"Tyranny of the majority"

"Tyranny of the majority"

Francie Seow
Francis Seow
by Teo Soh Lung

“… the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill

The People’s Action Party (PAP) government is fond of telling us that it has the mandate of the people and is free to carry out whatever it thinks is “good for the people”. Indeed, the government does get away with a lot of unjust policies which in any first world country would never have seen the light of day. The philosopher’s words are irrelevant to the PAP but his warning in the essay that there could be “tyranny of the majority” can often be seen in Singapore.
Indeed, the government does get away with a lot of unjust policies which in any first world country would never have seen the light of day. The philosopher’s words are irrelevant to the PAP but his warning in the essay that there could be “tyranny of the majority” can often be seen in Singapore.
Take the case of Francis Seow. He was elected by an overwhelming majority of his peers to be a member of the Council of the Law Society of Singapore in 1985. The majority of members in Council subsequently elected him to be the president for a term of two years.
But what did the then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew together with two other ministers, Mr E W Barker and Prof S Jayakumar and five members of parliament, Dr Yeoh Ghim Seng (who was the chairman), Messrs Bernard Chen, Chua Sian Chin, Tang See Chim and Dr Tan Cheng Bok did to him shortly after in a televised parliamentary select committee hearing?
bill committee
They approved a bill that allowed the removal of Seow as the president of the law society. Incidentally, five of the eight members of the committee were lawyers.
Swiftly, and by an overwhelming majority of PAP members in parliament, the bill was passed and Francis Seow was unceremoniously removed from council even before his term expired. To be exact, he served as president for barely ten months. That blatant and shameful act though completely legal, was never debated in parliament or outside. Singaporeans did not protest. No one breathed a word because everyone knew then that they could be the next victim. Fear prevailed throughout the 1980s and after.
The constitution which was meant to protect the people with its clear pronouncement of fundamental liberties, has never been the supreme law as intended by the authors. It has time and again been amended and used against the people of Singapore, lending legitimacy to immoral acts of the government.
For ease of reading, I have inserted PM for Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Seow for Francis Seow and deleted the numbering of paragraphs which ran from 414 to 422 (pages B65 to B66) of the Report of the Select Committee on the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill, 1986.

PM (Lee Kuan Yew): Do you know why those investigations proceeded?
Seow: Why? It is quite obvious why.
PM: Why?
Seow: Okay, you tell me why?
PM: If it is obvious, I want to hear your explanation?
Seow: Well, maybe my explanation is different from yours.
PM: Tell us. I will tell you mine in a moment?
Seow: Yes. You don’t like me to be the President of the Law Society. It is simple as that.
PM: No. I am astounded and outraged that a person with your moral qualities is being asked to uphold the integrity of the Bar?
Seow: And why not, may I ask? If my peers, if the rest of the members of the Bar who know the full circumstances of my two suspensions and convictions still see me fit to elect me, it is not for this Committee nor for you or indeed anyone to say that I should not be.
PM: Mr Seow, when we legislated it never occurred to us for one moment, first, that lawyers of more than 12 years’ standing would vote you into the Council and, second, that the Council members, 10 of them, would vote and make you President. And when that happens, the law will be changed because obviously the lawyers are not fit to look after their own affairs. By the time they elected you as President, I am entitled to tell Members of Parliament and Singaporeans that they are unfit to govern themselves, a right of government which we, as legislators, have delegated. That is why we are here — ?
Seow: I accept that.
PM: To change the law. And if you convince me further that we have not changed it adequately, I will go another step to make sure that this does not happen ever again. It is for me. It is not for you to decide?
Seow: I accept that. But as of now, the fellow members of the Bar, knowing fully what the position is. Look, my life has been an open book. The Straits Times has been canvassing everything about my convictions, my suspension, almost ad nauseam. So these members know it when they voted me in. They are also thinking people and they know what is right and what is wrong.
PM: By that you mean that they can absolve you from all moral blame because they have reposed confidence in you by voting for you?
Seow: I do not know what you mean by morality or —-
PM: You have no sense of right or wrong or shame? —
Seow: Of course, I have the sense of right and wrong as well as the expression of shame, as I am sure all of you do have. As a matter of record, may I mention this, that I was in fact suspended for one year from the 30th April 1973 to the 29th April 1974. That was my first suspension over that unfortunate Gemini affair. I stood and was elected as a Council member in 1976 and 1977.

The full report here

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