Book Review: Beyond Suspicion

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Towards the end of Once a Jolly Hangman, Alan Shadrake shares some details about his arrest in Singapore. There is one paragraph where he says:

“Was I in danger of being arrested? I consulted well-known Singaporean Francis T. Seow, a former president of the Law Society. His advice: as long as it’s all correct, you have nothing to fear.”

We can thus hold Francis Seow to his word, in the sense that the research in his book, Beyond Suspicion? is based on facts, not fiction. This was yet another book that I would have thought was a tragicomical political movie script or novel, had I not already been familiar with some of the well-known, real life members of the cast.

As the former solicitor-general of Singapore, Francis T. Seow was one of LKY’s right-hand men — the top man after the attorney general (the attorney general being the principal legal officer who represents a country in legal proceedings and gives legal advice to the government).

The publication’s core strength lies in Francis Seow’s references to a complete set of court documents to present his points. That this book is written in a vibrant, intellectually lively style makes it both an educational and entertaining read. For example, Francis Seow doesn’t simply use the word “corrupted” to describe Singapore politics — he describes it as “a dirty gladiatorial game [that’s] also dangerous.”

No time is wasted with giving the reader a bit of background information on Yong Pung How (“an old crony from Lee’s college days”), who became the chief justice of Singapore in 1990. This happened despite the fact that Yong never actually practiced law in Singapore. To paraphrase an insider’s quote, “no judge [in Singapore] who values his rice bowl” would dare go against his political masters’ expectations when it comes to political court cases.

Amnesty International underscored the “notoriety of Lee and his government’s use of defamation laws to stifle the opposition via compliant courts.” Garry Rodin, Director of the Asia Research Centre from 2002-2009, wrote about “the PAP’s manic desire to crush the slightest semblance of serious scrutiny” in his blurb on the back cover of the book. These quotes further illustrate the extent of the politicization of the judiciary.

Even when armed with this knowledge, the reader will still come across an array of mind-boggling dialogue and logic-defying actions (thanks to the PAP leaders of the time), through Francis Seow’s intense presentation of the case involving Tang Liang Hong.

Tang’s “crime” was questioning the Lees’ controversial purchases with the Nassim Jade properties, and asking why the matter wasn’t handed over to a professional body like Commercial Affairs Department or Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau.

In Tang’s own words:

“[The CAD or CPIB] are government departments. . .well-known for being [firm and impartial]. They would be more detached and their reports would have been more convincing to the people.”

The real crime is that Tang Liang Hong was in opposition politics, an individual whom the PAP elite recognized “as an immediate threat to their electoral prospects in the Cheng San GRC” during the 1997 General Election. Back in 1981, LKY once dismissed the value of a political opposition as being “irrelevant.” How can someone or something be a threat and irrelevant at the same time?

The rest of the chapters give a detailed account of the political gangsterism and character assassination Tang Liang Hong experienced. One would think that the text was describing the bullying that occurs in a children’s playground, and not the behaviour of highly-ranked politicians in a court of law.

We are shown how The Straits Times provided coverage that was “more favourable to the PAP leaders than reports from foreign journalists,” and how Tang Liang Hong was branded by PAP leaders as an “anti-Christian, anti-English-educated Chinese chauvinist,” with Goh Chok Tong taunting Tang as a “coward and a liar.”

As if these obnoxious epithets were insufficient, LKY likened Tang Liang Hong to “a serial killer” during an hour and a half monologue in court. LKY and his “PAP digits” were “like ravenous hyenas in a feeding frenzy” when they demanded a grand total of S$12.9 million for the lawsuits over Tang’s remarks on the Nassim Jade purchases, along with his other actions.

Other memorable gems include the Singapore government misusing taxpayers’ funds to support a private quarrel, LKY’s comments on how J.B. Jeyaretnam — who represented Tang Liang Hong in court — should be “skinned alive like a skunk,” and Wong Kan Seng, then the leader of the House, “loyally leaping to the patriarch’s rescue” when LKY made a grave and thoroughly unsupported allegation that Tang was backed by people who wished to destroy Singapore. There are plenty of other juicy details which I can’t include in a book review, though I will endeavour to feature bits and pieces in future articles.

The nature of the PAP leaders involved in this dreadful fiasco can be seen in the final outcome of Tang’s case. All the charges against Tang were dropped when the main property asset of the Tangs was no longer worth as much, due to the Asian financial crisis and other factors (and therefore less of a boon than the PAP leaders had originally hoped for, in terms of being awarded their millions in damages).

After all the litigation costs, mental/emotional distress, and disruption caused to him and his family, Tang was declared a bankrupt, so that he could not hold any political position in Singapore and directly partake in politics. Tang himself succinctly described the law in Singapore as being an unequal struggle, and “a test of financial strength, not of legal arguments.”

As a June 1997 editorial by The New York Times wrote:

“Singapore’s leaders are masters at using libel suits in a compliant court system to silence or intimidate their domestic opponents. . .”

The purpose of books like Beyond Suspicion is not to ridicule or be derisive. It is to expose flaws in a political party or system, and provide a record of history. Note that on Page 241, it is mentioned that one of the legal documents to do with Tang Liang Hong was ordered by Justice Chao Hick Tin to be destroyed — at the request of LKY, via his counsel, Davinder Singh. Who knows what else has been requested to be destroyed?

Another purpose is for future generations to remember what this party has done to opposition members whom they viewed as a threat. Were the opposition members viewed as a threat to Singapore; good governance; or to the PAP’s own stronghold of political power?

If leaders are wise and less arrogant, they would seek to produce less scripted videos which appear to be more propaganda-inspired than patriotically inspired. Instead, they would seek to learn from mistakes of the past — and make genuine amends — so that they can prove to current voters/citizens why they should still be in office, as well as justify their high salaries drawn from taxpayers’ dollars.

In the context of Singapore’s political scene, it is only by the party’s own words and actions that they make the choice to be regarded as the “People’s Action Party,” or a “Perpetually Arrogant Party.”

* * *

More Information:

Beyond Suspicion? (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
TLH Legal Saga | SW S’poreans Appeal (Singapore Window)
Yale University / Monograph 55 (Publisher)
Beyond Suspicion by Dr. Michael Barr (Book Review)
To Catch A TartarĀ by Teo Soh Lung (Book Review)
Francis Seow (Wikipedia)
Francis Seow (Profile)
Francis Seow: The Interview (YouTube; where a certain “bosom pal and crony of LKY” is mentioned, and much more)

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