TOC Exclusive: Teo Soh Lung – In her own words (part one)

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In support of the 16 ex-detainees' call for the Commission of Inquiry to investigate their detentions, TOC republishes this article which first appeared in TOC on May 19, 2009.

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Next on TOC: Lone opposition MP in Parliament in 1987, Mr Chiam See Tong, calls for the release of those detained under the ISA. TOC brings you transcripts of the day's Parliamentary debate.

Teo Soh Lung was one of the original 16 accused of being part of a “Marxist plot” to bring down the Singapore government. She, along with 15 others, were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act on 21 May 1987. Ms Teo spent two and a half years under detention.

Earlier this year, Ms Teo had several of her poems, which she had written while in prison, published in the book, “Our Thoughts Are Free”. (See TOC’s report of the book launch).

Teo Soh Lung

In the early 1980s, my good Catholic friend, the late Aileen Lau and I together with some others, helped to set up the Geylang Catholic Centre (GCC) at Lorong 17 Geylang. I think I worked 6 days a week without any salary. The work entailed teaching foreign workers how to speak English, giving talks on employment law and immigration, encouraging friendly table tennis competitions between the GCC and the Jurong Centre for workers.

In the 1980s the GCC was involved in a variety of activities. There were activities for foreign workers, Filipino domestic workers, ex criminals and ex drug addicts. At one time, the center was also involved in crisis management. There was a crisis center for battered women. I was not really involved in the crisis centre but made friends with some social workers and helped out when there was a need.

Filled with naiveté and idealism, I started a law firm at the Aljunied Industrial Estate. I rented one room above a tile shop. With the donation of a manual Olympia typewriter from my father, I began work as a lawyer. My aim was to make lawyers accessible to the people. I think my firm was the first to be operating outside the city.

I cannot remember how I managed to survive during those days. I was doing legal work as well as doing volunteer work at the GCC. I shuttled between Aljunied and Geylang.

My idealism attracted a young and bright lawyer by the name of Lai Maylene.

Subsequently another friend, Lee Kim Huay, joined us and the little room could not accommodate us. We then found a flat at Lorong 11 Geylang. We continued to work closely with the GCC while establishing our legal practice. We also found time to relax and kept in touch with friends in the legal profession and the University. Every Friday, we would have a cheese and wine session when we would invite a few friends. We would talk about anything and it was during one of those wine and cheese sessions that the idea of setting up a criminal legal aid scheme was hatched.

Our firm in Geylang was a meeting place for friends. There is a saying that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Legal practice in the 80s was I think quite relaxed. There was always time for friends who dropped by unannounced. We would talk about anything, walk to the coffeeshop for a drink etc.

So it was that in the 1984 elections, our law firm became a focal point for election activities. Some of us became election agents for the Workers’ Party and we were very busy throughout the hustings.

After the 1984 elections, I decided to concentrate on work in the Law Society. I did not want to be accused of mixing politics with the work in the Society and so I stopped helping the Workers’ Party. I chaired a group and did the following work for the society.

Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill No. 7/85

In 1985, I was asked by the Society to prepare a report on the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill No. 7/85. The bill sought to deprive Singaporeans who failed to return to Singapore for a period of 10 years of their citizenship. I dutifully put up the report.

Criminal Legal Aid Scheme

As I said earlier, some lawyers and I were interested in the setting up of a Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. After several years of work, we finally sold the idea to the Law Society or rather, the President, Harry Elias. He asked us to help him set up the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. The Scheme was set up in May 1986.

Following the setting up of the scheme, I became even more involved in the work of the Law Society. I had always held the view that lawyers must play an active part in society. The law society prior to 1986 was, I think, a dead society. The chance to become active in the society came when Francis Seow was elected as its President. I approached him and told him that I was interested to help in the society’s work. I was asked to chair the Special Assignments Sub-Committee subsequently.

Independence of the Judiciary

I was involved in the preparation of a report to the Society on the Independence of the Judiciary. The then Justice T S Sinnathuray was then heading a Commission of Inquiry on the Independence of the Judiciary after Mr J B Jeyaretnam said in parliament that there was executive interference when the Senior District Judge, Mr Michael Khoo, was transferred from the Subordinate Courts to the AG’s Chambers after ruling rather favourably in Mr Jeyaretnam’s case.

The Special Assignments Sub-Committee also prepared reports on the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill and the Legal Profession Amendment Bill No. 20/86. The 2 reports generated much discussion in the press. The intent of the Legal Profession Amendment Bill was clearly to deprive the then President of the Law Society, Francis Seow, of his position as its president and to further control the members of the society.

The report opposing the amendment to the Legal Profession Amendment Bill was sent to the Attorney General, Mr Tan Boon Teik. He did not respond. Because the Attorney General did not respond, the Society decided to publicise its views and the newspapers then carried an article on the bill. I think the article generated a great deal of discussion.

Members of the society knew that the bill would become law as a matter of course. I do not know whether it was folly or courage that I decided to call an extraordinary general meeting to persuade the government to withdraw the bill. Just before the EOGM, the government announced the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee to look into the bill. Views would be studied.

Some friends advised me to call off the meeting since the government was going to listen to views. Again I was foolish enough to check the Standing Orders and realised that a select committee cannot radically amend the bill at the second reading. It could only correct grammatical and minor errors. So there was no choice but to proceed with the extraordinary general meeting.

Some 400 out of a total of about 1200 members of the society turned up at the meeting. One senior member proposed an amendment to the motion by deleting the reasons for requesting a withdrawal of the bill. Patrick Seong, who seconded my motion, and I had a quick discussion and immediately accepted the proposal. The amended motion was put to vote and I think the vote was overwhelming, maybe 402 for with 2 abstentions.

Select Committee Hearing on 9 October 1986

I think the overwhelming support for the withdrawal of the bill at the extraordinary general meeting sent a panic button to the government. The entire council of the Law Society and the members of the Special Assignment Sub Committee were summoned before the select committee. After the 2 day hearing, I was warned by fellow members of the Bar to lie low. I did but it was too late!

I had submitted my name to stand as a member of the Council of the Law Society before the select committee hearing was announced. Whether it was sympathy or defiance of the members, I was voted into council with a good number of votes - I think 4 votes behind a very senior member of the Bar. In 1986, I had just entered the category of senior lawyers (i.e. lawyers with more than 12 years of practice).

You can arrive at your own conclusion as to why I was detained under the ISA.

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On 21st May 2009, which marks the 22nd anniversary of ‘Operation Spectrum’, a group of concerned Singaporeans will be demonstrating against the treatment of the detainees who were detained without trial under the ISA. You are invited to come to Speakers Corner to remember this day.

6.30pm, 21st May 2009
Speakers Corner, Hong Lim Park

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Read also:

Operation Spectrum - 22 years later

Remember May 21st

Passion for activism extinguished... but not for long

May 1987 - A conspiracy un-proved

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Also:

"Marxist Conspiracy" revisited

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