Francis Seow and Tang Fong Har promise not to back down

~by: Ellery A~

“Singapore has sufficient laws (other than the ISA) in place to effect public order” – Francis Seow

I know it may not happen in a thousand years but I will not back down until the Singapore government issues an official apology” – Tang Fong Har

With the Internal Security Act (ISA) being the current hot topic in Singapore, about 150 people gathered in the Diamond Room within Quality Hotel, on the 8th of October,  for a dialogue session organized by the Singapore Democratic Party: “Silenced No More: A conversation with Francis Seow and Tang Fong Har”.

Francis Seow is a former Solicitor-General who was elected as President of the Council of the Law Society in 1976. His appointment led to confrontations with then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew over the role of the Law Society in legislation. He also ran for the 1988 General Elections in a Workers’ Party team. However just before the elections, he was detained without trial for 72 days under the ISA; accused of having received funds from the United States. He later left the country and was convicted in absentia. He now resides in Massachusetts.

Tang Fong Har is a lawyer who was detained in 1987 during Operation Spectrum under the ISA. She stated that while detained, she was physically abused and forced to admit guilt of subversion of state. She was released on 12 September 1987 and subsequently left Singapore. She now resides in Hong Kong.

Francis Seow began with a sharing on his ISA ordeal. He said that the government did not accuse him of Marxism, rather they alleged that he was under the influence of the United States’ CIA. “Either way, they win”, he said with a wry smile.

The floor was then opened to members of the public, political figures and inquiring journalists to pose their questions. A notable question from one individual dwelled on whether the removal of ISA would be a risky move, exposing the nation to terrorist threats.

Without hesitation, Francis slammed this notion, saying that the Singapore had sufficient laws in place to effect public order. Seow also regularly talked about then Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew referring to his experiences with the man. “I worked with Lee Kwan Yew, given half the chance, he will manipulate you all again”.

A certain sadness rested upon Francis Seow, as he recounted his failed attempt to renew his expired Singapore passport. Sadness turned to understandable bitterness and cynicism towards Singapore’s judiciary system. “I have no hope for the judiciary system”, he remarked, stating that the judiciary and the ruling party worked “hand in hand”.

However, it seemed that Francis was divided in his opinions. On one hand, he advocated the abolishment of the ISA, trusting that Singapore had other laws that would not leave it vulnerable. On the other hand, his troubled past appeared to have stripped him of whatever faith he had in Singapore’s government and legal institutions. It would give the impression that abolishing a single law would not be enough if the whole system is wrong.

Nonetheless, Francis did not look to be in defeat. Rather, he still had in him a strong sense of justice and a fiery spirit that showed strongly, even on screen.

Next up was Tang Fong Har, calling from her home in Hong Kong. The questions directed to her seemed more personal and Fong Har answered them honestly. At times, Fong Har wore her heart on her sleeve, showing that she was still emotionally affected by that dark period of Singapore’s history so many years ago.

When asked whether she regretted doing what she did in the past, she shook her head. “If anything, I regret doing too little”, she said, to loud applause from the audience. Tang replied that those who stayed in Singapore were “the unsung heroes, they should be applauded”, referring to the eight who were detained again after Operation Spectrum.

Fong Har’s story was an emotional one and her narrative was marked with honesty. “I have a grudge against so many people” she admitted, adding that she would not back down until the ruling party issued an “official apology”.

However, several questioned the relevancy of an issue that seemed almost buried in the past. Would the younger generation care about the stories of the detainees? And if they did, what would they do about it? Fong Har responded by emphasizing that she would not impose on the new generation. Instead, she said that there were far more crucial social issues weighing down on our society.

Instead she wanted people to be aware of what happened all those years ago, of the wrongs that were brought upon so many people. “Something that is wrong, is wrong”, she said. There were no two ways about it.

It was clear from hearing the two speak, that the events of Operation Spectrum still haunted them to this day. Fong Har’s emotional recounting and Francis’ fiery words were testament to this. The two did go through traumatizing experiences and lived in a time when the nation was shrouded in a climate of fear. Both thus wanted to right the wrongs done to them, they wanted justice.

Francis emphasised ISA abolishment, while it appeared that Fong Har wanted more than that, she wanted a sense of closure. However, both knew that their demands were still a tall order for the Singapore government.

Still, Singaporeans, and especially the younger generation, should hold their experiences as an important part of Singapore’s rich past. Remember their tribulations, remember their bravery and learn from their experiences. For what then is history, if we do not learn from it?