21 May 2007

Singapore opposition veteran to form new party

Sun May 20, 2007 3:02 PM IST

By Sebastian Tong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's veteran opposition politician J.B. Jeyaretnam said on Sunday he plans to form a new political party to push for reform of the city-state's authoritarian political system.

Jeyaretnam, who led the opposition Workers' Party until 2001, was discharged from bankruptcy earlier this month after paying off damages in defamation suits brought by government leaders.

He was declared bankrupt in 2001 after failing to pay S$265,000 ($173,900) in defamation damages to plaintiffs that included then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and then Foreign Affairs Minister S. Jayakumar.

Jeyaretnam told a press briefing that he and a handful of supporters had begun work to register the new party and would try to attract support from Singaporeans eager for political reform.

"(This is) a party which will have as its main objective a complete and thorough change in the way this country is run -- no tinkering," Jeyaretnam, 81, said.

"Reform will be the main plank -- reform the system of government, all sectors of society," he said, adding that the group could be named 'The Reform Party'.

Jeyaretnam, who had to have reporters' questions repeated to him because of his poor hearing, said the new party would seek to contest in the next general poll, scheduled in 2011.

"I don't see why not -- unless the government moves against me again. I would like to be there," he said.

Jeyaretnam was the first opposition politician to win a seat in parliament in 1981. An acerbic critic and fiery speaker, he has long been a thorn in the side of the People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled uninterrupted since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 and dominates the country's parliament.

The PAP, which has never lost more than four seats in any poll since 1965, won 82 out of the 84 seats in the last general election in May 2006. As in several previous elections, many of the wards were walkovers for the PAP because Singapore's tiny opposition parties did not manage to field candidates.

PAP leaders have brought defamation lawsuits against Jeyaretnam and several other opposition figures. After losing numerous libel lawsuits, Jeyaretnam was bankrupted, which prevented him from running for election and from practising as a lawyer.

Rights groups such as Amnesty International say the lawsuits are designed to stifle dissent, but PAP leaders say they are necessary to safeguard their reputation.

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