Three press statements were issued on Thursday, 20 September 2012, and I am archiving them here for the record. [Addendum: I am also archiving two more statements that came out on later Friday 21 Sept or Saturday 22 September 2012] . However, I will begin with a short commentary on the statement issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This ministry includes within it the Internal Security Department. Teo Chee Hean (mentioned in Lunch menu a 4-point letter) is the minister with oversight of this ministry.
The first thing you would notice is that the second paragraph of this statement is consistent with my account of events that mentioned a lunch meeting with the Archbishop. In fact, with so many statements flying around, it is indeed notable that none deny the sequence of events that I have published.
This Home Affairs statement makes an accusation — a “deliberate breach of the Archbishop’s trust” by Function 8 — that is clearly illogical. As Function 8 points out in its statement (below) the original letter was not marked “private” or “confidential”. My sources tell me that a subsequent communication from the Archbishop was that while the contents of the letter should not be read out at the rally, the organisers were free to announce to the crowd that they had received a letter in support from the Archbishop. The precise wording of Home Affairs’ statement however referred to “his views and intentions as conveyed to the group after he had decided to retract his letter” (emphasis mine), and indeed, it seems to me that it is for this reason that Function 8 has not published the letters.
However, how can one be certain of the archbishop’s “views and intentions” when authorship of the retraction letter was so unconvincing? In my Lunch menu a 4-point letter, I gave reasons why there is doubt whether the 4-point retraction letter was even written by the archbishop himself, or willingly signed by him.
Function 8 has now called upon the archbishop to publish those letters.
But more seriously, the general thrust of the government’s statement is dangerous to the public good, for it is trying to to deflect scrutiny away from themselves by casting Function 8 as villains (on their assumption that it was they who leaked the story). Taking the cue, reporters Thursday afternoon kept asking me to identify my sources, like hounds unleashed for a hunt. I have refused, for to do so would be a public disservice since it would mean putting the spotlight exactly where the government wants it — on the whistleblowers.
(Note: I am not suggesting that the whistleblowers are Function 8 members. As I told reporters, I was hardly the first person outside the circle of organisers to know of the affair. I could have been the hundredth person to hear of it. Lots of people, in the archbishop’s staff, his senior circle of priests, a retired Supreme Court judge and ministry officials, apparently knew of the letters and the events way before me. It was relatively easy for me to get corroboration of the story from additional sources.)
If you read my first post on this subject carefully, you will see that the party which should explain itself is not Function 8, but the government. Why did it act in the highly opaque way that it did? Even Today newspaper could see that the chief point of my exposé of the events was to draw public attention to “the Government’s ‘arm-twisting’ of Archbishop Nicholas Chia.”
I urge my readers to be very clear about this: The issue is not Function 8 or even Nicholas Chia. The issue is the way the government stepped in to block the latter’s support for the rally using methods hardly different from 25 years ago. Don’t let the government deflect attention away from itself. They are the ones who need to answer to the people for their actions.
MHA’s Statement on Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s Comments
The Government values its long-standing relationship with the Catholic Church and the Catholic community in Singapore, and deeply appreciates Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s many contributions to religious harmony in Singapore.
2 As part of building trust and understanding and to maintain religious harmony in Singapore, government ministers meet regularly with various religious leaders in Singapore. Such closed-door meetings allow a frank exchange of views specially on sensitive subjects. This is a well-established process that is appreciated by both ministers and religious leaders.
3 We note Archbishop Chia’s statement yesterday that he had withdrawn his earlier letter as its contents did not accurately reflect his views on the subject. He also expressed concern that if the letter was used in a manner that he did not intend, it may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore. His decision to withdraw his letter ahead of a political event in June 2012, shows his appreciation of the complexity of our multi-racial, multireligious society, and the need to keep religion and politics separate.
4 The actions by this group to publicise the matter through Mr Au is disrespectful of the Archbishop, and contrary to his views and intentions as conveyed to the group after he had decided to retract his letter. This deliberate breach of the Archbishop’s trust confirms the objective of this group to publicly involve the Catholic Church and the Archbishop in their political agenda.
Ministry Of Home Affairs
* * * * *
The statement from Function 8:
We are deeply saddened by the comments of Archbishop Nicholas Chia reported in The Straits Times of 20th September 2012. He made three unsubstantiated remarks:
1. That Mr Au’s account (in Yawningbread) could only have come from Function 8, with whom he had communicated in private.
2. That he decided to withdraw his letter of support “because if the letter were to be used in a manner that I (Archbishop) did not intend, it may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore.”
3. That Mr Au’s article appearing now, months later, “confirms the correctness of my (Archbishop’s) earlier decision to withdraw the letter so as not to inadvertently embroil the Catholic Church and the office of the Archbishop in a political event which was being staged by the group.”
Our response is as follows:
1. Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s initial letter to us, and the subsequent one withdrawing the first letter, were not marked “private and/or confidential”. Indeed, in discussing his first letter, members of Function 8 concluded that it was intended to be made public on 2 June 2012, the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. The retraction of the first letter made us cancel the plan. The organisers of the 2 June event subsequently decided that we would try to have a private dialogue with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
2. Archbishop Nicholas Chia assumed that Mr Au could only have obtained an account of what he wrote in his article from Function 8. Has His Grace forgotten that his second letter was cc to a third party and that his staff and others within the Church may also have sight of the letters?
3. What was his initial letter intended for and what are the unintended manners in which it could possibly be used to ‘harm the social harmony in Singapore’?
