Dec. 1, 1995


Repression Often Takes Unusual Forms in Singapore

Francis Seow is the former solicitor general of Singapore. In 1988 he was arrested and held as a political prisoner under the personal orders of Singapore's prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He was at UNL recently speaking as part of the Thompson Forum on World Issues. Seow came to the U.S. in 1988 by the invitation of the Human Rights Watch of New York to attend its 10th anniversary celebration. He then became the first Orville Schell Fellow and later a visiting fellow of the Yale Law School. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Human Rights Program in the East Asia Legal Studies of Harvard Law School. Jim Ballard, from the UNL Office of Public Relations, interviewed Seow for the weekly radio program University Edition. Following are exerpts from that interview.

Ballard: You went into the prison one day to counsel a client, and you didn't come out for 72 days.

Seow: What happened was at that moment I was representing a lawyer detainee who had been re-arrested for making a public statement at the urging of government ministers. She said it wasn't true that she was a Marxist conspirator subverting the government of Lee Kuan Yew through violence and replacing it with a Marxist state. She had made that statement on TV -- which is the Singapore style -- before you are released you have to go on television and make your mea culpas. She said it was made through the coercion, torture and assault by internal security officers. As a result the government re-arrested her and eight others. On the grounds they had not been sufficiently rehabilitated. So I was representing her in the habis corpus application in court that morning. It was adjourned and I went the prison to tell her what would happen and suddenly I found myself arrested on the personal orders of my prime minister.

Ballard: On what grounds?

Seow: No grounds were stated at the time. A month later I discovered, through the interrogation that the allegation against me was his suspicion that I was an agent of the US government and had been paid large sums of money to enter into politics to oppose his government. I was so dumbfounded, I just couldn't believe it. This is a suspicion of a paranoid prime minister.

Ballard: Then what brought about your release?

Seow: I was in prison for 72 days, which was 72 days too long. I was released as a result of pressure being brought to bear on the Singapore government by international human rights organizations.

Ballard: Is this a common occurance for citizens in Singapore?

Seow: Absolutely. You see most of what is done in Singapore is always done in the name of national security. Lee Kuan Yew is very fond of saying we would never be able to reach where we are today economically and otherwise if it had not been for these severe and stern measures that the government has taken. Which to me is a lot of nonsense, because you can still attain high economic status without having to be repressive.

Ballard: So you had never spoken against the government or defied Lee Kuan Yew before your arrest?

Seow: What really happened is this. In 1986, Lee Kuan Yew engineered the passing of an amendment to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, to give the government the power to reduce the circulation in Singapore of foreign newspapers or publications if the government deemed it to be interfering with the domestic efforts in Singapore. At that time I was the president of the Law Society of Singapore, which is the equivalent of your American Bar Association. My society critiqued that proposed legislation and said it was completely unnecessary. The government's reaction was very swift and very angry. It accused the law society during my presidency of being on a collision course with the government. He (Yew) passed a law to oust me as president of the law society. That was number one. The accusation against me was that I had tried to use the law society as a political pressure point against his government.

Then in 1987 there were the arrests of 22 young men and women who were social activists. I represented a number of them and they were released because there was no evidence against them. Nevertheless, they had to make a public confession on TV that they were Marxists and had plotted against the government and then promised not to do it again. When the government ministers began to mock them about making those confessions, nine of them took the government at it's word and repudiated their public confession, saying they were coerced into making them through torture, assault, etc. , by the Internal Security Department which is the equivalent of the secret police. So I represented one of them who refused to recent her recantation. That was when I was arrested.

Also, in between my legal representations and my society opposing legislation, I used to have a monthly lunch with the first secretary of the American Embassy and we became friends. During our lunch I would update him to what was going on. Naturally he liked to know what my views where on the latest government moves on this legislation (or) what have you. On another occasion a whole group of judges from New York State came to Singapore and the law society hosted lunches and cocktails for them. Naturally we get very close. There was also another incident when the head of the Singapore desk from the state department came out and wanted to meet me and other members of the law society. They were interested in what was going on, my perceptions on things, and I was quite free with what I told them.

