Lee Kuan Yew and the Law Society

Tan Fong Har
Tang Fong Har

By Tang Fong Har

For me, Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore by fear, belongs to the past. His method of dealing with his critics was to use his knuckle dusters and take them to the cul-de-sac. I was one of those “roughed up” by his methods for not seeing things his way.

By 1986, the domestic media in Singapore was under the complete control of the PAP government. But not the foreign media which continued to report and publish the grievances and criticisms of government policies by Singaporeans.

The PAP government wanted to silence and muzzle the foreign press to bring all media, both domestic and foreign, under its control by hitting the foreign press in the pocket. In May 1986, therefore, Lee masterminded the introduction of a bill to amend the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act. This bill sought to restrict the sale or distribution in Singapore of the foreign publication concerned when the relevant minister deemed it “to be engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore” and gazetted as such.

As a junior lawyer in 1986, I was a member of a Subcommittee of the Law Society of Singapore. The Law Society Council asked the Subcommittee to examine the amendments. Our report, which was critical of the amendments, was submitted to the Law Society.

The Law Society, under the aegis of its President, Francis Seow, issued a statement criticizing the newspaper amendments as “ambiguous” and “superfluous”. This statement was widely circulated in both the domestic and foreign media, engendering animated discussion within Singapore and abroad. The Law Society was of the view that the government should be accountable and transparent in its operations.

Lee was so incensed by the Law Society’s critique that the Law Society became his next target of repression and control. Lee again masterminded the introduction of another bill to the Legal Profession Act to prohibit the Law Society from commenting on existing or proposed legislations unless the government specifically invited it for its views.

Comment by Mr E W Barker in parliament

To ensure that the members of the legal profession would be sufficiently cowed, Lee masterminded a televised Select Committee Hearing on the Legal Profession Act Bill. The Law Society Council and the Subcommittee members were subpoenaed to attend the Hearing.

The Hearing comprised eight PAP ministers, with three Cabinet Ministers including Lee Kuan Yew. Lee imperiously and blatantly took over the chairmanship of the Hearing from the hapless Yeoh Ghim Seng.

Lee conducted the proceedings in a highly adversarial manner. He cherry picked several individuals including Francis Seow, Teo Soh Lung and myself and subjected us to ferocious interrogation. However, Francis, Soh Lung and I were not sufficiently subdued by Lee’s bullying tactics on TV and Lee perceived this as a challenge to his authority. Anyway, the amendments to the Legal Profession Act were passed later and the Law Society can no longer comment on legislations unless asked to do so.

This perception was bad news for us because Lee Kuan Yew imprisoned all of us without trial after the Select Committee Hearing. He framed us by making a story up about Soh Lung and I being in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government by violent means and a story about Francis’ complicity in foreign interference in Singapore’s internal affairs, thereby posing a “grave threat to the independence and sovereignty of Singapore…”

Lee used the Internal Security Act (ISA) to imprison Soh Lung in May 1987, followed by my detention in June 1987 and Francis was detained in 1988.

The ISA (or its previous colonial version of the law) allows the government to detain people without trial indefinitely. To get out of jail, you have to admit to their charges. They threatened to throw away the keys to my cell. Once the coerced confession was obtained, I was paraded on TV to deliver the statement as proof of a phantom Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government by violent means.

When people questioned the validity of the confessions, Lee and his minions said that if the government’s charges were false, we were free to deny them. In 1988, nine ex-detainees made a statement to deny the government’s charges. Eight were promptly re-arrested under ISA. You would think that this draconian law would have been abolished as soon as Lee gained independence from Britain. But no, it was used first on parliamentary opposition and then on his critics. In this way, whenever Lee won elections, he claimed the moral legitimacy to govern Singapore.

I live in exile in Hong Kong. Even though my Singapore citizenship and passport were taken away from me, I still love my country. In an increasingly globalized world, Singapore must make changes, away from Lee’s knuckle duster methods to stifle critics. Our future depends on an educated population willing to put forward ideas for innovations and policies for our society. Not to be cowed by fear.

That’s why with Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, my hope is that the ISA will be abolished so that it would not be used again by the government to imprison those who expressed different views from them.

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