4. Finally, we do not understand how His Grace can draw the conclusion that the disclosure of his own letter can “inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore” and that the fact that Mr Au has now written an article confirms the correctness of his earlier decision to withdraw the letter.
In the midst of a national conversation called by the prime minister, we believe there is no room for whispered meetings on the issues above. We request Archbishop Nicholas Chia to publish his first and second letters and advise on what transpired between the time his first letter was written and his second letter so that the public can judge for themselves whether the actions or inaction of Function 8 and Mr Au were “irresponsible and regrettable”. For clarity, His Grace should also make known to members of the public if his first letter to the organisers of the 2 June event was solicited or unsolicited.”
* * * * * *
The statement from Maruah:
MARUAH, a human rights NGO, is a partner with Function 8, in particular for the June 2nd 2012 event to mark the 25th Anniversary of the alleged Marxist Conspiracy. MARUAH’s position is that it is timely for a Commission of Inquiry to be set up to review the detentions under Operation Spectrum.
As part of this collaborative effort MARUAH was informed of the letters that the Archbishop had sent to Function 8 and we are aware of the contents. The letters reflect diverse views on key content areas in relation to preventive detention without trial. Both organisations made a decision not to publicise the letter(s) till we sought clarifications from Ministry of Home Affairs and other relevant parties. This decision was taken as we feel it is a better way forward as both organisations are mindful of the previous pain within the Catholic community over what happened in 1987 where the Church, the government, the detainees and the community were involved. We agreed that after these approaches to reach out for dialogues had been tried and tested we would review this incident of the letters. It is unfortunate that the matter of the letters was leaked to the media before we could receive clarifications from the relevant bodies. Both organisations had wanted to focuson seeking a dialogue rather than dealing with the Archbishop’s letters a public manner through the media.
Having said that, MARUAH has to state that we are deeply disappointed with the remarks of the Archbishop in his response to the media queries. An opportunity to understand the change in the position of the Archbishop vis-a-vis preventive detention without trial was missed. We are still clueless as to whether there was intervention by the State in this matter and if so, on what grounds and to what extent. Instead civil society has been vilified in the Archbishop’s remarks which are the opposite of our intentions to preserve harmony by seeking clarifications.
Nevertheless, it is more important to move forward. We are keen to have dialogue with the Ministry of Home Affairs on our ongoing efforts at public education and advocacy on preventive detentions without trial. We will also be very happy to meet the Archbishop in relation to this matter.
More importantly, it is very important to us, and to many other Singaporeans that an independent Commission of Inquiry be set up as we are perturbed by the many contradictions in this case. This was the work that began on June 2nd between MARUAH and Function 8, to ensure that the rights of those detained are protected and fulfilled through an inquiry.
* * * * *
Reply by the Archdiocese office to Function 8′s statement:
The Archbishop’s statement on 19 September made clear that he had already withdrawn his letter to this group as, on reflection, its contents did not accurately reflect his views on the subject, and if used in a manner that he did not intend, may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore.
His letter to this group was intended as a private communication. If the group was going to publicise it at a political event, something which he did not intend, then they should and could easily have asked for permission first. They did not do so. As the group has already returned his letter, the question of releasing it does not arise as he had never intended for it to be released in the first place.
* * * * *
Reply by Function 8, 21 September 2012
We refer to the press release of MHA of 20 Sep 2012. MHA alleged that Function 8 is disrespectful towards Archbishop Nicholas Chia of the Catholic Church. This is untrue. The allegations have attempted to set F8 against the church. The Archbishop had withdrawn the letter sent to the organisers of the commemoration event of Operation Spectrum. To date, as far as we know, this letter has not surfaced in public. We have obviously respected the wishes of the head of the Catholic Church by not publicizing the contents of his letters.
In our response dated 1 June 2012 to the letter of withdrawal by His Grace, we sought his clarifications over several questions: How did he come to the conclusion that there is an ulterior motive to use his unsolicited letter outside of the event? Doesn’t justice require a hearing from all sides? And should we copy our letter to the person who was copied in his letter of withdrawal?
More than three months have passed and we have not heard from the Archbishop.
Out of respect for His Grace, we had voluntarily not publicized our letter of response to his letter of withdrawal, and had hoped for the courtesy of a reply from him in due course. However, MHA’s unwarranted allegations have now forced us to show details of our letter to the Archbishop in order to clear the allegations against us. This letter is reluctantly attached with parts blacked out to protect the direct contents of the Archbishop’s original letter and the identity of the person who was copied in his letter of withdrawal.
MHA further claimed that Function 8 had publicised the matter through blogger Alex Au. This is untrue. At no time did we engage Mr Au on this matter. To suggest that a seasoned blogger like Mr Au was made use of, is an insult to him and to the freedom of internet discourse.
We believe in the government’s sincerity to generate a meaningful national conversation at this time. MHA said that “government ministers meet regularly with religious leaders in Singapore”. We hope that they would also engage civil society groups for “frank exchange of views especially on sensitive subjects”. We hope this ‘national’ conversation can be conducted with dignity and civility over tea and certainly not through the national papers. We continue to request a meaningful dialogue with MHA and other affected parties away from the noise of what has turned into an ugly public dispute.
We wish to state categorically that we continue to applaud the Catholic Church for her good work carried out in our society to uphold social justice, caring for the poor and the weak. At no time will we allow ourselves to be set against the Church by inappropriate and unjustified allegations by any party.
* * * * *