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To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 18, Number 2, May 1996
pp. 507-510 | 10.1353/hrq.1996.0017

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Human Rights Quarterly 18.2 (1996) 507-510

Book Review

To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison

Francis T. Seow, To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Prison (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, Monograph 42, 1994) 293 pp. $22.00. Paperback.

This book provides a personal account of the circumstances that led to the arrest, mistreatment, and detention of a member of Singapore's elite class, Francis T. Seow, under the Internal Security Act (ISA) of Singapore. Through this narrative, Seow comments on executive interference in the Singapore judiciary, outlines the operations and philosophy of the Internal Security Department (ISD) and its officers, provides personal testimony on the political style of Lee Kuan Yew, describes the strategies employed by the People's Action Party (PAP) to neutralize its political opponents, supplements existing literature on Singapore's "Marxist Conspiracy," and reveals the state of civil and political rights in Singapore.

This book can be roughly divided into two parts. The first part sketches the author's early relationship and eventual fallout with Prime Minister Harry Lee Kuan Yew. The second part provides a detailed description of Seow's mistreatment during detention, the workings of the ISD, and the attempt by its officers to establish a US "connection."

The selection of early episodes describes how Seow's services as a public prosecutor were used to secure the criminal conviction of political opponents of the PAP such as trade unionist Jamit Singh. These events also reveal how Lee's personal interference in the appointments within the judiciary secured for Seow his promotion to solicitor-general. However, these episodes take a sudden twist when the symbiotic relationship between the two deteriorates into a relationship of confrontation. Seow was elected President of the Law Society in 1986 after leaving the public service for private practice in 1980. The confrontation between Lee and Seow began when the Law Society, under the leadership of Seow, began to criticize parliamentary legislation, in particular the proposed Newspaper and Printing Press Amendment. The friction between Lee and Seow increased when the latter stood up to Lee during the Select Committee hearings on proposed amendments to the Legal Professions Act. These events were followed by Seow's involvement in securing the release of the alleged "Marxist Conspirators." The author suggests that the above incidents and his desire to contest the 1988 elections were responsible for his eventual detention under the ISA.

The remainder and bulk of the book describes in detail what the former President of Singapore, Devan Nair, summarizes in the foreword as the psychological torment that Seow endured during detention.

Systematic sleep deprivation, continuous interrogation over sixteen hours by strident, foul-mouthed intelligence officers, while standing barefoot in flimsy clothing on a cold cement floor in a freezing room under the skin-blistering and eye de-moisturising glare of spotlights, unlimited solitary confinement. . . .

Seow also tells the reader in this part of the narrative that, in order to legitimize the PAP government's detention of the author in the eyes of the public, an attempt was made to erect a connection between Seow and certain US diplomats. By establishing that Seow had been subjected to foreign manipulation, a case could be made for Seow's detention to protect the integrity of Singapore's political system. A similar theme of foreign intervention by US human rights groups and media is currently being pursued by the PAP against Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party.

As personal memoirs, this book has posed some difficult questions as to the veracity of its contents. Some reviewers have criticized the book for being one-sided. Other reviewers have embraced the book as a poignant critique of Singapore politics. It is evident from the text that the author has attempted to cross-reference many points, especially where he rebutts the claims of the Singapore government. Nevertheless, only the author can verify a substantial amount of information contained in the text. The question of verifiability is a difficult one to resolve given the special case of Francis Seow and his confrontation with the PAP government. However, the circumstances of Seow's...


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