Joined: 24 September 2007
Joined: 09 August 2008
Joined: 24 September 2007
ARMED with a Cambridge University law degree, Mr Philip Jeyaretnam thought it would not be too tough to clinch a job back in Singapore.
Instead, the first-class honours degree holder had the doors of law firms slammed in his face, one after another. But one reply really rankled him.
'Not recruiting,' said the big law firm. Yet when his friend applied to the same firm, she was invited for an interview.
It was a 'pretty ridiculous situation' which led him to conclude that the brush-off had something to do with his family name ' one which is viewed by many as being on the wrong side of the establishment.
He is the younger son of late opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam, who ' with his fiery speeches, thick sideburns and gravelly voice ' was at one point a one-man fighting machine against the ruling People's Action Party (PAP).
Yet his father's political battles were the very reason he chose to return after graduation: to stay by his side and give him support ' from legal advice to attending his opposition events.
But if he was expecting the warmth with which he re-embraced his homeland to be reciprocated by the Singapore system, he was in for a disappointment. It would take many a twist and turn before he was able to come in from the cold to take his place in his profession and in society.
Today, if he needed an affirmative answer as to whether he would be welcomed, his recent appointment to the Public Service Commission (PSC) would provide the clearest signal yet.
He joins a panel, which includes 10 other professionals and businessmen, tasked with selecting government scholars and deciding on the promotions and postings of senior civil servants.
It is a non-partisan position but is as closely linked to the Government as it can get; one which cements his crossover to the establishment.
Despite deviating from his father's political path, he believes the elder Mr Jeyaretnam, who died last year, would have been proud of his new role.
'I have no doubt that my father would be very happy for me,' he says, looking visibly relaxed as he lounges on a sofa in his high-ceiling living room filled with bright sunlight.
'It would not have been terribly different from how happy he was for me when I graduated from Officer Cadet School or when I was made a Senior Counsel ' and the following year, when I became president of the Law Society.'
Indeed, there have been many feathers in his cap. But life had not always been smooth-sailing for the 45-year-old writer and lawyer, who bared his thoughts and feelings in a 90-minute interview at his Upper Bukit Timah home.
At times, his nasal chuckle would reverberate across the cavernous space ' adding to the homely sounds of his wife and mother-in-law pottering in the kitchen, and his three children watching television in the den downstairs.
At other times, he stared beyond the glass doors into the gardens as he spoke, giving long and thoughtful answers.
A Singaporean outsider
AS HE was growing up, he was kept out of the education system here by his lawyer-parents, who fell in love while studying in University College London.
His British mother wanted her two children to receive an 'English education'. So both Philip and his elder brother Kenneth studied in international schools here and, later, boarding schools in Britain where they did their A levels.
His father's foray into opposition politics, after leaving the judiciary, was another reason why they were shielded from the Singapore system.
'Those were the days when you had to have a certificate of suitability to get into the University of Singapore,' he recalls.
'My father was understandably concerned about insulating us from any political fallout from his being in the opposition.'
Those fears were apparently real, not perceived. For example, he said that during his national service (NS), he was informed that his security clearance was lower than that of others. He presumed it was because of his father, who made political history with his win at Anson around that time, in the 1981 by-election which broke the PAP's monopoly in Parliament.
Later, after attending an advanced training course for officers, some of his coursemates who were interviewed by the military's security department told him that 'mostly, they were asking questions about you'.
These episodes, however, did not put him off the idea of getting a military scholarship as he enjoyed his NS days. But he remembers his 'father's face dropping' when his opinion was sought.
A government scholarship and a career in the civil service was also out of the question, he adds, noting the irony of his current PSC appointment.
The only option was to study in a foreign university, on his father's 'scholarship', which eventually became a financial strain because of the opposition MP's legal tangles. Two months after the late Mr Jeyaretnam's 1984 re-election, he was charged with allegedly mis-stating his Workers' Party's (WP) accounts.
Luckily, Mr Philip Jeyaretnam managed to complete his studies at Cambridge and returned home in 1986 amid the political maelstrom which led to his father being disbarred as a lawyer, going to prison and being expelled from Parliament.
What brought him back, he says, was 'the thought that with my father under attack, I had to be back here with him'.
The other reason was his then-girlfriend and now-wife Cindy, 45, whom he met in Cambridge. She was a PSC scholarship holder who had to return to Singapore to serve her bond.
So even though Britain beckoned with a life of comfort and charm as he had the right qualifications and was in the top set of chambers, the 22-year-old followed his heart home ' only to be rebuffed by potential employers here.
He recounts how a senior partner at one top law firm apologised for not being able to hire him, as his other partners had 'concerns'.
He finally found a job with a newly set-up firm, Robert Wang and Woo, headed by his father's friend, Mr Woo Tchi Chu.
He moved on to Helen Yeo and Partners, which was run by the wife of former transport minister Yeo Cheow Tong. The firm later merged with Rodyk and Davidson ' coincidentally, the first firm his mother worked for when she came to Singapore.
