Transcript of Francis Seow's ST interview

  October 19, 2003

A Straits Times journalist, Tan Tarn How recently invterviewed by e-mail, former Solicitor General Francis Seow.

The Sunday Times, Oct 19, carried a report , Fugitive dissidents form group to fight for free speech, and made references to Mr Seow.

The former Solicior General, after readiung the ST report said, "It was a travesty of the answers to the questionnaire." The following is Mr Seow's replies to the Straits Times.

Q. What have you been busy with lately?

A. I have myriad things and interests to keep me busy. I have just completed a book, entitled Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary -- an analysis of the multiple defamation proceedings by Lee Kuan Yew and his PAP myrmidons against political opponents -- Tang Liang Hong and JB Jeyaretnam -- viewed through the prism of the Hotel Properties Limited, whose luxury condominium units in the chic purlieus of Singapore were purchased at controversial discounts by the entire Lee family, and more especially Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong, not to mention Justice Lai Kew Chai. The manuscript will be published by Yale University’s Center for International and Area Studies.

I am now working on another book, Murder by Scuba: The Sunny Ang Trial. It is a case of legal and historical interest. Ang was charged with and convicted of the murder at sea of the bar maid Jenny Cheok, whose misfortune was to have loved him blindly. Her body was never found.

When I am otherwise not writing, I give presentations on aspects of Singapore, the last one of which was at the University of Chicago.

Q. Are you attached to any organisation?

A. I am not quite sure to what you are referring. If you mean whether I am still with Harvard Law School, the answer is no.

Q. Which part of the US are you living in now?

A. Boston, Massachusetts.

Q. Do you still keep in touch with what's happening in Singapore? How do you get news about Singapore?

A. Of course. It is my constant study. In this day and age, it is not too difficult to get – as you put it -- “news about Singapore.” There are the Internet avenues, such as, Singaporeans for, to mention but two, and your Straits Times Interactive.

Q. Do you hope to return to Singapore one day? Why?

A. But of course. It is the country of my birth and my ancestral home, that’s why.

Q. How do you feel about being away for so long? Do you miss Singapore, and what do you miss?

A. My absence from Singapore was not of own choosing.

But truth to tell, I do not really miss Singapore. There are many pursuits over here, as I have said, that keep me well occupied. Boston is not only the historical but also the intellectual and the medical capital of the States, amongst other things.

If I do miss anything, it is my dear mother, a scion of one of Singapore’s Brahmanic families but we keep in touch through letters and the Internet. She has just celebrated her 97th birthday. I do not miss anything else – not even its food!

Q. Do you feel you are a Singapore at heart? Why?

A. This is an inane question. I am not an arriviste or a temporary Singaporean. As stated, my family traces its origin to the early founding of Singapore -- and beyond to omphalic Malacca.

Q. What are theirs thoughts now on the events leading up to you having to leave?

A. I take it you mean my thoughts. They have not changed one iota. Read my book To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison.

Q. Do you still keep in touch with other 'exiles' such as Mr Tang Liang Hong, Mr Tan Wah Piow and Mr Zulfikar? What is your view of the exile association that Mr Zulfikar has set up?

A. The contextual phrase “still keep in touch’ is not only vague but suggestive of many construction. I occasionally hear from Tang, and more rarely, from Tan Wah Piow, who incidentally is doing extremely well in his law practice in London. Mr Zulfikar is not known to me. What HAS the Singapore government done to him to make him leave paradise? I do not know of any exile association that has set been up by Mr. Zulfikar or whoever or its objects.

Q. Do you still have your Singapore citizenship? How are your feelings on losing it? What nationality are you now?

A. Now, this is another inane question. I do not know that I had “lost” my citizenship. This question is best addressed to the Singapore government. I have not been informed that I have “lost” my natural born right of citizenship. Even so, no ill-conceived or arbitrary executive diktat can obliterate the historical bonds between the country of my forbears and me.

Q. I realise these are a lot of questions! Is it possible to get a recent picture of you for publication?

A. The Straits Times’ archives have already albums galore of my photographs. For your information, I have not changed all that much.

Q. I understand that you have been unwell, and hope to confirm that.

A. Nothing of any moment for concern. I have been assured I will live for a long time more.

Francis Seow

Sunday Times
October 19, 2003

Fugitive dissidents form group to fight for free speech

Led by ex-Fateha website chief, the Melbourne-based group aims to educate S'poreans on activism

By Tan Tarn How {&} Neo Hui Min

A GROUP of Singapore dissidents, led by a controversial activist on the run, has set up an association in Australia to fight for free speech here and educate foreigners on Singapore politics.

