Guest essay by Rumpole of the Bailey*
Singapore and Hong Kong are similar in many ways. Both are former British colonies and inherited many features of the Westminster form of governance. According to Wikipedia, Roman Catholicism is practised by 4.6% or about 210,000 people in the Little Red Dot. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong states on its website that the Fragrant Harbour has 363,000 resident and 138,000 non-resident (e.g. Filipino maids) followers.
However, looking at how Gregory Yong behaved during Operation Spectrum in 1987 and Nicholas Chia is now behaving in this year’s Letter-Gate, one cannot help but feel that the difference in “gutsiness” between Hongkongers and Singaporeans extends also to the priesthood.
While in Letter-Gate, the Archbishop has relinquished his role as a shepherd and retreated into his tortoise shell, his counterpart in Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong has gone on the offensive.
The Hong Kong Diocese takes its social role seriously and backs this up with action.
On 21st September 2012, coincidentally a few days after the outbreak of Letter-Gate, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong took out newspaper advertisements pressing the government to overhaul its policies on housing, education and welfare. These were in the form of an open letter occupying two FULL pages and published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) — partly imaged below –and Ming Pao Daily under the heading “Some Proposals for the New Government of HKSAR from the Catholic Church in Hong Kong”.
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This is the SECOND time that the Diocese has done this. In February 2012, it ran full page advertisements in support of universal suffrage. You need to be a subscriber to view the SCMP article and the open letter has yet to be uploaded to the Diocese’s website, but you may view the February advertisement here.
In the open letter, the Hong Kong government was chastised for its penchant for giving out “sweeteners” instead of making much needed reforms. The Diocese hinted that this shows the government’s insincerity. “Rather than simply being complacent about giving handouts and offering small favours, the new SAR government must relieve people’s distress by addressing problems with the intention of solving them.”
About one million people in Hong Kong live below the poverty line. The Diocese states clearly and unequivocally that in its opinion “a society that neglects the rich-poor disparity is not worthy of being called an advanced or civilised society”. The open letter goes on to state five principles which it considered necessary for social development, one of which is that:
“Justice means to “give each individual what is due to him by reason of his being and his acting.” It also demands that we show recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples.”
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The director of the Catholic Social Communications Office told SCMP that a copy of the open letter had been delivered to the Office of the Chief Executive. And the Diocese might publish a THIRD letter soon!
The Catholic Church has a Social Doctrine
The open letter makes numerous references to the Compendium to the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Prior to this, the author was not aware of the Compendium’s existence or that the Catholic Church has a social doctrine. So netizens, please do not accuse me of having been trained in a seminary!
The Compendium was published in 2004 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and purports to give a concise and complete overview of the Church’s social teaching. Throughout the course of her history, the Church has never failed, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, “to speak the words that are hers” with regards to questions concerning life in society. The Compendium is available on the web here.
At paragraph 153, the Compendium has this to say of human rights:
The ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, in the reality of the State, in public powers, but in man himself and in God his Creator. These rights are “universal, inviolable, and inalienable”. Universal because they are present in all human beings, without exception of time, place or subject. Inviolable insofar as “they are inherent in the human person and in human dignity” and because “it would be vain to proclaim rights, if at the same time everything were not done to ensure the duty of respecting them by all people, everywhere, and for all people”. Inalienable insofar as “no one can legitimately deprive another person, whoever they may be, of these rights, since this would do violence to their nature”.
The Church expresses its preference for democracy when at paragraph 395, it says:
The subject of political authority is the people considered in its entirety as those who have sovereignty. In various forms, this people transfers the exercise of sovereignty to those whom it freely elects as its representatives, but it preserves the prerogative to assert this sovereignty in evaluating the work of those charged with governing and also in replacing them when they do not fulfil their functions satisfactorily. Although this right is operative in every State and in every kind of political regime, a democratic form of government, due to its procedures for verification, allows and guarantees its fullest application. The mere consent of the people is not, however, sufficient for considering “just” the ways in which political authority is exercised.
