Francis Seow and I greeted each other at the entrance to the Harvard Coop; he was a visiting fellow at Harvard Law School – a refuge he gratefully accepted after his harrowing ordeal in Singapore. He looked every bit the legal prosecutor that he was at home. And why not, he was the solicitor-general – the number two guy in the Attorney-General's Chambers.
After a quick tour of the campus which he expertly conducted for my benefit, we retreated from the cold to his office. We talked a little about his work – he had just written his first book To Catch A Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison which was being published by Yale University.
“Don't let them get you down,” Francis said when he abruptly changed the subject. “These people are merciless and Kuan Yew is a very vindictive man.” I had just been sacked from NUS and was reeling from the barrage of attacks from the PAP and media. Francis had invited me over to Boston and to get away from it for a while. I accepted the invitation but with developments going rapid-fire back home, I couldn't stay away for long. Still, the tranquility of a university setting provided a blissful respite.
Over the course of the week in Boston, our conversation drifted back and forth between what was happening to me and what had led him to Harvard. Why did he leave the legal service? What prompted him to take up the presidency of the Law Society? What motivated him to take up the cudgels of democracy?
“I'm not interested in politics, you know,” he said, “I saw what Kuan Yew was trying to do, pushing all the amendments to the laws to consolidate PAP's power. I just didn't want to roll over and play dead.”
The events that led to his confrontation with Lee Kuan Yew, his subsequent capture by Lee under the ISA and his departure from Singapore are told in his book To Catch A Tartar and aptly summarised elsewhere, excusing me from re-narrating it here.
It was clear, however, that Francis was at ease with himself. He was proud of what he had done in Singapore and he felt, in his post-ISA detention days, that he could contribute more away from home.
I saw Francis again a few years later in Melbourne, Australia where I was seeking a fellowship in one of the universities. We were meeting with a group of activists who were involved in the 1987 arrests. The discussion led to the setting up of Singapore Window (SW), one of the very first portals dedicated to carrying news and analysis about Singapore's politics. Inoperative today, SW has become a treasure trove of political information during that period and can still be accessed here.
Tang Liang Hong joined us subsequently. Liang Hong was also making his exit from Singapore after coming under intense scrutiny from the police, both secret and otherwise, following the 1997 general elections where he stood as a candidate with J B Jeyaretnam in the Cheng San GRC. In addition, PAP leaders – 13 of them to be exact – had filed lawsuits against Liang Hong. Our rendezvous was thus an opportune time for Francis to get a firsthand account of Liang Hong's legal travails – all of which was later recounted in Francis' third book Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary.
I remember the nights we stayed up till the wee hours, occasionally accompanied by Mr Jack Daniels and roast duck that Liang Hong ordered from his favourite Chinese restaurant in Melbourne. Conversation inevitably gravitated towards the PAP and how it had wrecked the legal system and the rule of law through its lust for power. Here were two top legal minds in Singapore who had stood up for justice but were brutally crushed by the ruling party. The episodes sent powerful waves across Singapore, silencing the community and strengthening the already muscular trait of conformity in Singaporeans. Sadly, we agreed, such ill-effects would plague our country for generations to come.
I met Francis on a few more occasions in the first half of the 2000s when I was doing fellowships in Chicago and Washington DC. On none of the occasions did he betray any hint of bitterness or regret. Francis was not a hero – he never saw himself as one and he never wanted the accolade. He was a man supremely comfortable in his own skin and keenly aware of his own frailties and shortcomings.
After I was made bankrupt by Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong and barred from travelling in 2006, Francis and I corresponded through the email with him often advising me in my court battles with the prime ministers, both present and former. I lost contact with him in recent years when he stopped replying to my emails, a hint that his health was deteriorating. I was saddened to hear that he passed away last week.
Whatever is said about Francis Seow, this much is true: His conscience stirred when he saw the political noose tighten around Singapore's neck, and he stood up and spoke up when few dared. “I hope Singaporeans awaken soon,” he told me when we first met at Harvard, “it's never wise to trade wealth for justice. You'll never get full when you dine with the devil.”
Francis Seow will be laid to rest today in the wintry cold half a world away from home. But, if I know him well enough, he lies content in the knowledge that he has done his part and left much to stir the conscience of the next generation.
Rest well, my friend.