Will young lawyers face similar discrimination now? 'It jolly well should have changed. I certainly hope so and I can say for a fact that in my law firm, it wouldn't be an issue,' he says.
My father and me
AS HE built up his law career, he made sure he never failed to support his father in his legal troubles ' behind the scenes.
'I didn't represent him because I thought that I'd be too emotionally involved, but I helped him all the time with his responses to legal matters'In fact, it took up quite a bit of time at various points of my life.'
His father was involved in several lawsuits over the years, which caused him to be declared a bankrupt in 2001.
But he did emerge from the shadows from time to time.
When his father led the WP team in the hotly contested Cheng San GRC in the 1997 polls, he asked son Philip if he could introduce him and his family at a rally.
Sure, Mr Philip Jeyaretnam replied. So he, his wife and elder son Tristan ' who was then two years old and asleep in a pram ' greeted Cheng San voters on stage.
Some, however, expressed reservations over his appearance at such events.
'People said to me, 'Should you really be doing that if you're not in politics?' I said, 'I'm his son and if he wants me to be there to frame him as a family, of course I can do that',' he asserts.
When his father set up the Reform Party last year after emerging from bankruptcy with financial help from both sons, Mr Philip Jeyaretnam attended the dinner to launch the opposition party, along with his second son Quentin, who is now 12.
While he stood by his father, he made it clear that he did not intend to follow in his political footsteps.
'There were times when I did think that I wanted to go into politics as well'but I realised after a while that it was not the life I wanted, that I'm not a political animal,' he reveals.
'I was really motivated mostly by love for my father and the fact that his wife had died; there was nobody else for him.'
Mr Philip Jeyaretnam's mother, Madam Margaret Walker, died of cancer in 1980, missing her husband's first electoral victory a year later.
Apart from his lack of stomach for politics, he was also worried that a political career could compromise his writing. He would lose a certain detachment to write what he wanted, says the award-winning writer.
'I told my father this; I'm sure he was a little disappointed,' he says of his decision that was firmed up in the early to mid-1990s.
But despite his repeated declarations, there is constant public speculation over his intentions ' especially after the death of his 82-year-old father in September last year.
'People wrote to me and said: 'Oh, you have to take up the baton.' I've always answered in the same way''I don't think my character is right for it'.'
While he eschewed politics, he has not shied away from taking up public positions, the latest as a member of the PSC.
The reaction from Singaporeans has been predictable. 'Has he been co-opted by the Government?' netizens queried after his appointment ceremony last week.
He sees it another way.
'The reason for this reaction stems from an identification of the state with a particular political party. And that is wrong,' he counters.
'The breakthrough which Singapore needs to make is to have an establishment which encompasses the full range of political opinions within the constitutional set-up of Singapore.'
New image for PSC
SAFEGUARDING the independence of the PSC is the key reason why he said 'yes' to its chairman, Mr Eddie Teo, who had approached him a few months ago.
Mr Teo, Singapore's former spy chief and diplomat, took over the top PSC post last year and was looking for ways to refresh the membership. Younger members and women came on board early this year, with Mr Jeyaretnam being the latest addition.
But he hesitated for more than a month. He was unsure if he could spare so much time to interview scholarship candidates, as his principal priority was to steer his law firm through these uncertain times.
Eventually, he agreed as he enjoyed interacting with young people. He also wanted to play a 'guardianship role' within the PSC to ensure the independence and integrity of the civil service.
He concurs with Mr Teo's advice to scholarship candidates not to give politically correct or pro-government answers just to please the panel.
'Well, I suppose one of the reasons for my being on an interview panel is that it makes it harder for the interviewees to second-guess what the panel might be wanting to hear,' he says, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
'They'll be torn between saying that they want to have the death penalty abolished to please me, and saying the opposite to please somebody else.'
His advice: Don't offer bland views or outrageous ones that cannot be substantiated. 'When you're 18, you're entitled to try out different viewpoints. Part of the fun of being smart and young is actually to argue different sides of the coin.'
WHILE he remains a non-political figure, he knows he can never escape the political ties to his famous family.
After all, his elder brother Kenneth took over the reins from his father and is now heading the Reform Party.
Asked how he feels about this, he pauses and seems to struggle for an answer.
'We have always respected each other's choices in life and we have made slightly different choices,' he says.
The Jeyaretnam brothers studied in Cambridge, where they graduated among the top of their cohort ' Kenneth, in economics and brother Philip, in law.
Both came back to work in Singapore, but brother Kenneth was posted overseas and eventually became a hedge fund manager in London before returning recently.
But is he happy that his brother stepped up to the political plate? Was there a concern about carrying on the family name?
'I'm not a believer in dynasties at all,' he replies. 'I don't think there's any need to carry on a particular name and certainly, the last thing I would ever expect of my children is that they should become writers, or they should become lawyers, or they should support my (favourite) football clubs, or any of those things.'
For the record, he supports Arsenal, which his father used to root for too. But he did not follow his father. It was the other way around.
'He followed me because he knew I was very passionate in my support for Arsenal, and so he became quite a strong supporter,' he says.
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