To Catch A Tartar, A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison by Francis T Seow

Book Review by Teo Soh Lung

This review is 20 years late. But it is better late than never.

The Internal Security Act (ISA) formerly known as the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance and the Emergency Regulations has been in frequent and extensive use in Singapore since the time when she was still a British colony. The law authorises the government to arrest and imprison people for an indefinite period of time at the sole discretion of the executive. From the date of the enactment of the Emergency Regulations in 1948 till today, thousands have been imprisoned, many for as long as two decades. One prisoner, Dr Chia Thye Poh lost his freedom for 32 years.

Released prisoners have largely remained silent and certainly no one, until Francis Seow, has written and published their ordeals. Emboldened by their silence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew used and continues to use this draconian law to put away political opponents. In later years, Lee extended its use to imprison anyone who criticised any of the PAP policies or laws. Francis Seow was one such victim.

To Catch A Tartar, A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison by Francis T Seow (1994) is the first book to be published by a former ISA prisoner. It remains one of the few autobiographical accounts of political detentions in Singapore. Said Zahari’s Dark Clouds at Dawn, A Political Memoir (2001) and The Long Nightmare, My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner (2007) and Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond the Blue Gate, Recollections of a Political Prisoner (2010) being the other three.


Francis Seow in his youthful years, faithfully served the Singapore government, first as a deputy public prosecutor and then as district judge and magistrate and finally as Solicitor-General. He was the most feared public prosecutor in the annals of Singapore’s legal history. His eloquence, skill, industry and ability to pursue a flimsy lead has earned him many victories, including a conviction for murder without the corpus delicti (the absence of direct evidence which in the case in question was the production of the dead body) when even his superior, the Senior Crown Counsel had instructed “no further action.” Seow in his own words “was involved in the prosecution of almost all the important cases, the causes celebres of the period. I had by this time acquired a formidable reputation as a prosecutor and was flattered to discover that I had become a legal paradigm who had unknowingly inspired a number of persons to pursue the profession of law.”

Francis Seow was the trusted prosecutor of prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He saved Lee when he led the commission of inquiry into the secondary IV Chinese Middle Schools examination boycott and made enemy of his witness, a powerful and wealthy businessman. He fought and won many battles for Lee who privately expressed appreciation for his enormous contributions. But when Seow decided that 16 years of sterling service to Singapore and the government was enough and that it was time to carve out for himself a new “niche of life”, his troubles began. He had intended to join force with David Marshall, the outstanding criminal lawyer, but he was warned by Lee that “Marshall and he (Lee) were on a collision course.” Reluctant to antagonise Lee, he struck out on his own.

Fast forward, Seow was elected by an overwhelming majority to become the president of the Law Society of Singapore in 1986. The morale at the bar then was low. It needed a charismatic and bold leader to regain the prestige of its past. At the opening of the legal year (the annual ceremonial event that marked the return of High Court judges to work after their long vacation), Seow did away with the usual pleasantries. He reminisced, “I served notice of a sea change, that the bar demanded more respect from the bench, which together with the attorney general and his chambers, had been treating it in shoddy fashion. I had plans for a more assertive and caring bar, that the Law Society should be consulted on the selection and appointment of Supreme Court judges, and be heard on the appointment, promotions, and transfers of subordinate judicial and legal officers by the Legal Service Commission.”

The election of Seow as the president of the Law Society of Singapore sent shock waves to Lee. While it marked the beginning of life for the Law Society, it was viewed ominously by Lee. The scrutiny of bills by lawyers were initially communicated to the government through its attorney general. In one instance a report which was totally ignored by the latter was made public. That led to the swift enactment of amendments to the Legal Profession Act. Its sole aim was to remove Seow as its president and its secondary aim, to control the Law Society. The setting up of a Select Committee which on the surface was to receive feedback from lawyers on the bill was merely a public exercise. Instead of members volunteering to give evidence at the hearing (which was the intent of the society), the entire council of the Law Society and members of a subcommittee were subpoenaed to attend the hearing. The state television was tasked by Lee to record the private proceedings and to broadcast selected portions at prime time.

Lee had perhaps overestimated his skill as a lawyer politician and underestimated that of Seow. Seow described the hearing in these words: “… the script and screenplay for what can only be described as parliamentary burlesque were written, presented, produced, and directed by a versatile prime minister, with the virtuoso himself stealing the show as its consummate political actor. His genius so completely dominated the theatrical performance that the Speaker of Parliament as chairman and the other members of the Select Committee seemed as relevant to the proceedings as flies on a wall.” Of Lee’s style, he has this to say: “Listening to the line and nature of questioning and the order of witnesses called by the prime minister, I perceived that this crucifixion of Council members was being performed for my edification, if I should prove recalcitrant in the witness box. It had little to do with the merits of the proposed amendments.”

According to Seow, the official feedback unit “had apparently reported unfavourable public reaction to the prime minister’s stellar bullying performance” at the televised hearing. In prison, Seow was told by the “ISD baby-sitters” that “you would not have created all this problem for yourself, if you had not confronted him in the Select Committee.”

