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Does having famous relatives help or hinder?

Will Punggol East residents vote for Kenneth Jeyaretnam or J.B. Jeyaretnam's son? -Singapolitics
Jermyn Chow

Wed, Jan 23, 2013

It may have been 12 years since the late opposition stalwart J.B. Jeyaretnam was in Parliament, but his presence looms large over the party he founded as a vehicle for his son to start his political career in the Punggol East by-election.

This was noticeable at the Reform Party rally on Sunday.

Not only was JBJ's face part of the rally backdrop, he was also front and centre in the speeches.

Throughout the night, all the speakers were keen to suggest that Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who now runs RP, is very much like his father and should be given the chance to continue his father's legacy.

RP chairman Andy Zhu, for instance called the younger Jeyaretnam a "chip off the old block" and said: "Like his father, he will bring a dash of colour, and a breath of fresh air to the otherwise stale Parliament."

It was a theme the crowd picked up on. Many chanted JBJ's name at several points during the rally and one man invoked the stalwart's nickname when he came up to Mr Jeyaretnam, 45, and asked: "Will you be the Lion of Singapore and Parliament, like your father?"

That some members in RP would want to remind people of JBJ is understandable. He was, at one time, Singapore's most prominent opposition figure. When he won a seat in Anson in 1981, he broke a 15-year PAP monopoly of seats in Parliament.

PAP's Koh Poh Koon runs into Reform Party's Kenneth Jeyaretnam
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST, TNP. MYP)

The question, however, is how much of the late JBJ's past popularity might have rubbed off on Kenneth Jeyaretnam in the present?

Indeed, trying to leverage on famous family ties is often tricky business and most politicians in Singapore tend to shy away from it.

In the 2001 General Election, for instance, the PAP candidates in West Coast GRC Arthur Fong and Ho Geok Choo did not make a big deal about their lineage. The two are the offspring of former Minister of State Fong Sip Chee and the first president of the National Trades Union Congress Ho See Beng.

More recently, the likes of Mr Desmond Lee, son of former minister Lee Yock Suan and Mr Desmond Choo, nephew of former MP Choo Wee Khiang, also largely kept mum about their familial links, except during media interviews when they were asked by reporters.

The only time politicians seem more open to talking about their famous parents is when their pedigree presents an unusual narrative for their political decisions.

When Dr Janil Puthucheary and Mr Ong Ye Kung contested the 2011 elections under the PAP banner, they could not avoid talk about their parents as both were children of former Barisan Socialis leaders.

Name-dropping famous parents is a double-edged sword. This tactic can help and also turn against you.

Instead of convincing people that you are a "chip off the old block", you might be seen as trying to live on past glories that you actually contributed little too.

The narrative of the son trying to continue his father's legacy can easily turn into a story about a son trying to make use of it.

The risk is greater for those in the PAP. Talk up your pedigree too much and you might even be accused of coasting the coattails of your well-connected parents.

Will Punggol East residents vote for Kenneth Jeyaretnam or J.B. Jeyaretnam's son?

Mr Jeyaretnam ic clearly conscious about the need to deftly balance any desire to ride on his father's brand with the need to step out of the JBJ shadow and present himself as someone who can hold his own.

On Sunday night, even as he evoked the memory of his father, in the same breath he insisted that people not vote for him just because of who his father is.

"I am the son of J.B. Jeyaretnam," he said, "Don't vote for me because of who I am. Don't vote for me because of sympathy. Vote for me to have a real promise of a better future."

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