A Longtime Political Refugee Seeks Singaporean Justice

Tan Wah Piow, a onetime student leader who fled Singapore after a trumped-up trial that found him guilty of participating in a 1975 riot in a union hall, is asking that his conviction be quashed 42 years later after the chief witness against him was convicted last month of long-running embezzlement of union funds.

Tan, arguably Singapore’s most prominent political exile – although not the only one – became a bête noir of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuna Yew, who 12 years later accused him of being the mastermind behind a so-called conspiracy from overseas involving 16 young Catholics who were arrested in 1987 for allegedly planning to overthrow the government to form a Marxist state.

The arrest of the 16 is one of the darker periods in modern Singapore history. Most critics say there was no Marxist conspiracy. Instead, Lee was said to have been unduly worried more about Catholic liberation theology which was causing social unrest for dictators in Latin and Central America and didn’t want it to infect his tidy island. The Special Branch of the police dragged the youths to jail in what was called Operation Spectrum. They underwent days of psychological torture including long periods of forced wakefulness, intimidation, nonstop questioning by teams of interrogators while in scanty clothing in freezing rooms and other torment until they agreed to confess to a series of crimes that to outsiders seemed inconsequential.

Historian Mary Turnbull in her book A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 described the conspiracy as "myth" and a "fanciful narrative." arguing that the arrests were politically motivated. In a controversial 2001 interview with the Straits Times, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam later described the 16 as “social activists” but said they were not out to subvert the system. The lawyer for the youths, Francis Seow, died in January in Boston in the United States after fleeing the country following his own arrest and being charged with tax evasion.

In any case, Tan’s citizenship was revoked by the Singapore government in 1987 amid a flurry of front-page stories in the Straits Times, which closely follows the government line, accusing him of being behind the protests.

Railroaded into jail

Tan was president of the University of Singapore’s Students’ Union in 1974, mobilizing students in his time there. He was arrested in November of that year, allegedly because he and two other students instigated a riot in the union offices of the Singapore Pioneer Industries Employees' Union which resulted in damage to union property. Tan and his co-defendants, Ng Wah Leng and Yap Kim Hong, maintained that they weren’t even there. Nonetheless, on the testimony of Phey Yew Kok, the General Secretary of the union, Tan received a year in prison and the other two each were sentenced to a month. Tan was ordered to serve in the army on his release from prison. Instead, he decamped for the UK, later saying anything could have happened to him in the army, fearing accidents that might kill him. He remains a solicitor in the UK.

At the time of the so-called riot, Tan and his colleagues from the university said they were involved in investigating Phey and had exposed what they called his lies, threatening his position as a trade union leader, and that he had created the riot to put them away.

It was a decision that was welcomed by the Lee administration. But last month, In 2016 Presiding Singapore Judge Jenifer Marie dropped a bombshell, sentencing Phey to five years in prison for looting union funds “systematically and with deliberation over a period of six years... He had no qualms in trying to evade detection and had the temerity to instigate his staff to fabricate false evidence.”

In a letter to Singapore’s current attorney general, VK Rajah, Tan asked that his 1974 conviction be quashed because the trial judge at the time, TS Sinnathuray, “arrived at a guilty verdict based on the evidence of someone we now know to be a crook and a thief, and who had the capacity to exert his criminal influence over his staff.”

If the trial judge had been aware of Phey’s “propensity to influence trade union staff to pursue his criminal enterprise, the weight he would put on the veracity of the prosecution evidence must be very different. Likewise the outcome of the verdict would have inevitably been different,” Tan wrote, saying Phey’s 2016 conviction is of direct relevance to the 1974 ‘Riot’ case because his criminality dated back to 1973.

It was the defense’s contention that the “riot” was fabricated by Phey Yew Kok as part of his vendetta against me,” Tan wrote. “If the fact that Phey Yew Kok was plundering the trade union coffers since 1973 was known to the judge at the time of the trial in 1974, it would be reasonable to suggest that any judge looking at the matter fairly and reasonably would have found the defense credible. Certainly, we were an existential threat to Phey’s criminal enterprise.

When Tan and his colleagues tried to raise the issue of Phey’s criminality, Sinnathuray ruled the question “wholly irrelevant.”

A series of witnesses told the court they didn’t see Tan anywhere near the union halls. One witness testified that Phey had said words to the effect that he would “check on Wah Piow and put him in the right place.”

“The 1974 trial is one which is imprinted in the mindset of many Singaporeans, especially those of my generation as an example of gross injustice,” Tan wrote. “From the commentaries in internet blogs following Phey’s conviction, it is obvious that there is a nexus between his 2016 conviction and my trial in 1974. In the light of the new evidence, it is incumbent upon you as the Attorney General, to take all necessary steps to quash the convictions against each of the three defendants. Only this can put right the injustice."