By Teo Soh Lung
Re-reading the press release of the Law Society of Singapore on the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill 1986 brought back many memories.
Its president, Francis Seow was the first and last president to have the gumption to comment in public about an unreasonable law that gravely affected freedom of speech and expression. ( Read here and here) .
The consequences of issuing the press release were unexpected and cruel. The society collapsed shortly after even though it made a spirited attempt towards the end of 1986 when at an extraordinary general meeting attended by 407 lawyers (one third of the Bar), 404 courageously voted against the passage of another unjust law, the Legal Profession Amendment Bill, 1986. (ST 23 Sept 1986). Till today, the Law Society remain traumatised and has never spoken up publicly against any unjust law.
I have heard one young lawyer complain that if the law society had been less vociferous and engaged the government in quiet consultation, much more could have been achieved.
I believe several lawyers shared his view. Blame was cast on a group of lawyers, including me, that if we had acted more cautiously and moved more slowly in our quest for change, the society would not have suffered so badly and it could have achieved much more.
Such comments are utter balderdash and a cover up for cowardice. I say this because I have re-read press reports and the report of the select committee on the Legal Profession Amendment Bill 1986.
What happened to the law society happened because senior members (those who have practised law for more than 12 years) elected Francis Seow into council at the end of 1985 and members of council elected him to be its president in Jan 1986.
The then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew literally “hit the roof” because he hated Francis Seow who was a better lawyer than him and who knew him too well, including his political thoughts.
Francis Seow was his solicitor general and was his trusted prosecutor in many important cases. He therefore could not take the risk of Francis Seow leading the law society. The attorney general, Tan Boon Teik was immediately instructed to take care of the lawyers.
As a consequence, an amendment to the Legal Profession Act to remove Francis Seow as president and at the same time, punish and humiliate lawyers was introduced.
The then Minister for Law, E W Barker who I had the greatest respect, showed his true colours when he inserted the amendment at the select committee stage (whether on instructions from the prime minister or not I don’t know) to disallow the law society from commenting on bills unless such bills were referred to it.
He pressed through this amendment without it being presented for a first and second reading. J B Jeyaretnam, (one of two opposition members) who attempted to stop him was rudely told “We chop and change [the law]” and “All I am telling you is that we amended the Bill to make it loud and clear that we only want their [lawyers] assistance on matters which we submit to them.” That was the arrogance of the minister.
Punishing Francis Seow and lawyers in 1986 was not enough for the prime minister. The following two years, several lawyers who called the extraordinary general meeting and Francis Seow, were imprisoned under the Internal Security Act.
I hope that historians will write truthfully about what happened to the Law Society in the decade of the 1980s.
Editor note: Those who supported and disagreed to the amendment bill.