Ballard: So you never considered yourself a political or social activist in any way?

Seow: No, I was just interested in pursuing my profession as a lawyer and to take my law society on a more active course than what we had been doing. I thought it was wrong that the law society should be so engrossed in just making money. I felt we should have a social conscience and take an interest in what's going on and make our views known. If it was not accepted, fine. That should be our job, to critique various proposed legislation. After all, we are the practitioners of those proposed bills that will become law. That was basically my idea. No, not to try to subvert his government or whatever. But, his attitude and approach were different. He saw that I was a potential threat to his government.

Ballard: Americans got a quick lesson in Singapore law with the Michael Faye incident. I would assume that being incarcerated in Singapore isn't a pleasant experience.

Seow: It's certainly not the equivalent of, say, England's Billy Button's Holiday Camp. It's very severe. You're kept in solitary confinement and denied all communications with the outside world except for weekly visits. You can only talk to people through the telephone on either side.

Ballard: You mentioned torture and assault earlier. Is that also a norm?

Seow: Because of my high profile, I got off better than my clients. But, torture maybe didn't mean the screwing of thumb nails for example, it could be other forms. Sleep deprivation can be one of the worst possible . . . which until I went through it I would have never believed was possible. When my client complained to me that she had been standing and interrogated for 72 hours at a stretch, I didn't believe her. Another one said to me they had stood for nearly 120 hours. I said, 'come on, this is impossible, you would fall asleep by then.' But no, there are ways of waking you up. I stood for 17 hours without moving and then I realized that my clients were not telling me a fib. I knew that I could have stood longer had it not been for a call of nature.

Ballard: I can't even fathom how disillusioned you were by your country and the government there.

and to take my law society on a more active Seow: It shattered quite a lot of my previously held beliefs about the government. I didn't think they would even arrest me, because all the others before were arrested on allegations of being a communist or labeled as being a chauvinist, like a Chinese chauvinist or a Malaysian chauvinist. So I was telling all of my friends and associates that he wouldn't arrest me -- "I'm not a communist, he knows I'm not a communist, he could not arrest me for being a chauvinist." Then he came up with the U.S. connection and at that time you could have knocked me down with a feather. And what is worse, I'm supposed to have received a lot of money. I would like to take this opportunity to pass this message on for those who eventually hear this and have any connection to the government, I would like them to know that I have not yet been paid. Contrary to what my prime minister has asserted. He has not mentioned specifically any sum, but I'm prepared to accept any reasonable figure.

Ballard: And you are now exiled from your country?

Seow: That is right. I came here in 1988 as a guest of Human Rights Watch. I remain here because while I was here they were amending laws in Singapore to make sure that I will never be able to get out. First, they abolished appeals through the only independent court in Singapore. Secondly, you can no longer challenge an order of detention under the Internal Security Act. I'm finished if I were to go back. I told myself only a mad fellow would return under those conditions.

Ballard: Singapore is a very important piece of the puzzle in terms of Pacific Rim trade for the U.S., but I really don't think a lot of people know much about your country.

Seow: The people in Singapore know more about the United States than I think the average American knows about Singapore. For one reason, America is Singapore's largest trading partner. Now Singapore is part of the ASEAN group of nations (Association of Southeast Asia Nations). Singapore is one of the seven, which includes Malaysia, Thailand, Viet Nam, Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei. This group of countries control or have resources which are almost virtually untapped when compared to other parts of the world.

It's a growth area. It has a population of over 330 million people and it's an important economic force. Not only Singapore, but all the other nations in ASEAN trade very heavily with the United States, who is their biggest and best customer. You probably know mostly about Viet Nam and maybe a little bit about Thailand, but this is one of the growth areas of the world and one that should not be overlooked. It can be also be a big problem for the United States if something happens. For example, the Spratly Islands has the richest oil deposits, after Saudi Arabia, underneath the sea. It's also one of the richest fishing grounds and has lots of rich minerals. This group of islands would have been ignored, but because of all its riches it isn't. Now Malaysia is claiming part of these islands, Indonesia is doing the same. Viet Nam and China are also claiming either the whole island or parts of it. What has kept any war from taking place over this little group of islands is the fact that the U.S. Seventh Fleet patrols the area.

