Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

January 28, 2016

Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

by John Berthelsen

Francis Seow, once a high-ranking Singaporean official, died on January 21, 2016 in the United States, where he had spent the past 25 years as a refugee from the late Lee Kuan Yew’s petty vindictiveness.  He died at the age of 88 in Boston, where he was an adjunct professor at Harvard University.

Singapore has supposedly loosened up in its treatment of dissidents. However, the cases of Roy Ngerng, who dared to question the operation of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund earned him a libel suit that bankrupted him from Lee’s son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and teenager Amos Yee, who was temporarily committed to a mental ward for an obscenity-filled video criticizing the country, show that it hasn’t lightened up that much.

But what Lee ordered up for Seow is a prime example of just how far the elder Lee would go to crush his enemies. After two years as the island republic’s Solicitor-General, Seow quit in 1972 and went into private practice. He was also appointed senior counsel to a Commission of Inquiry after Chinese students boycotted an examination in 1963. He had the cheek to challenge Lee on several different fronts, and he paid for it by losing his country.

Never a favorite of the Lee administration, Seow was suspended from practice twice after he left as Solicitor-General, once for a year on Lee’s instructions to his cousin, then the Chief Justice, over an undertaking given to the Attorney- General. Nonetheless, he was elected to the council of the Law Society in 1976 and became its president in 1986.

The late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, brooking no opposition, reacted negatively to Seow’s plans to restore the role of the Law Society to comment on legislation. In 1987, Lee pushed through legislation barring the organization from lending official comment on legislation unless the government specifically asked for it.

Later, Seow won a seat on the board of the venerable Singapore Turf Club. Lee in turn pushed legislation through the parliament abolishing the turf club and replacing it with his own, with the government controlling the appointments to its board of directors.

But it was his decision to represent two dozen church organizers and professionals involved with the Catholic Church in 1987 that caused the final explosion.  Lee during that period was said to be deeply concerned about Catholic liberation movements in South America and was determined to make sure it didn’t spread to his island.

The alleged offenders were originally arrested in 1986 and held for several weeks until they traded televised “confessions” of such innocuous deeds as sending books from capitalist Singapore to communist China. After several months of silence, the youths delivered press releases to the international media saying they had agreed to the confessions, and to statements that they had not been mistreated, for the right to be left alone, and that the Singapore government had broken the promise, continuing to make examples of them and to hound them.

Immediately after the stories were printed in the international press, authorities rounded them up and arrested them again.

Seow agreed to act as counsel to them. Almost immediately he was himself imprisoned without trial for 72 days and suffered “enhanced” interrogation techniques that included long periods of sleep deprivation and interrogation in freezing cold without adequate clothing, which landed him in the hospital in fear of a heart attack. Reportedly authorities were afraid they had endangered his life.  The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Parliament, the UK Parliament, several US senators and others delivered stinging criticism of the Singapore government, to no avail.

Seow was accused of receiving political campaign funds from the United States to promote democracy in Singapore and meeting with Hank Henderson, then a US political secretary, to further democracy in Singapore despite the fact that at the time the US remained one of Singapore’s staunchest allies. Henderson was vilified on the front page of the Straits Times for having fathered a “love child” in the Philippines despite the fact that he was married to another woman. Henderson had actually adopted the baby, who was born before his then-current marriage. He was forced to leave the country.

A Catholic priest involved in the situation was also trashed in the Straits Times for having been observed entering the home of a single woman and leaving several hours later, in the middle of the night.

Lee Hsien Loong, then the Defense Minister, held a press conference to detail Seow’s transgressions, including one that he was “seen entering the home of the Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent.”  Later that year, the correspondent was refused an additional work visa and was forced to leave the country.

After his release, Seow ran for parliament as a member of the Workers Party, which Lee hated, with his group constituency losing marginally to Lee’s People’s Action Party. Eventually Singaporean authorities descended on his law office and collected virtually every scrap of paper in it.  He was ultimately accused of 60 counts of tax evasion, impelling him to flee the country for the United States. On top of that, at the time of his arrest, Seow was involved in a relationship with a Singaporean businesswoman who was financing a business deal through Bank Nationale de Paris. The bank suddenly dropped her line of credit and forced her out of the business deal. Bank officials at the time said the government had nothing to do with aborting the transaction.