For democracy to function properly, its participants must have equal access to information. The Compendium, at paragraph 414, has this to say about a Freedom of Information Act (i.e. the right of any ordinary citizen to get statistical and other information from government agencies) and control of mainstream media by a few:
Information is among the principal instruments of democratic participation. Participation without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable. It is necessary to guarantee a real pluralism in this delicate area of social life, ensuring that there are many forms and instruments of information and communications. It is likewise necessary to facilitate conditions of equality in the possession and use of these instruments by means of appropriate laws. Among the obstacles that hinder the full exercise of the right to objectivity in information, special attention must be given to the phenomenon of the news media being controlled by just a few people or groups. This has dangerous effects for the entire democratic system when this phenomenon is accompanied by ever closer ties between governmental activity and the financial and information establishments.
It would not be wrong to say that the Church does not approve of the Singapore government’s tight grip on the mainstream media.
The ISA is inconsistent with basic human rights, so said Lee Kuan Yew
The Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial, is inconsistent with the fundamental human rights as articulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by 167 countries. To remind one and all, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, while he was an opposition member in the Legislative Assembly in 1955, spoke out against the Preservation of Public Security Bill (later to be renamed as the ISA), saying:
“What he [then-Chief Minister David Marshall] is seeking to do in the name of democracy is to curtail a fundamental liberty and the most fundamental of them all – freedom from arrest and punishment without having violated a specific provision of the law and being convicted for it”.
He even goes on to say
“Of course the Chief Minister [Marshall] has not given his assurance to me personally that I would not suffer under these Regulations – but we all believe, at least we all should believe, that as long as his Government is in control, conscientiously, scrupulously, and honestly working these rules and regulations, no one will be penalised or made to suffer who does not deserve to be penalised or made to suffer. But he has not said what would happen if, in fact, these special powers were not used with the same scrupulous care and regard for human values as they are”.
These words are recorded in the Hansard (i.e. Parliamentary reports) for posterity and you can view the complete speech on Parliament’s website.
Well, we now know what could and DID happen if these special powers were “not used with the same scrupulous care and regard for human values as they are”.
What is the Catholic Church’s view of unjust laws? Well, at paragraph 398, the Compendium has this to say:
Authority must enact just laws, that is, laws that correspond to the dignity of the human person and to what is required by right reason. “Human law is law insofar as it corresponds to right reason and therefore is derived from the eternal law. When, however, a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; in such a case it ceases to be law and becomes instead an act of violence”. Authority that governs according to reason places citizens in a relationship not so much of subjection to another person as of obedience to the moral order and, therefore, to God himself who is its ultimate source. Whoever refuses to obey an authority that is acting in accordance with the moral order “resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:2). Analogously, whenever public authority — which has its foundation in human nature and belongs to the order pre-ordained by God — fails to seek the common good, it abandons its proper purpose and so delegitimises itself.
The reader can replace “God” with “Allah” or “Buddha” or simply “the Creator”. Do you have in Singapore public authority which fails to seek the common good? Is such an authority legitimate? More to the point – is the ISA an unjust law?
The Church condemns detention without trial and the use of torture at paragraph 404 in the following terms:
The activity of offices charged with establishing criminal responsibility, which is always personal in character, must strive to be a meticulous search for truth and must be conducted in full respect for the dignity and rights of the human person; this means guaranteeing the rights of the guilty as well as those of the innocent. The juridical principle by which punishment cannot be inflicted if a crime has not first been proven must be borne in mind.
In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”. International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.
Some may ask: What about the Inquisition? Well, the Inquisition happened centuries ago and the Church has learned the error of its ways. Has our government learned the error of its ways?
Being a Bishop in Singapore is not the same as being a Bishop in Hong Kong
I originally intended to end my article with a suggestion to His Grace, Archbishop Nicholas Chia, to take a leaf out of the books of Cardinal John Tong (right) and his predecessor Cardinal Joseph Zen and stand up to the Powers That Be in Singapore. However, upon reflection, I decided otherwise.