The ASEAN collective strategy has also helped. Viet Nam and China have clashed over the islands, as well as China and the Philippines. Of course the Philippines is no match. So there is a powder keg there in the middle of the South China Sea.

Ballard: Correct me if I'm wrong, but Singapore seems to be very successful economically. The country has to be doing something right.

Seow: My point is this, it could have been achieved without paying a price for individual freedoms. This is where the prime minister and I are at odds. He says it has to be paid in terms of giving up your personal freedoms and some of your fundamental rights.

Ballard: Give me an example of that.

Seow: Let's take the newspapers. We had so many independent newspapers and there are none today. All of those newspapers are under government control, merged together into one gigantic public company over which the entire board of directors has to be approved by the government. The editorial policy has to be approved by the government. Do you need to give up that right? No. You mean to say those family owned newspapers were not patriotic Singaporians, that they have to sell their rights at government stipulated prices?

Ballard: Those sound like communist methods to me.

Seow: Its methods are communist or Stalinist if you will. Like when you have to make a public confession on television. You don't see that in any other country except in Stalinist Russia. Of course Malaysia has followed suit sometimes. He (Lee Kuan Yew) came to power together with the Communists, as it were, riding into power on the backs of the Communist Tiger. He likes to boast that he got down from there unscathed, but he carries with him all the bad ways of the Communist.

Ballard: Let's go back to the Michael Faye incident. There were two attitudes prevalent in the states. One being his punishment was barbaric, the other being that if punishment such as caning were enforced in the U.S., crime would go down. What's your thoughts about those attitudes?

Seow: At the time the act was passed, I was solicitor general in Singapore. I was against caning as a form of punishment for vandalism. I was overruled. So, as good civil servants we carried out our political masters wishes, and it became law. Now these incidents were actually political vandalism. There were political slogans scrawled across walls of public and private buildings, across bus shelters, on the roads and so forth. The moment they are cleaned, they would reappear. They were being perpetrated by school boys and school girls who were politically inclined towards the opposition. But, I must confess, to my surprise almost overnight incidents of vandalism dropped. It dropped even further after a few were arrested. The girls were not caned, but the boys were. But it became less and less until it dwindled into nothingness. Now in spite of myself, I have to say this -- it seemed to help. So coming back to whether or not you should have something like that here in the states, I think certainly some form of discipline in the form of caning or whatever is necessary.

Ballard: Singapore has an incredibly low crime rate, but at what price, if any, is that accomplished? For example I know it's illegal to chew gum in Singapore.

Seow: That one I think is really absurd. That was brought about as a result of the subtle protest done by people. We boast of one of the finest mass rapid transport systems in the world. It's so clean you could eat off the floor. Now, what was happening was the doors of these trains were jammed. They first thought it was the result of poor maintenance or a bad product. But then they found chewing gum being stuck in certain strategic places stopped the doors from closing automatically. Well, it happened once too often. The government was quick to see that this a form of political protest and it's very difficult to catch the culprits. So this was the answer, they banned chewing gum outright.

Ballard: Those are two examples of laws put in place to halt political opposition?

Seow: Correct. If not stop, to discourage. Another example. The public shows it's annoyance of the political leadership by urinating in the lifts, what you call elevators. Of course it's terrible. So to counter that the government did two things. They had closed circuit cameras installed in every lift in Singapore. They found that wasn't sufficient, because you can block it. So they got their scientists and engineers to work out an ammonia sensing device which is built into the floor of the lifts. So the moment you show your disgust with the government, the lifts jam automatically. When that happens, there is a central base which monitors all the lifts in Singapore. Just pause and think to yourself, all the lifts in all the blocks of flats in Singapore, there are literally thousands of them. The moment one lift jams in a housing state, the signal is transmitted to a huge command center and the authorities are dispatched. It's amazing.

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