Defender profile: Teo Soh Lung from Singapore

We thought, as lawyers we should assist the Government by commenting on bills. Singapore was a one party State at this time. However, the Government did not want to hear our opinions and soon afterwards a law was passed which restricted our right to comment on bills

Teo Soh Lung, Director of Function 8 Limited speaks to ISHR during Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) about how her experience in prison inspired her to advocate against arbitrary detention in Singapore.

In the 1970s Soh Lung started her career as a lawyer with no intention of becoming a public figure. 

‘I always felt that as lawyers we should do more than just earn a living.’

Early in her career Soh Lung worked at a Catholic centre, a form of half-way house, which assisted people ranging from migrant workers, Filipino domestic workers to former convicted offenders.

‘We were happily busy doing this kind of work, not thinking that we were ‘defenders’ as such.’

In the early 1980s, Soh Lung became active in the Law Society of Singapore and with a number of other lawyers established the criminal legal aim scheme. In association with the Law Society she started to comment on bills proposed by the Government.

‘We thought, as lawyers we should assist the Government by commenting on bills. Singapore was a one party State at this time. However, the Government did not want to hear our opinions and soon afterwards a law was passed which restricted our right to comment on bills.’

On 21 May 1987 Soh Lung was arrested without charge as permitted by the Internal Security Act (ISA). Around this time 21 other young people including lawyers involved in the Law Society were also arrested.

‘I was accused of trying to overthrow the Government and manipulating the Law Society – I was made out by the Government to be the ring leader.’

Months later, those detained were released. Given no one knew the truth about what had transpired, 9 out of the 22 arrested decided to publish a press statement which denied the Government’s story and confirmed that they had been tortured while in detention.

The next day the 8 of the 9 were re-arrested (the ninth was out of the country).

‘Our cells were incredibly dirty. There were slits for air. I was in solitary confinement the entire time, other than a lizard and insects that kept me company.’

While detained, Soh Lung commenced habeas corpus proceedings, arguing that she had been unlawfully detained.

‘Initially Francis Seow, the former Solicitor General, represented my case. However, when he came to the prison to interview me he himself was arrested because he was communicating with international human rights bodies and the American Ambassador – the Government alleged he was receiving money from the CIA. He spend 72 days in jail.’

Soh Lung referred to the difficultly she had finding lawyers to represent her.

‘Historically anyone that represented ISA detainees were then detained themselves.’

When the Court handed down its decision, it decided Soh Lung’s case on technical grounds. This meant that her substantive argument had not been considered – and most importantly – that she could be re-arrested as and when the Government wished.

‘As soon as we stepped outside of the prison gate I was re-arrested. This was, and still is not, unusual. The judicial system doesn’t have any power to keep people free if the Government wants them to remain imprisoned.’

Soh Lung was in prison for another 2 years, during which time the law changed and the right to judicial review, as well as the Privy Council were abolished.

‘As a lawyer if you start a fight, you need to fight until the end. After my appeals of my re-arrests were unsuccessful and the change to the law, I realised there was nothing more I could do with the judiciary to ensure my release. In 1990 after two years of detention, I was released with restrictions.’  

It took Soh Lung 20 years to publish the book she wrote about her detention the year after she was released.

‘I knew people would continue to be treated as I was if I didn’t speak out about it. There were people who were arrested before me under the ISA, but I didn’t know about this when I was arrested. I wanted to create awareness within civil society.’

The civil society movement, and in particular ISA defenders, in Singapore went quiet in the 1990’s after Soh Lung’s arrest, but regained strength and became more active about the time of the release of her book and her story.

‘In 2013 there was an event on the 50th anniversary of Operation Cold Store during which names of those who had been arbitrarily detained were made public. A few years after the event, there were 1315 names on the list – which was initially a list of about 700. After all this time and among others who had similarly suffered, people had the strength to speak out about their experience.’

In 2010 Soh Lung and others detained with her established Function 8, an NGO which submits on indefinite imprisonment without trial that is currently permitted by three Singaporean statutes – the Internal Security Act, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act and the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Soh Lung travelled to Geneva as an observer on behalf of the Alliance of Like-Minded Civil Society Organisations in Singapore (ALMOS) during Singapore’s UPR.

‘We are excited about engaging more with the UPR. It is a new process for us. One which we believe can assist to hold Singapore accountable to its international obligations and bring about national change, and hopefully one day, the repeal of the ISA.’