SDP’s tribute to Francis Seow by Wong Souk Yee

Singapore Democrats

The Singapore Democratic Party is deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Mr Francis Seow.

Mr Seow had an illustrious 16-year career in the Singapore Legal Service, culminating in becoming Singapore’s solicitor-general from 1969 to 1971.

He was elected president of the Law Society in 1986. Under his leadership, the Law Society undertook a different path from his predecessors. It examined and commented on legislation that the government passed without any meaningful parliamentary debate or consultative process. In particular, in May 1986, Mr Seow, as the society’s president, issued a press statement criticising the government’s amendments to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA). The amendments sought to restrict the sale or distribution in Singapore of foreign publications deemed “to be engaging in the domestic politics of Singapore”. The Law Society suggested that the newspaper amendments were “ambiguous” and “superfluous”. Its press statement was widely circulated in both the domestic and foreign media, engendering animated discussion within Singapore and abroad. In addition, the Law Society was of the view that the government should be accountable and transparent in its operations.

To counter his criticisms, the government accused Mr Seow of using the Law society as a political vehicle. Three months later, in August, the government passed the Legal Profession (Amendment) Act which, among others, restricts the Law Society from commenting on any legislation unless asked by the government.

In 21 May 1987, 22 people were arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for being part of an alleged “Marxist conspiracy”. Mr Seow represented a few of the detainees.

In 1988, he was himself arrested when he went to interview his clients in prison. He was subsequently detained without trial for 72 days before the General Election that year.

He was accused of having received political campaign funds from the United States to promote democracy in Singapore. Then-First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong claimed that the alleged conspiracy between Mr Seow and the Americans could have resulted in the election of 20 or 30 opposition politicians to Parliament, which in his words could lead to “horrendous” effects, possibly even the paralysis and fall of the Singaporean government. It therefore is clear that the security tool of the ISA had been used to suppress legitimate political contestation of power.

In his memoir, To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, Mr Seow described the conditions of his first three days of arrest.

I had been standing there under the pitiless glare of the spotlights… Having stood almost motionless at one spot for so long I had great difficulty in walking… My limbs were stiff all over. I was unsteady. The two Gurkha guards on either side of me supported me under my arms. I staggered out of the interrogation room, half carried by them, along the dark corridors, up two flights of stairs to the ground level of Block C, along a corridor, to a toilet located in an empty cell in Block D… It was 11.30 in the morning. I was astounded. I then realised that I had been standing in the interrogation room for about sixteen hours warding off questions thrown unremittingly at me…

I noticed, too, dried sunburnt blisters peeling from the skin of both arms… burnt by the powerful rays of those spotlights, which had also dried up the moisture in my eyes. Cold rashes had broken out all over my atrophied limbs under my clothes… the rashes broke out in chilling confirmation of the coldness of the room. My interrogators had swaddled themselves up in warm winter clothes and left it, time and again, whenever they could no longer withstand the wintry cold.

For the first three consecutive days, I was not provided with any mattress, pillow or footwear. I went about barefooted. I slept on the wooden bunk; I was not given a change of clothes until the fourth or fifth day. Unkempt and unwashed, I went without soap. I did not even have a toothbrush or toothpaste, soap or comb. My mouth furred. I could feel plaque forming on my teeth.

The intense cold air-conditioning, long hours of standing during interrogation, deprivation of sleep and stripping detainees of their self-respect, dignity and morale are standard ISD interrogation techniques to inveigle detainees to be compliant to demands made upon them.

After his release from detention, Mr Seow stood for the 1988 General Election as a member of the Workers’ Party team that contested in the Eunos GRC. His team secured a commendable 49.11% of valid votes, losing narrowly to the PAP.

On 16 October 2007 Amnesty International issued a public statement stating Mr Seow as one of two prominent Singaporean lawyers who were persecuted for exercising their right to express their opinions.

In addition to To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, Mr Seow had written another book, The Media Enthralled, which describes how he believes the Singapore government undermined freedom of the media and turned the media into pro-government mouthpieces. He is also the author of Beyond Suspicion? – The Singapore Judiciary.

While awaiting trial for alleged tax evasion, Mr Seow left for the United States for health treatment and disregarded numerous court summons to return to stand trial.

He died on 21 January 2016, aged 88, in Boston, USA, where he lived in exile after he left Singapore. In his passing, we have lost a potent critic of Singapore’s iniquitous laws and a defender of people who run afoul of those laws.

Dr Wong Souk Yee
Singapore Democratic Party


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