Francis Seow: Prosecutor in some of S'pore's iconic trials

"He was the best prosecutor we ever had," said former colleague and one-time star prosecutor Glenn Knight, 70, and now a lawyer in private practice. "He could hammer me out of shape!"

While it is arguable if Mr Francis Seow was one of Singapore's top prosecutors, it bears reflection that he successfully presided over some of Singapore's iconic criminal cases, which made him a titan.

Mr Seow died two weeks ago in Boston, aged 88, having exiled himself in the United States for nearly three decades to avoid tax evasion charges here, of which he was convicted in absentia in 1991.

He began his legal career in 1956 when Singapore was a Crown colony, rose up to become Solicitor- General - the No. 2 post in the Attorney-General's Chambers in post-independent Singapore - in 1969 and served until 1972 when he resigned to enter private practice.

In recognition of his distinguished services to the public sector, Mr Seow was awarded the Public Administration (Gold) Medal in that same year.


Mr Seow began his legal career in 1956 and rose up to become Solicitor-General. ST FILE PHOTO

Mr Seow's signature case was in prosecuting 40 of the detainees who rioted on Pulau Senang and killed three prison staff. The incident which occurred in 1963 on the coral island 13km off Singapore wrecked an experiment in prison rehabilitation for detained secret society gangsters.

As Crown prosecutor in the 64-day trial before a seven-man jury in 1964,he sent 18 rioters to the gallows for killing the three prison staff. The 18 were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by the court. Twelve others were acquitted and another 29 were jailed for rioting.

The Pulau Senang case was the first time in legal annals here where so many were tried and convicted for a capital offence at the same time.

Before the trial, Mr Seow made it clear he was determined to send at least a dozen of the accused to the gallows - for the deaths of the prison staff.

"In the end he succeeded in sending 18 to the gallows as he felt that the culprits deserved to be fatally dealt with to send a very clear signal to all prisoners that intentional killing of a prison officer must attract a death penalty," said a retired civil servant.

In 1962, prior to the Pulau Senang case, Mr Seow prosecuted as DPP the then high-profile secretary-general of the Singapore Harbour Board Staff Association (SHBSA), Jamit Singh, for criminal breach of trust. The prominent, charismatic and left-leaning unionist was accused with another of misappropriating $7,000 from the SHBSA.

After a 23-day trial, Jamit was found guilty and jailed 18 months. On appeal, Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin upheld the initial verdict but suspended the jail term and replaced it with a fine. As secretary -general of SHBSA, Jamit Singh played a prominent role in the political turbulence of that era. He was arrested in 1963 in "Operation Coldstore" for alleged communist-led politically subversive activities, detained and subsequently banned from entering Singapore. The ban was lifted in 1990.

A month after the Pulau Senang riots occurred, a most infamous murder occurred in August 1963 in the strait between Sisters' Islands off Singapore. The victim was bar hostess Jenny Cheok, who was taken scuba diving by boyfriend Sunny Ang, a former Grand Prix driver.

Ang, who contrived to have her drowned by tampering with a flipper she wore, had sought to collect insurance monies on her death. He was found guilty by the jury and sentenced to death on May 18, 1965 and hanged two years later. Cheok's body was never found.

Mr Seow,who prosecuted the case, said in a 2003 interview that he had planned to write a book on the case, titled Murder By Scuba: The Sunny Ang Trial.

Legend has it that Ang's civil servant father,who knew Mr Seow in the course of his work, unsuccessfully approached him to plead on his son's behalf in relation to the pending murder charge. The elder Ang died in 1986.

In 1970, Mr Seow prosecuted cabaret queen Mimi Wong and her husband for the murder of her Japanese lover's wife, Ayako Watanabe. The couple were found guilty after a 26-day trial and executed in 1973. Wong, then aged 33, was the first woman to be hanged in independent Singapore. Wong was unique in the way she went - she was said to have smiled on her walk to the execution chamber and the smile remained on her lifeless face post-execution.

Wong's trial in 1970 was heard by two High Court judges instead of a jury and presiding judge.

Two years before Wong's trial, Mr Seow had undertaken the prosecution of a case that triggered a tectonic shift in the legal system - the abolition of the jury trial.

He prosecuted London-trained marketing executive Freddy Tan for the murder of a multi-millionaire's son, Gene Koh. But the jury found Tan guilty of manslaughter instead and Tan was spared the gallows and jailed for life. This outcome, no discredit to Mr Seow's performance, subsequently led then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to call for a public inquiry into the desirability and soundness of the jury system, a move which even led Singapore's then leading criminal lawyer David Marshall to hold a public rally at Fullerton Square to voice vigorous dissent. All said and done, jury trials were discontinued in 1969.

Perhaps Mr Seow's mettle as prosecutor was wrought in even earlier days when he prosecuted in the lower criminal district court, given the formidable parties he faced.

One case he pursued then was against a senior fire officer for corruption. The judge wasMr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam and the defence counsel was then lawyer Lee Kuan Yew, who was a People's Action Party assemblyman.

The accused was found guilty and convicted, but Mr Lee argued the appeal and won in the High Court. Mr Seow was not there at the appeal as he had been transferred for a stint at the official assignee's office by then. But Mr Seow was to recall that the senior fire officer, who subsequently was reinstated in service, drew notice on one occasion at an official function in the Istana, where he attended with his wife expensively attired and complete with jewellery. The scene was not lost on the then PM, who apparently sensed the remiss, and later had him dismissed.

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi, in a statement for the Law Society on Mr Seow's death, said the former Society president was "both a controversial and memorable figure".

"But let us not forget that he was also a son, husband and father. May he rest in peace."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Francis Seow: Prosecutor in some of S'pore's iconic trials'. Print Edition | Subscribe