Francis T Seow is a former Solicitor General and a brilliant Public Prosecutor. He was awarded the Public Administration (Gold) Medal during his 16-year career with the Singapore Legal Service. He resigned from the legal service and entered private practice in 1972.
In 1986, as President of the Law Society of Singapore, he delivered a bold and memorable speech at the Opening of the Legal Year. He spoke of the “restless mood of the Bar” and expressed the view that “the institution of the Bar has been perceptibly eroded over the past decade or so and it has lost much of its pristine integrity, dignity and reputation.” He said he was determined not to allow further erosions. The audience in the packed court room burst into applause at the end of his speech.
Many members of the legal profession became active and took the statutory duty of the Society to comment on legislation seriously. One of the bills that was criticised by the Society and which generated much debate from members of the public was the Newspaper and Printing Presses Amendment Bill 1986 which sought to restrict the sale of foreign publications.
The spurt of activism in the Society was however short-lived. Within a few months, the PAP government reacted with incomprehensible wrath. The law governing the legal profession came under assault. With great speed, a law to gag the Law Society and to deprive Francis of his presidency was introduced.
The entire council of the Law Society and its legislation sub-committee were summoned to appear before a parliamentary select committee and interrogated by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Under long and intimidating questioning by Lee, telecast on prime time state television, Francis and his colleagues stood their ground. In the end, it was the prime minister and his committee members that came out looking bad.
The government then invented the threat of a “Marxist conspiracy” in 1987 and arrested 22 people. Francis became the lawyer for several of those detained. Regrettably, in 1988, he, too, was arrested under the Internal Security Act and detained without trial for several months.
Soon after his release, Francis stood for election as an opposition candidate in the 1988 Eunos Group Representation Constituency. He lost by a slim margin of 0.9%. Francis was then hounded out of Singaporean tax charges. He sought political asylum in the United States. In exile, Francis became a Visiting Fellow at Yale University and then at Harvard Law School where he wrote several books – To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison, The Media Enthralled and Beyond Suspicion? – The Singapore Judiciary. He now resides in Massachusetts and is busy writing another book.