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G Raman at his book launch

A Quest for Freedom by G Raman

by Toh Soh Lung

I was at the launch of G Raman’s book, A Quest for Freedom at the Arts House recently. It was a pleasant evening among many lawyers. I was certainly pleased to see old friends.

As I sat among the distinguished audience listening to glowing speeches about the poor kampong boy made good by his hard work, brilliance, determination, ambition, his dedication, achievements as a lifelong learner who obtained a doctorate in his 60s and his contributions to the Law Society, I had a rather strange and surreal feeling. Where were the lawyers when Raman was arrested and needed their assistance in 1977?

1977 was just another year of persecutions by the PAP government. This time it included lawyers. They were the target of then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s wrath because a few months earlier, the PAP was forced to resign from the Socialist International, a worldwide association of political parties which seek to establish democratic socialism.

Raman was suspected of supplying information about political detainees in Singapore to the organisation. In any democratic country, such act would not bet an eyelid. But not in Singapore.

Of the 14 English educated professionals arrested from the time of Raman’s arrest on 10 Feb 1977 to 15 Mar 1977, four were lawyers. They were Raman, R Joethy and the late Tan Jing Quee and Ong Bock Chuan. Another lawyer, the late Francis Khoo Kah Siang fled Singapore five days after Raman was arrested. He was to remain in exile till his death on 20 Nov 2011.

The Law Society was severely and unreasonably admonished by the prime minister in 1977. He threatened to make voting of council members compulsory and ensure the presence of government nominees in council using the excuse that lawyers were reluctant to punish their peers.

I do not know if Lee's complaint in 1977 was justified. In 1986 when he gave the same reason for introducing lay persons into the disciplinary committees, his claim was definitely not substantiated. See my article “Clampdown of the Law Society of Singapore in the 1980s: Myth and Reality” in Living with Myths in Singapore ed by Loh Kah Seng, Thum Ping Tjin and Jack Meng-Tat Chia.

Strangely, whether it was by coincidence or design or a misjudgement on the part of the council, Lee Kuan Yew was the invited guest of honour at the Law Society’s annual dinner and dance held at the Shangri-la Hotel on 26 March 1977. His speech was damning, rude and improper for the occasion.

I was not at the event and I wondered if any lawyer there was outraged at what he said. That rambling, sexist speech was reported in the press nine days later.

Lee told the lawyers, “The dimmest, dullest wit can make a living at the Bar and did so comfortably.”

He went on to comment: “… Yours is the one professional body that has the dubious distinction of having a confessed communist on its governing body. He has admitted he helped a wounded terrorist escape.”

The truth about the story of the alleged “wounded terrorist” is now revealed in Raman’s book. Raman was severely tortured for 6 continuous days and succumbed to suggestions by his interrogators who were utterly unscrupulous. They invented a story that no police personnel with an iota of integrity would concoct and no responsible minister of home affairs and law would have ordered indefinite detention. Raman agreed that there was an incident involving Dr Poh Soo Kai who treated an alleged wounded terrorist in Masai, Johor.

If there is any doubt as to why detention without trial under the Internal Security Act or any other laws should be abolished, Raman’s arrest and detention in 1977 should clear that doubt. Read Chapter 14 “Detention” and Appendix B at page 284. And if anyone is still not convinced, he should read “Living in a Time of Deception” (pp 357-362) by Dr Poh Soo Kai. Dr Poh was still under detention when Raman was arrested.

We read from Raman’s account that not satisfied with imprisoning Dr Poh a second time (Dr Poh was detained from 1963-1973 and again from 1976-1982), Lee Kuan Yew probably instructed the ISD director, Lim Chye Heng to have him struck off the medical register. Unluckily for Lee, this gave rise to Raman being brought to the Attorney General’s Chamber where he spoke the truth and the truth was recorded as dictated by him to the secretary of a senior prosecutor. The trip to Masai with Dr Poh to treat an alleged injured terrorist was pure fabrication by his interrogators.

Now that Lee Kuan Yew is dead and several crucial witnesses are still alive, it is time for the Attorney General’s files on this matter to be reviewed by an independent commission of inquiry. This colossal lie should be exposed once and for all and the good names of Raman and Dr Poh Soo Kai restored.

At the time of his arrest, Raman was an outstanding lawyer with criminal law expertise. He had taken on criminal cases which regrettably were interpreted as political cases by government agencies and even the judge in the notorious case involving Tan Wah Piow, a student of the University of Singapore and 2 others.

If a lawyer like Raman can succumb to signing devastating false statements under inducement, threat or promise, how can others with no knowledge of the law resist signing of false confessions under such inducement, threat or promise? Yet our Singapore laws allow convictions based on mere confessions, even confessions to crimes that carry the death penalty. The case of PP v Ong at p 275 of Raman’s book is both shocking and sad.

Ong had confessed to murdering the victim under pressure even though he was the person who led the police to the scene of crime. The police had charged him for murder after extracting a confession from him. He was only saved by the evidence of a good neighbour and acquitted.

But despite being acquitted, the attorney general shamelessly appealed against the acquittal (a step that never took place when Wee Chong Jin was the Chief Justice) and asked for remand, an unreasonable request since Ong was already acquitted. While remand was rejected by Justice Punch Coomaraswamy, bail on the pledge of a HDB flat was granted. It was a totally absurd ruling. The judge must either have lost his mind or was overwhelmed by the prosecutor’s persuasion.