Harvard took Seow in as a visiting fellow. He conducted research on human rights and the rule of law, publishing several books, one of which recounted his detention, To Catch a Tartar, and continued for the rest of his life to pound the Singapore government for its lack of civil liberties, and meeting with Singaporean student groups overseas. 

“He was a necessary milepost in the development of Singapore and of the rule of law and democratic accountability in Asia,” his nephew, Mark Looi, wrote upon his death. “One day hopefully his native country will recognize this.”


16 thoughts on “Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

  1. The? 😋

    It kills me listening to one of those SG stories in US for the first time from someone who was jailed many years ago. It surprised me even more than the first time I learn about cultural revolution in China. Man, me the Malaysian growing up from malaysia school system learnt *jack*

    # innocuous deeds as sending books from capitalist Singapore to communist.

    Reminds me of my part time work as a student working in the spiderman library to ship books to ex communists nation in the name of book exchange..

    By my time, books sent were mostly commercial thrash. I was told it had a more *meaningful* past.

  2. LKY did what he thought was best for Singapore. Given the outpouring of grief at his passing last year, Singaporeans showed that they admired the man and his contributions to the country he loved.

    I must admit that I am too much an admirer of the late Mr. Lee to comment on the treatment of Seow, and also Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam, Lim Chin Siong, Devan Nair, Chia Thye Poh, Chee Soon Juan, Vincent Cheng, Tan Wah Piow, Tang Liang Hong and others who dared to take on the founder of modern Singapore.

    Politics has many sides, so it is going to depend on what pair of eye glasses one chooses to use in analysing the Seow tussle with the LKY’s government. Read Seow’s To Catch a Tartar. When it comes to LKY, I am unashamedly partial towards him.

    That said, my condolences to the family, colleagues at Harvard and friend of the late Francis Seow. RIP.–Din Merican

  3. I saw a YouTube video of Seow giving an interview. I saw a lonely man walking towards his humble abode, dressed in “worker’s” type clothes. This doesn’t fit the “image” of an “adjunct professor” of Harvard, more of that of a lonely cash tight chap. He ran away from Spore. Another fugitive tan wah piow, ran off to evade national service, now lives in uk. What life is he living, is easily seen in the clothes he wears, ” workers” clothes. Singaporeans in Spore are in far better state of affairs. Lky brought that to Spore. It’s result that matters.

  4. Say whatever you like, LKY maybe crude in his handling of dissenters but compare him to Al Kutty and now Al Jubur and you’ll appreciate the difference. One may be crude but the other two are outrightly insidious, stupid and clueless.

    Look how Jibby handles his 1MDB debacle. He simply has no idea how to cover his tracks. Imagine “forcing” his self-picked A-G to whitewash his crime on the basis that the “donation” has been returned to the donor(s).

    It’s obvious our tainted Umno leaders are not in the same class as LKY or any other PAP stalwarts south of the border. They assume that the rakyat are as stupid as they are. That’s why we are where we are today – plunging head-on into the abyss.

  5. Yes, those Catholic do-gooders who were arrested under the “Marxist Conspiracy” were, in my view, unfairly rounded up and unfairly treated. The fact that Francis represented them made it worse. The charges were more politically motivated than anything else.

    /// However, the cases of Roy Ngerng, who dared to question the operation of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund earned him a libel suit that bankrupted him from Lee’s son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, ///

    In Roy’s case, he asked for it and had it coming. He unwisely likened LHL and GIC to how Kong Hee stole from the City Harvest Church and misused church funds. LHL clearly did no such thing.

  6. “If he had played his cards right” he could have been the Attorney General or a judge or thereafter the Chief Justice. A PM? No way. It is a reserved lot for a very special one from the inner of the innermost circle. Francis Seow is a fun loving guy and you cannot make him wear Pope’s robes.

  7. Tok Cik, “They assume that the rakyat are as stupid as they are. That’s why we are.. plunging head-on into the abyss.”

    Haha. If we are plunging into the abyss it must indeed mean that we are as stupid as they are.