To Catch A Tartar is a book that tells of the deplorable depth at which a politician in a supposedly democratic country will dive. Power and the fear of losing that power has a cascading, terrifying effect. Unknowingly and knowingly, equals and subordinates were cowed and turned into sheep. It is an eye-opener for anyone who wants to know about one of the most outstanding leaders in Asia. Seow was an insider while in the service of the government. His understanding of how Lee works when he pursues “an enemy” is profound. When Seow became a victim himself in 1988, he experienced the full works of the ISD. Solicitor general or not, the ISD did not accord him any respect. They called him a “bloody fucking liar” time and time again. He was locked up in a dirty, filthy, tiny cell without proper ventilation for nearly 60 days. He was made to stand and was questioned for 16 continuous hours. He described the interrogation in the dark cold room:

“As I turned round to confront him in the darkness, another person from behind him bawled into my right ear that I was “a fucking bloody liar,” whilst a chorus of voices accused me of being supported and financed by the Americans. It was not only bewildering but terrifying. I kept whirling around to identify and meet the thrust of those shrill, shrieking voice. I suddenly began to comprehend that they were not interested in hearing any answers. It was an awesome exercise to disorientate, malign, and humiliate me. It was the vaunted “psychological pressure and technique” of Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son and political heir of Prime Minister Harry Lee Kuan Yew. He should have been there to watch his maniacs in action! The word “neutralise” was etched indelibly in my memory. It was intended to frighten and neutralize me from entering opposition politics. And to serve no doubt as a warning to all the professionals whom I had tried to cultivate for the general election. Sha ji xia hou!”

Seow’s vivid description of those who interrogated him is chilling. He was not physically assaulted but was sufficiently near to being assaulted. “He swung his hand at me. I braced myself for the blow. But his fist stopped short just inches from my face. He looked like a thug. He behaved like a thug. He was a thug. He repeated his threat. I remained silent. Amidst deafening obscenities, he swaggered up to me and repeatedly blew thick clouds of cigarette smoke into my face. He had shouted himself hoarse.”

Seow’s description of his tormentors and their acts is colourful but not without a pungent sense of humour. He called them “the goon squad.” And he recalled the words of one of them:

“You have been fixing up a lot of police officers in your time.” [He was alluding to the days when police disciplinary proceedings were referred to me as solicitor general for instructions.] “Now is the time for you to be fixed. You think you can pull strings; but I also can pull strings.”

As he said that, he yanked loose the drawstring which held up my pyjama trousers. For some inexplicable reason, the law of gravity was suspended that night. My trousers did not drop to the floor. I kept very still. I was already bare from the waist up, and barefooted.”
And he would poke fun at them too. He recalled: “At some point later in the inquisition, I became aware of a senior ranking person seated behind the desk, whose face in the lurid darkness was concealed by a black porcine-like mask whose snout-like contraption scrambled his voice whenever he spoke. He was undoubtedly someone known to me, but whose fearful shame of discovery of his identity and participation in this monstrous inquisition had driven him to seek anonymity behind that grotesque mask. This surely was the stuff of Orwellian fiction!”

The reason for Seow’s arrest was that he was allegedly involved in a “Black Operation.” He was alleged to have been “made use of” by the Americans who encouraged him to stand as an opposition candidate in the general election of 1988. Innocent meetings with the First Secretary of the US Embassy and other officials were construed as a conspiracy to overthrow the insecure PAP government. It was a ridiculous, baseless charge but it was seriously acted out by the ISD. The ISD took away all his files on the pretext of checking if he had received money from a foreign power. Statements were recorded, amended and recorded again and again from Seow. How those statements led to the justification of his imprisonment, Seow notes: “The Oscars for production and direction, as well as screenplay and script, must unreservedly go to the ISD and its cast of talented officers. They had worked very hard at it. My contribution to craftsmanship was as minimal as it was unwilling….” Seow was incarcerated for 72 days, nearly 60 of those days were spent in a tiny, filthy cell.


Seow’s release was not the end of his troubles. It could not end because he had decided to contest the general election. The files pertaining to his personal and office accounts which were earlier seized were released to his office while he was still in prison only to be delivered to the inland revenue authority at the same time. Seow was issued tax summonses without the usual grace period accorded to tax payers to answer queries. Seow’s Epilogue is the first detailed written indictment of the Singapore judicial system. His other book, Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary created another colossal dent in the already weakened judicial system. The person who built Singapore has probably destroyed a system that is meant to guarantee the protection of her people.


To Catch a Tartar is a must read for anyone interested in knowing the hidden side of Singapore. It is an excellent book, the best account of political detention in a city state I have read. It is a classic.



About fn8org

For computers, it means to start again in safe mode. For us, we hope we can also start again in safe mode. But it's more like re-booting our systems and starting from much needed basics for democracy in Singapore.
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One Response to To Catch A Tartar, A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison by Francis T Seow

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Beyond Suspicion | Jess C Scott :: Blog

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