnam) would follow him into politics … My father’s legacy is not really an issue any more because I’m seen as my own man.
When we did our walkabout with the Singapore Democratic Alliance last Sunday, I was sitting with my members at a table (at the void deck of a block of flats) and a guy at the next table said: “Hi Kenneth, how’s it going?” People do come up and approach me now.
You had previously kept a low profile. Were you prepared for the media scrutiny?
I’m ready for any scrutiny – I’ve got nothing to hide. Obviously, it’s an uphill struggle to get your message across in the mainstream media. But because of the rise of the new media, we’ve been getting our message across … but we have to be in control of the content.
One of the things I’m concerned about is that we don’t put out anything that is potentially libellous, inflammatory or seditious, that could lead to potential legal problems.
You have spent a large part of your life overseas. Will that count against you getting elected? Can you relate to the average Singaporean?
Let’s get it straight: Do you think that I left Singapore by choice? I couldn’t get a job here.
I had a “double first” (first-class honours in two separate subjects) from Cambridge. After I graduated in 1983 – which was two years after my father was elected into Parliament – I wanted to return to Singapore.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore rejected my application after one round of interviews. A lot of financial institutions and banks also rejected my applications.
Anyway, I’m not here to whine. I’ve succeeded in London. I’ve built a successful career in the financial sector and in hedge fund management. It has given me a perspective of seeing how an open, democratic society operates.
People find me approachable, proactive, capable – even though some people say I speak with an English accent.
‘The party was in a bad state’
It’s been almost a year since you took over leadership of the Reform Party. What was the experience like?
When I was elected as secretary-general, it was actually a bit of a shock because I found the party was in quite a bad state. It was like a drifting, rudderless empty vessel. Morale had dwindled, the number of members had decreased and there hadn’t been central executive committee meetings for about four or five months …
But since then, the responses I’ve gotten have been much more than I expected. We’ve definitely created a watershed in Singapore politics. For the first time, you’ve got an Opposition party that is perceived as economically competent, credible, and proposing alternative policies that could really make a difference or change Singapore.
With your brand of politics, are you trying to appeal to the intelligentsia?
We appeal to all sections of Singapore. I went on a house-to-house visit in West Coast GRC recently in a low-income area. We got a very enthusiastic response there … there haven’t been elections there for 20 years.
We appeal to the professional classes because of our economic policies and perceived economic competence. We definitely appeal to most Singaporeans who think there should be more opposition in Parliament – that we need to move towards a two-party system.
Rising property prices is one area that the Reform Party is concerned about. How would the party do things differently from the Government?
There’s a conflict of interest in the Government’s role as the owner of 79 per cent of the land and the provider of housing … they have a vested interest in seeing property prices rise. We’ve said that we would like to see more private sector competition with the HDB in the provision of low-cost housing.
I don’t think this would lead to lower quality because first, you have a regulator to ensure that standards are maintained. Second, competition usually leads to higher quality.
If you get into Parliament, do you see yourself as a full-time Member of Parliament? What would your priorities be?
I’m already a full-time politician and I’ll certainly devote the major part of my time. Being an MP is not the ultimate objective, because every political party’s objective should be to get to be the government and that’s what I’ll be working for.
The PAP may be against the two-party system but it’s inevitable, as we have seen in Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. The problem with the one-party system is not corruption – at least not in Singapore because the Government is not corrupt – but it leads to a society closed to new ideas, with too many “yes men”.
‘We are fairly united’
What is your take on the state of Opposition unity here?
You can’t force Opposition unity but I think it will definitely happen. That’s the basis of our purported alliance with the SDA (Singapore Democratic Alliance) – it would not be to just fight an election but to coordinate our actions in Parliament.
We don’t all have to agree on exactly the same policies, but we all have the same objective, so it would be wrong to talk about Opposition disunity. We are fairly united.
If you team up with the SDA’s Chiam See Tong to contest a Group Representation Constituency, wouldn’t you find yourself in the shadow of a veteran Opposition figure?
Mr Chiam is much-loved and respected by his constituents. He has done a great job in Potong Pasir. But let’s be frank: In a democratic country, if a party has failed for 25 years to expand its base beyond one seat in Parliament then I think the leaders would have been voted out.
Mr Chiam and I share the same view that the purpose of a political party is to form a government. He has spoken many times about the Opposition forming, not at the next General Election but by the election after that, to be in a position to be seen as an alternative government – which is something the Reform Party has also said.
I can’t comment on our election strategy. It’s completely shocking that we haven’t seen the boundaries … that is grossly unfair to the Opposition.
What do you hope Singaporeans see Kenneth Jeyaretnam as?
I hope that I’ll be seen as somebody who transformed Singapore politics – I hope that doesn’t sound too arrogant – and who made (participating in politics) seem like a normal and patriotic duty, rather than something to be shunned or avoided out of fear.
The writer is a freelance correspondent.