  8. Yes he could have been a judge hawking eye. Those who can get a copy of the video when LKY had the Law Society and its members on inquiry about their actions should see the exchange between LKY and Francis. Please anyone who can get this exchange and see how LKY was flummoxed by francis seaow’s response to LKY and how old Harry lost his cool as he did when interviewed by Sir Robin Day on BBC.
    As to the video try and contact Tamil Chelvan ( former ISD officer now in hiding in Australia) who wrote the book on LKY “The ultimate Island”
    Tok Chick concur with you about your views and say Shabash.
    But one wonders what were the links between Former LP Tun Hamid Omar and Francis as they were known to have “friends female of the specis” when they had apartments at the KL Sheraton.
    “To catch a Tartar” excellent read and lets not forget Francis Seows Brilliant Indian legal partner who felt the wrath of LKY.
    As to LKYs legacy thank god no monstrous edifices like in boleh land and what a brilliant idea to finish of with oxley rise.
    Yes and that brilliant young man Amos Yee.
    RIP Francis you did what you did with dignity .

  9. To the late Mr Francis Seow, my condolence to his family. He is peer to most of you who regular here. I’m from a later generation.

    However, for Amos Yee, he should tone down his profanity and be more refined in his critique. Nevertheless, he is his own man and I believe he know what he is up to, even to receiving criticism against himself. I can only wish him all the best in his life.

    But this post is about the late Mr Francis Seow. RIP.

  10. The story reminds me of Khairuddin and his lawyer Mathius Chang.What is disheartening though that people dont care about right or wrong,justice or oppression but merely on material success and that is why things tend to get mess up like in our country now.

  11. One should know the substance and not blabber.

    Francis Seow was a fun-loving harmless guy. He was suave and had the gift of the gap. He loved wine, women and song. Politics was not his terrain and his entry into it made it worse for him resulting in he fleeing the country and live in exile in the US. To say that he did all with dignity is to give him undeserved acclamation.

    He was indeed brilliant in his encounter with LKY in the Commission of Enquiry proceedings. He speaks in polished language. At one stage he even corrected LKY’s grammar, an unpardonable put down, which the latter was not going to forget.

    Tamil Selvan is not hiding in Australia. He was a PR there and could be a citizen by now. I understand he occasionally visits Singapore without hindrance,

  12. Hawking Eye

    Am I to understand that since Francis Seow loved wine,women and song that it was okay to imprison and tortured him for defending his clients?I hope I am wrong.

  13. For me personally it is OK to love wine, women and song in a guarded way of sort. I think a good number of good men succumb to any two combination of these so called vices. Having all the three of them under the belt is like having reached the pinnacle of manhood. Funnily these were not vices before the advent of religion. Man and community then lived lives this banal way.

    Once I asked a Norwegian if there are people in his country who are purely vegetarian and who don’t eat meat and take liquor. He said that if you dont eat meat and take liquor you will die in no time especially during the bitter winter periods. Even for vegetarians in Norway that he knows of, he said they take diary products, eggs and health supplements to sustain themselves.

    Among the trinity of “wine, women and song” the middle one is pretty tricky to keep a straight line. If you are attractive to women and they are pretty and sexy, you must be a dump or a saint to resist such opportunities falling on your lap. If one had not experienced such encounters and resisted them, he should not preach righteousness or condemn others. All religions preach against wine, women and song. But who cares? After all, we live every single day by sins, small and big that our religion prohibits.

    Fracis Seow, for all his negative attributes, was a true gentleman – very open about his lifestyle. His arrest, I think, has more to do with his gung-ho activities as President of the Law Society, suspicious dealings with an American diplomat and his intention to plunge into politics and fight the coming elections, which he did and lost by a whisker. He was not arrested merely for representing alleged Marxist detainees.

  14. Hawking Eye, indeed he was not arrested just because he represented the “Marxist” Catholic do-gooders. He was a political threat. During the televised exchange, he was able to go one up on LKY and made him flushed with anger. No one ever riled LKY like that. And the last straw must be the fact that he stood for elections in Eunos and almost won – he won more than 49% votes and lost by a few hundred votes. After that Eunos was gerrymendered away.

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