Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Francis Seow: A brilliant lawyer but the leader that never was

On 21 Jan 2016 we say our last goodbye to a political icon of the 60s to 80s, Francis Seow. Once regarded as the most brilliant lawyer for the Singapore government and later a formidable political opposition, what really fulled his actions? Was it his unflinching passion for democracy and freedom? Was he driven to desperation by the Singapore government? Or something else? 

When Francis Seow was working for the Government for over 10 years as senior counsel and later as Solicitor-General, and enjoyed all the prestige and privileges that came with his office, he had no complaints against the Government and was in fact very supportive of its various actions, including those against the communists and their supporters. 

Seow played a crucial role in exposing the communists in Singapore and contributed to the defeat of communist united front leader Lim Chin Siong and his pro-communist Barisan Sosialis at the September 1962 Referendum on merger with Malaysia. 

Seow was a senior counsel during the Commission of Inquiry into the 1961 Secondary IV examination boycott by Chinese students orchestrated by the communists. During the COI in 1962, Seow presented strong convincing evidence that Lim Chin Siong was a communist and headed an underground communist cell. Seow was awarded the Public Administration (Gold) Medal for his contributions and rose to become the Solicitor-General in 1969. 

However, after he left the Legal Service to go into private practice in 1972, he turned sour and changed his attitude towards the Government to the extent that by the mid-1980s he openly attacked the government he had served avidly for a decade. Investigations revealed that Seow, fulled by his desire for political power, had colluded with American officials to lead a group of professionals including lawyers into opposition politics. 

He had apparently cultivated the Americans to support his political plans and to provide him with asylum should it become necessary. The Americans supported him and gave the impression that asylum would be forthcoming when needed. By doing so, Seow became beholden to the Americans. He had made himself a willing party to interference in Singapore's domestic affairs by foreign officials. 

Seow was detained briefly under the ISA and following his release, he contested in the 1988 GE as a WP member for Eunos GRC, losing only narrowly by 1279 votes. During his trial for income tax evasion after the elections, Seow duly sought and was granted asylum in the US. In his sworn affidavit, Seow admitted that he had been to Washington before the elections to meet high-level State Department officials where they assured him of refuge status should he run into trouble with the Singapore government. 

Seow's close friend and fellow activist in Law Society, Subhas Anandan, who supported Seow of the President of Law Society, found out too late about Seow's duplicitous character and questionable character. Subhas wrote in his book: 

“ (Seow) were fulled by deep-seated motives or what one would consider personal desires. Whatever his motives may have been, the way he conducted himself as president and the speeches he made had lawyers walking with their heads held up high. We had the feeling that we would not be trampled upon. We had a leader who would stand by us. Little did we know that the same leader would someday pack up his things and slink away from Singapore leaving behind a lot of disillusioned people who believed in him. There were also those who gave him money. He still owes me $25,000..." 

“(Seow) was a disappointment and a disaster. He didn’t have the moral courage to return to Singapore to face income tax charges even if he was convicted of those charges, it would have only amounted to a fine but he was not prepared to take the risk. In the final analysis, he was after all, nothing. A man who spoke well – his eloquence was often very charming – but other than that he did not have what it took to be a leader.”

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