Could the government have threatened to detain the archbishop personally under the ISA? Not likely as this might lead to a diplomatic crisis as the Vatican is a sovereign state in itself with observer status in the United Nations. Could it have threatened to detain the members of Function 8 under the ISA? In this political environment? When every few days one ministry or another has to issue press releases to clarify this or that? Not likely. Close down all its places of worship? Unthinkable. Like cutting off the nose to spite the face.
It is not inconceivable, however, that the government may have threatened to withdraw its support for the Church’s charitable and social activities or at least to impose onerous “conditions”. The Church sponsors many schools. These receive subsidies from the public purse and curricula are subject to government scrutiny. The Church also cares for the aged, sick and destitute through its various charities. And last but not least, the State has the power to compulsorily acquire land and “compensate” the owner at less than current market value. Who suffers the most if indeed the State’s powers are abused in this manner? Not the Bishop personally, but the aged, sick, destitute. Your children who may not be able to find a place in a Catholic school.
Can the Hong Kong Government not threaten to pull these levers as well? Yes it can, but it will have tens if not hundreds of thousands of vociferous but otherwise peaceful protestors on the streets the very next day! And they will not go away until their demands are met! Cardinals John Tong and Joseph Zen dared to do what they did for they knew that Hong Kong people are no pushovers and more importantly will not retreat at the slightest sign of danger. Did Lim Chin Siong not tell a massive audience : “Saya masuk first gear, lu jangan gostan” [When I engage the first gear, you do not reverse]?
Singaporeans chose this Government
We should not blame the Bishop; we certainly should blame the government for clinging on to its totalitarian ways; but most importantly Singaporeans, Catholic or otherwise, should blame themselves. It is they who chose this government. They who do not dare to violate its unjust laws, such as the ones restricting their constitutional right to peaceful assembly. Voting once every five years is not enough.
Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar only applies to taxation. This is made clear in paragraph 379 of the Compendium:
In his pronouncement on the paying of taxes to Caesar (cf. Mk 12:13-17; Mt 22:15-22; Lk 20:20-26), he affirms that we must give to God what is God’s, implicitly condemning every attempt at making temporal power divine or absolute: God alone can demand everything from man. At the same time, temporal power has the right to its due: Jesus does not consider it unjust to pay taxes to Caesar.
Resistance to unjust laws is specifically sanctioned by paragraph 400 of the Compendium:
Recognising that natural law is the basis for and places limits on positive law means admitting that it is legitimate to resist authority should it violate in a serious or repeated manner the essential principles of natural law. Saint Thomas Aquinas writes that “one is obliged to obey … insofar as it is required by the order of justice”. Natural law is therefore the basis of the right to resistance.
There can be many different concrete ways this right may be exercised; there are also many different ends that may be pursued. Resistance to authority is meant to attest to the validity of a different way of looking at things, whether the intent is to achieve partial change, for example, modifying certain laws, or to fight for a radical change in the situation.
Divide and rule is a strategy that has stood the test of time. So, please do not fall into the People’s Action Party’s trap and start pointing fingers at each other. The blame falls squarely on the government and the people who granted it wide powers without insisting on proper checks and balances – and for 50 long years at that!
It is claimed by others on the Internet that the archbishop was arm-twisted during a “routine” lunch session by a certain minister who had studied at St Joseph’s Institution, a Catholic sponsored school, and is now at the helm of a ministry that includes the Internal Security Department in its portfolio. The word “disrespect” has also been bandied around, mostly by the mainstream media. If those claims made by others are true, then may I be so bold as to ask which is the greater sin – ungratefulness or disrespect?
* Rumpole is the main character in a British TV series about an ageing London barrister who defends any and all clients (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumpole_of_the_Bailey for more info). The author, who is an National University of Singapore law graduate living and working abroad, chose this moniker to encourage an interest in legal issues because it does not just affect lawyers and their clients. The everyday layman needs to be informed of his rights and obligations and in the context of the “Little Red Dot” to avoid being talked down to or misled by their highly paid ministers, including those that don’t have any portfolio, or civil servants with bad attitude and poor knowledge of the laws which they are supposed to be enforcing.