Francis T Seow: Loyal civil Servant turned most articulate dissident


By Teo Soh Lung

Francis T Seow was one the best known public prosecutors in the history of Singapore. Born in 1928, he entered the Legal Service in 1956 and rose to the position of Solicitor General in 1969. During his time in service, he was a very successful prosecutor. Meticulous and thorough in his work, eloquent, polite yet stinging in court, he was much feared by his opponents.

In his own words, he had a reputation of a “formidable and feared adversary.” He would leave no stone unturned. He was prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s blue eyed boy and enjoyed the limelight of successful prosecutions of almost all important criminal cases. He handled public inquiries with superb skill. And so it must have been a great relief to lawyers when he resigned from legal service in 1971 to enter private practice. He had originally intended to partner the most successful criminal lawyer, David Marshall.

But the plan fell through when he was called to meet Lee Kuan Yew who called him up when he heard of his intention. Lee warned that “Marshall and he were on a collision course”  and by “joining Marshall, he was in the way, in the line of fire, and  that he did not wish me to be hurt in that inevitable collision”. One can only imagine the great benefit to society if Lee Kuan Yew had not given his unsolicited and calculated advice to Francis Seow.

At the end 1985, Francis Seow was elected as a member of the council of the Law Society of Singapore by an overwhelming majority. In January 1986, he was elected as its president. From the time he became a member of council and then its president, Francis Seow became a marked man.

Lee Kuan Yew knew the ability of Francis Seow to transform a passive law society into a society which would take its rightful role in the justice system. Francis Seow had the support of lawyers. They were ready and willing to volunteer their time for the good of the public. Beginning with the scrutiny of bills presented to parliament, the lawyers saw their role as assisting the government, the courts and the public in interpreting and understanding the laws of the land when parliament had hardly a presence of opposition members. The government however had its own idea. Lee Kuan Yew was in no mood to receive comments on laws that he deemed good for his government.

What further irked Lee Kuan Yew was Francis Seow’s interest in what was happening in parliament. JB Jeyaretnam had been hauled up before the Committee of Privileges over complaints of allegations of executive interference in the judiciary. Francis Seow invited lawyers to form a committee to look into the system of appointment and transfer of subordinate court judges and whether the system could be improved.

Steps to control Francis Seow began in January 1986. Even before the year ended, the law governing lawyers was drastically amended. Francis Seow lost his presidency in accordance with the wishes of parliament and not its members.

The government’s move to amend the law in such an extreme and unjust manner compelled lawyers to call an extraordinary general meeting to seek the withdrawal of the bill. That call was viewed as defiance and the bill was referred to a select committee. The entire council and its legislation subcommittee were summoned to give evidence before state television cameras. It was Lee Kuan Yew, who summoned the television crew to record and broadcast the proceedings at prime time. Yet when he lost the debate to Francis Seow, he was not happy.

May 21, 1987 saw the arrest of 16 young people under the Internal Security Act (ISA). A month later, another six were arrested making a total of 22. Among them were four lawyers and I was one of them.

Francis Seow was my lawyer in 1987 and again in 1988. He was one of only a handful of Singapore lawyers who represented several ISA detainees in those years.

In 1988, eight former detainees, including me were rearrested shortly after issuing a press statement denying the allegations that we had conspired to overthrow the government using communist united front tactics. We also said in our statement that we were tortured. The ninth detainee, Tang Fong Har breached her restriction order by failing to return to Singapore.

Without hesitation, Francis Seow agreed to be my lawyer when my family approached him. Assisted by my legal assistant, Roslina Baba, Francis Seow appeared  before Justice Lai Kew Chai in the High Court on 6 May 1988.

When Justice Lai refused to hear the case and ordered an adjournment, Francis Seow immediately arranged to take instructions from me and Patrick Seong, another lawyer who represented several detainees in 1987. But Patrick and I did not see Francis Seow. He was called out of the interview room by ISD officers. His spectacles, the only evidence of his arrival was on the table. When I entered the room, a worried Roslina in an agitated voice told me that Francis Seow was escorted out and may have been arrested. I assured her that nothing of that nature would happen.

I was wrong. I was too trusting of the government. Francis Seow never returned to the interview room to see me or Patrick Seong. He had entered the lion’s lair. Lee Kuan Yew who could not win a debate with Francis Seow even on his own turf, had ordered his arrest and detention under the ISA. Lee’s baseless allegations against Francis Seow was that he had received money from the CIA to destabilise Singapore. As a consequence, the American ambassador was booted out of Singapore and the Singapore ambassador was thrown out of America.

Francis Seow had been a former solicitor general and president of the Law Society of Singapore. At 60 years of age, one would have expected the young ISD officers to accord him some respect and courtesy. That was not the case. He was made to stand for 17 hours, shouted and screamed at, asked nonsensical questions which were meant to intimidate and disorientate him. To satisfy Lee Kuan Yew, Francis Seow was imprisoned for 72 days.

Shortly after his release, Lee Kuan Yew dissolved parliament and called for the general election. He probably thought that Francis Seow would not have the guts to stand as a candidate for the opposition after his prison experience. He was wrong. Francis Seow not only stood for election in the Group Representation Constituency of Eunos, he nearly won. He lost by 0.89% of the votes.

As the best loser in the election, Francis Seow was nominated as one of two non-constituency members of parliament. He would have taken his seat had the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) not delayed the opening of parliament on the pretext of carrying out renovations. The PAP was afraid of him. He was too good for them. He would have trounced all the ministers in parliament. He would have to be prevented from entering the house at all cost. And that was exactly what they did.

With the permission of the minister, Francis Seow left for America on medical grounds. The inland revenue department which in all probability was instructed by Lee Kuan Yew was ordered to run through the tax files of Francis Seow for more than a decade. The intent was clear. He would have to be embroiled in law suits. Charged for tax matters in absentia, Francis Seow faced long jail sentences. He decided not to return to Singapore and sought political asylum in the United States. There he continued to campaign for the release of those in prison, giving lectures wherever he was invited to speak. He crafted every speech. It was always a pleasure to hear him speak. He was a natural orator, able to hold the crowd. He enthralled them all.

In America, Francis Seow became a fellow of Yale University and wasted no time in writing a book about his prison experience. He published To Catch a Tartar, A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison in 1994. This book was initially sold in Singapore but was quickly taken off the shelf. It was the first book to be published by a former ISA prisoner. No one before Francis Seow had dared to write about his prison experience.

Four years later, he published The Media Enthralled: Singapore Revisited. In 2007, Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary was published. All three books are meticulously researched and beautifully written with apt quotations which amply sum up the content of each chapter. This trilogy is Francis Seow’s legacy to all of us.

To chart our future, we need to know our past. We need to recognise the sacrifices and courage of people like Francis Seow and the ruthlessness of our government. The sooner we rid ourselves of laws like the ISA which forfeits our fundamental right to life, the sooner will we be able to achieve a society based on true justice and equality.