Month: July 2019

Book of the Month: To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison

This book is a personal account by former Solicitor-General, Law Society President and opposition politician Francis Seow of the circumstances of his arrest, detention, interrogation and prosecution by Singapore authorities in the late 1980s.

The narrative is roughly split into two parts: The first chronicles Seow’s early years as a young lawyer and his elevation to Solicitor General through then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s machinations. The second traces how the two men fell out with each other over Seow’s opposition to Lee’s attempts to amend aspects of the legal system and use of the Internal Security Act to detain activists.

The second part is the most vivid, providing a captivating insight to the operations of the still-highly secretive Internal Security Department. Seow recounts his 72-day imprisonment at the Whitley Road Detention Centre, the infamous “aircon treatment”, interrogations by various ISD officers and the confessions he was directed to write and sign.

One of the most bizarre aspects is Seow’s account of the painstaking but unsuccessful attempts by ISD officers to uncover a connection between himself and US diplomats allegedly instigating him to run against the ruling People’s Action Party. He puts forth his own version of benign interactions with the diplomats, including Hank Hendrickson, who was later expelled by the Singapore government for alleged interference in domestic politics.

Another common thread in the book is Seow’s depiction of Lee as paranoid and obsessed with getting his own way. For example, Seow accuses Lee of personally intervening to get him detained under the ISA, setting the tax authorities loose on his firm and intimidating law and audit firms into declining him as a client. As he recalls in page 233, “I was reminded times out of number that my case was not an ordinary one and that, before any decision could be taken, it had to go up to, and be approved, by ‘the old man'”.

Still, as a personal memoir, the book’s claims are almost impossible to independently verify given the government’s refusal to declassify records relating to the alleged “Marxist Conspiracy” that preceded Seow’s detention. The narrative is also punctured once too often by emotive outbursts against Lee or the authorities, which one can sympathise with to a certain extent but can be irritating to a reader.

Nevertheless, it is a valuable account that touches on a period of history that the government would prefer citizens to forget and raises many questions about the danger of unaccountable power concentrated within a small elite.

Exclusive interview with Jalan Singapura author Eisen Teo

1. What prompted you to explore this aspect of Singapore history and write a book?

I started on Jalan Singapura eight years ago because I wanted to contribute something to the discipline of History even after I had graduated from university (in 2009). And Jalan Singapura was a great way of combining my interests together in one project. 

Firstly, I have always been interested in transport, especially public transport. I don’t have a driving licence, and I don’t aspire to own a private car. I like the MRT and the bus as modes of transport, and I love taking long double-decker bus rides, sitting at the top of the bus, right at the front, where I can either enjoy the scenery or imagine I’m driving the bus myself. 

Secondly, I’ve always been interested in how cities evolve over time, perhaps because I’ve lived in Singapore for almost all of my 35 years; over this short period, I’ve seen so many changes. 

Thirdly, as a Singaporean, I feel it is my duty to lay claim to my country’s rich heritage, research on and write stories about it, and live a legacy for future generations. 

2. How was the research process like? Where did you find sources?

Admittedly, this being my first full-length book, the process began messy and disorganised. I was looking everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I realised working on a book is very different from working on a university honours thesis or term paper! 

Eventually, after much fumbling, a process I was comfortable with – which I could manage without being overwhelmed – fell into place. I also learned how to juggle the book with my full-time work and family commitments – here, I’ll like to thank my wife Tiak Hui for supporting me all this while, and bearing with my “absence” for long periods. 

Through working on Jalan Singapura, I learned important lessons which I will definitely put to use for my second book (yes, I’ve started work on it!). 

Sources: Jalan Singapura covers the longue durée, so it’s very broad in scope. Hence, sources came from everywhere. Primary sources, secondary sources. Books, maps, archival records, municipal records, oral interviews, websites, I ran the gamut. I even drew on my own experiences as a daily user of public transport.  

Walking and feeling the ground was also crucial – I travelled to many of the places I mentioned in my book. Alas, I didn’t have the time to visit every place – if I have done so, I would’ve published the book in 2029, not 2019! 


3. What was the most fascinating thing you uncovered during your research?

So many things fascinated me! But I’ll pick two examples. 

At one point in our history, one in every 11 persons in Singapore worked as a rickshaw puller. That was testament to how popular the rickshaw was as an occupation and as a mode of transport. 

Also, the public bus – so essential to public transport in Singapore today, with 4 million trips made every day – began in the early 20th century as an irritant to the authorities. Enterprising taxi drivers began picking up multiple passengers in a single trip to earn higher fares; these were soon labelled “mosquito buses”. Two possible reasons: They dangerously zipped in and out of traffic like mosquitoes, and it was difficult to eradicate them completely! 

4. What was your greatest challenge during the research process and how did you overcome it?

As mentioned earlier, Jalan Singapura is very broad in scope. As I’m a new author, I couldn’t get 800 pages to cover both breadth and depth. (My book has 336 pages.) Instead, I had to be very selective with which areas I could go in depth and elaborate with examples, accounts, stories, etc. From my initial manuscript, I worked with my capable and patient editor to cut 20,000 words. It was very painful, but it had to be done. I constantly had to tell myself, it’s ok if you don’t cover everything you’ve unearthed in the course of your research! 

5. Why should people buy Jalan Singapura?

Many reasons! (Haha)

To learn something new about Singapore! I promise there’s interesting trivia on every page. 

To read an alternative story about how modern Singapore came to be what it is today – while touching on topics very close to everyday life. After all, most people have to move from place to place for work, play, etc. 
To find out how history can offer solutions to present-day (transport) problems. 

The History of Movement can be applied to any urban area on the planet, so Jalan Singapura shows how that can be accomplished. 

6. Describe in one sentence what it means to be a historian in Singapore.

While it can be frustrating – because so much has been lost – being a historian in Singapore is also very exciting, because there’s still so much to be discovered, and we are at a point in Singapore’s history where interest in the discipline is at its keenest.

Jalan Singapura is now on sale at Kinokuniya and other major bookshops.

You can also check out Eisen’s website.