Francis Seow, once a high-ranking Singaporean official, died on Jan. 21 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, he 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.
Lee, 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 Worker 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.”