The government we elect will have a profound effect on institutions that are meant to protect the people. An analysis of the death of activism in the Law Society of Singapore in the 1980s by Teo Soh Lung
In 1986, the Law Society of Singapore met the full wrath of the government. It was accused of meddling in politics and acting as a political pressure group. It received this stern warning from the prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew: “It’s my job as the Prime Minister in charge of the Government of Singapore to put a stop to politicking in professional bodies. If you want to politick, come out.”
Even before 1986 ended, the Law Society suffered the full brunt of the government’s anger. But it did not die lying down. It died standing tall and in the spotlight of the nation. Mr Francis Seow was removed from his seat as President of the Law Society, not by the vote of its members but by a new law enacted by the PAP government.
Some members of the Law Society had openly and secretly blamed Mr Francis Seow and several young lawyers, including me for the “demise” of the Law Society. We were accused of “acting too fast” thus bringing the heavy hand of the government on us.
Such accusations are completely without any basis. The Law Society had died long before 1986. It had failed to “protect and assist the public in Singapore in all matters touching or ancillary or incidental to the law” which was one of the main objectives for its existence. For that matter, it had also failed to protect its members. I recall that when I entered the profession in 1974, I was unhappy that it was only interested in golf competitions. It was not a society that I had envisaged – fighting for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged. It never spoke up against the government’s implementation of unjust policies like the “Stop at Two” population control policy or the discriminatory policy of priority for schools granted to one and two child families. It never spoke up against the Voluntary Sterilisation Act or the groundless enhancement of penalties for crimes and the removal of discretionary powers of our judiciary. The Society was literally as good as dead in the 1970s. It didn’t even speak up for lawyers who were imprisoned without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1977.
The restlessness of lawyers, especially younger lawyers started in the early 1980s. It coincided with the election of Mr J B Jeyaretnam in 1981 and his re-election together with Mr Chiam See Tong in 1984. Awareness of the sorry state of our country was enhanced by the television broadcast of parliamentary debates. For the first time, the lawyers saw the effectiveness of opposition in parliament after 15 years of one party rule.
What then were the so called “political activities” of the Law Society that led the government to take such ruthless actions against it in 1986?
The awakening in early 1980s
The 1980s marked the awakening of lawyers after a period of inactivity in the 1970s. Lawyers were active in the 1950s but somehow lost their activism by the 1970s. It is likely to be due to the waves of arrests under the ISA in that decade and earlier which culminated in the arrests of several lawyers in 1977 who were labelled “Euro communists.
Establishment of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme
In 1981, a law lecturer, Mr Stanley Yeo, published his study on unrepresented defendants from 1973 to 1980. He concluded that accused persons without legal representation were disadvantaged as they received heavier penalties. Several young lawyers and academics began to discuss if the government could be persuaded to activate Part 2 of the Legal Aid and Advice Act which provides legal aid for criminal cases. This law was enacted in 1955 by the Labour Front government but Part 2 was not put into effect for unknown reasons. They wrote to the Minister of Law. His response was that they were not interested. That being the case, the group of about 12 young lawyers and academics started to research and work on the feasibility of setting up a private scheme for criminal legal aid. They presented a paper on the scheme to the Law Society in 1983 but it was rejected.
Not long after, in 1984, the president of the Law Society talked about the setting up of a criminal legal aid scheme in his Opening of the Legal Year speech. The group then asked the president who he had in mind to establish the scheme. When told that he had the group in mind, they immediately volunteered. The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme was thus born in 1985.
The inertia of the Law Society was evident when drastic amendments were introduced to the Penal Code. The Law Society was silent. The amendments sailed through parliament without any objection from the Law Society in 1984. Lawyers at the criminal bar were shocked with the introduction of minimum sentences for a number of offences without good reason. The government argued that our judges were too lenient and offenders need to be punished more severely so as to reduce crime rate. In addition, the duration for police investigation before appearance in court was extended from 24 hours to 48 hours. Since the Law Society did nothing, 61 lawyers called an extraordinary general meeting to register their objection to the amendments.
At the opening of the legal year in 1985, the president sounded the warning that the Bar was “restless”. On hindsight, I fully agree with him that the Bar was restless but for good reasons. They wanted to see a more active Law Society. There were many lawyers who wanted to contribute to society, knowing that they were living in a privilege world. They wanted to see change in the Society.
Preventive measures to end change
In 1985, the government introduced an amendment to the Constitution of Singapore that would allow it to deprive citizens who have not returned to Singapore for 10 years and more. I was asked by the president of the Society to report on this amendment. Several lawyers and I got together and presented a report stating among many other issues, that it was wrong and against international law to deprive a citizen by birth of his nationality. In all probability the report was submitted to the attorney general. We heard nothing about the representation. Presumably, it was ignored.
A year later, I realised that the new law was targeted at Tan Wah Piow. He was deprived of his Singapore citizenship and unjustly accused of being the leader of the alleged Marxist Conspirators in 1987.
1985 marked the beginning of the enactment of laws which victimise individual citizens. At that time, parliament comprised 77 PAP members and 2 opposition members (Messrs JB Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong). Many more such laws were enacted after 1985 and I will elaborate on this later.
By the end of 1985, it was clear to the government that potential “threats” were brewing in the Law Society and elsewhere. Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues knew that the Society has to be slammed back to its former sleepy days. The election of two lawyers, Messrs J B Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong was giving them a headache in parliament and they cannot afford to have more lawyers in parliament who oppose and criticise their policies.