Raman did not tell us whether the AG’s appeal was proceeded with and dismissed or that it was abandoned on the day of hearing which I understand was a rather common wicked practice so as to punish the acquitted person for an extended period of time.

Raman’s book is the first to be written about the arrests in 1977 though the late Mr Francis Khoo had in his article “My Adventures in Exile ‘Confessions’ of a ’77 Alumnus” published in Escape from the Lion’s Paw written briefly about the incident. More than 800 people were arrested under the ISA in the 1970s with 14 within the space of about a month from the date of Raman’s arrest. Francis Khoo had escaped to London when his name was mentioned by Raman. It is thus a long-awaited book as until now, there has been scant information from the 14 English educated professionals arrested in 1977, several of whom have already passed on.

The Grounds of Detention (Appendix B) makes interesting reading. They resemble in some ways, the allegations made against a later group of ISA detainees commonly referred to as the “Marxists”. Why these were called Marxists and not Euro-Communists as in Raman’s time may just be due to the fanciful choice of words by the investigators. Both groups were accused of having alleged links with people in London – Malcolm Caldwell, Amir Dastan and Tan Wah Piow.

Raman’s activities as a student in London had caused displeasure and unease to the Singapore government who used spies, very often in the form of non-graduating university students. It is easy to throw an allegation of him having communist links during his student days. Some of the detainees in 1987 have similar allegations cast at them.

As a legal adviser to the University Students’ Union, an allegation that he advised them “to interfere in the Tasek Utara squatter issue” was one of the grounds for his detention. How on earth can such an allegation allow a minister to detain a person is beyond any imagination.

Allegation 5 is also baffling. It claims that Raman “in Apr 76 were (sic) one of the prime movers in an attempt to establish a Human Rights Committee, knowing it to be a CUF organisation.”

It is a pity that Raman did not elaborate on this human rights committee in his book. I am curious to know how such a committee which has yet to be formed is known to the government as a CUF organisation. (CUF= communist united front).

And finally ground 6 is hilarious. Raman was accused of being “actively involved in the setting up of the Bunga Raya Book Centre at Golden Mile Tower whose objective was to disseminate pro-communist and radical literature amongst the English educated.”

Raman did not explain why Bunga Raya Book Centre was established. But surely, selling books about Lenin, Marx or Mao is not prohibited in Singapore at that time or now.

As a result of the arrest, Raman lost his citizenship (page 286) on 22 April 1977. He does not explain why he did not challenge the deprivation of his citizenship. One can only assume that he was so depressed after weeks of severe interrogation or the ISD may have promised early release if he did not contest the order.

Two months after his arrest, Raman was probably told to resign his seat in the Council of the Law Society. He had been a member of the Council since 1975. Why he was compelled to resign when none of the grounds of detention had stipulated that he had in any way made use of the Law Society for his alleged communist united front activities is incomprehensible.

Despite the fact that Raman complied with every request of his interrogators – writing statements, resigning from the Council of the Law Society, appearing on television and confessing to crimes he did not commit, and not contesting the order to deprive him of citizenship, he was banned from legal practice for two years after his release and was compelled to work for the Estate Duty Division as a glorified clerk.

Upon his release on 25 Feb 1978, I believe Raman was subjected to the same severe restrictions on his movement, travel, association, speech and occupation as set out at pp 287-288 which is dated 23 Apr 1979.

It is shocking that the minister for home affairs had the audacity to set out in the Restriction Order that Raman is not allowed to return to legal practice even though none of the grounds alleged against him had stipulated that he had misused his position as a council member of the Law Society. It is I think a case of the minister having been given an inch, decides that he is entitled to take a yard. As Raman himself said, he did not commit a breach of professional conduct and had not been struck off the roll. So why was he not allowed to return to his profession? Even I who had been accused of “making use of the Law Society of Singapore as a political pressure group” in 1987 was not prohibited from returning to legal practice. Surely the government have no right to prevent anyone from resuming his lawful occupation.

Raman’s notes on some notable cases are most interesting. I hope he will one day write more about the cases he dealt with for the benefit of young lawyers and the public alike. Young lawyers can emulate his achievements and play an active and useful role in society.

Finally, the case Raman was handling before he was arrested – that of the police inspector Tong Keng Wah (pp 267-268) may have rung the alarm bells of the authorities. Tong was a smart guy and the publicity he received when he turned himself in at the Supreme Court with Raman in tow may have alerted the police. I can only suspect that Tong’s case may have been the catalyst for the arrest of Raman! The authorities may have again viewed the criminal case as a political case.

I am glad that Raman has now been rehabilitated and has received among many awards, the prestigious CC Tan award from the Law Society in 2014. He has contributed much to the profession, teaching and mentoring young members. He has given his time to society, including the setting up of the first Free Legal Clinic in Jamiyah in 1975 (probably erroneously stated as 1995) at p 184. As a sportsman in his youth and a devout Hindu, he has actively participated and helped sports association, temples, institutions and the Rotary Club.

I wish Dr G Raman many more years of achievements and more contributions to society.

Every lawyer should buy his book and read it carefully from cover to cover. Be inspired.

The book can be purchased from Ethos books online here.