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.

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