Called the Association For Democracy In Singapore, it is headed by Mr Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, the former head of Muslim website Fateha who fled Singapore last year amid a police probe into a criminal defamation case.

Now a research fellow with Monash University, he told the Sunday Times that the group was registered as a society in Melbourne a few months ago. It is being advised by opposition stalwart J.B. Jeyaretnam, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan and former Workers' Party election candidate Tang Liang Hong.

The group's work will extend the efforts already made by the advisers and others in the international arena for democracy and human rights.

They include Singapore's most well-known exile, fugitive activist and lawyer Tan Wah Piow, and the former solicitor-general and opposition candidate Francis Seow.

They plug into a network of institutions sympathetic to their cause, receiving moral encouragement such as awards and other support such as funds or appointments.

Prior to the setting up of the association, these people had worked loosely together or as individuals campaigning against the Singapore Government.

The Melbourne-based group aims to educate Singaporeans on free speech and activism, including the use of defamation suits against political opponents, which Mr Zulfikar said had made Singaporeans apathetic and fearful of politics. It aims to hold a conference here next year about workers rights with a few other groups, he said, but declined to identify them.

Unionists from overseas who can help train Singapore workers about rights and activism will be invited to the event, he said. 'Like the Government, we believe Singapore needs foreign talent,' he added.

The group also wants to let foreigners, such as academics, activists and policy makers, know about the 'extent of control over dissent' here, he said.

It also hopes to air a radio news programme for Singapore listeners via an Indonesian station, an idea hatched by Mr Zulfikar three years ago that failed to take off then. Apart from him, the association is run by another staffer and funded by contributions.

Mr Jeyaretnam said though he believed the fight of dissidents should be carried out here, there was no harm if others preferred to work from abroad.

But Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang, MP for Hougang, was sceptical: 'I don't believe in those who say they aiguo, but they go to another country to say they aiguo.'

Aiguo is Chinese for 'love the country'.

But he added that some Singaporeans 'have no choice'.

As for the others, he had this to say: 'If it's just a matter of going to jail, how long can you jail me for? '


The four who fled


WHO: Fugitive ex-student radical Tan Wah Piow, 51, fled Singapore in 1976 after failing to report for national service enlistment. He was stripped of his Singapore citizenship in 1987.

NOW: It is time the Government closed the file on him as he is no longer a threat to national interest, he said, adding that he wants to come home. He also denies charges that he masterminded the alleged 1987 Marxist conspiracy.

Now a partner of a law firm, the British national lives with his wife and 19-year-old son in London. He keeps in touch with Singapore politics through the Internet and visits the region often, usually to meet his 92-year-old mother, who lives here.


WHO: Exiled opposition politician and former lawyer Tang Liang Hong, 63, fled after the 1997 General Election. The Government accused him of being a Chinese chauvinist, and People's Action Party leaders won a defamation suit against him. He was made a bankrupt when he could not pay up.

NOW: 'I really want to go back,' the former lawyer told a Malaysian newspaper a few months ago. He lives in Melbourne with his wife and travels to the region regularly.

While he told the Sin Chew Daily that he would leave politics to focus on cultural activities if he does return, he is also adviser to the Association For Democracy In Singapore. 'A people without culture has no future,' he said.


WHO: Former solicitor-general Francis Seow, 75, stood on the Workers' Party platform in the 1988 General Election. He fled Singapore that year after being convicted of tax evasion.

NOW: He has just written a book analysing the PAP leaders' defamation suits against political opponents, he said.

Now living in Boston, he's working on another book on the controversial 1965 trial of Sunny Ang, convicted of murdering his girlfriend though her body was never found. He was the state prosecutor for the case.

He is the least connected to the Melbourne group, and is not aware of the exiles' new association. On whether he wants to return, he said: 'But of course.'


WHO: Former Fateha chief Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, 32, left in July last year while the police were investigating if he had criminally defamed Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and others.

NOW: He heads the Association For Democracy In Singapore, and says of returning home: 'I will have to make sure that my work is done before I am incarcerated...I don't see what I can do for Singapore while I'm sitting in jail.'

He lives in Melbourne, with his four children and his wife, who is doing her master's in education. He is doing research at the Monash Asia Institute on government transparency, and hopes to write a book on the subject. 'I think about Singapore all the time,' he added.