The head of the church was told to present himself. Although couched as an invitation to lunch, it wasn’t hard to see it for what it was — a summons to appear before Caesar for a dressing down.
Could he bring another priest along? he asked.
No. Come alone.
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In June this year, I wrote about a rally held at Hong Lim Park. Hundreds turn up at rally against arbitrary detention was about Function 8’s campaign to abolish the Internal Security Act, the law that allows detention without trial. I understand that the event was jointly organised with Maruah, a human rights group.
What I didn’t know then, but only came to hear of it recently, was that there was a back story to that event. It’s a very unsettling story about the way power is wielded in Singapore, though it also raises some difficult questions, which I will come to below.
Prior to the rally scheduled for 2 June 2012, a letter reached the organisers from the head of the Catholic Church in Singapore, Archbishop Nicholas Chia. It was an unsolicited letter and a complete surprise. In the warmly-worded letter, the archbishop expressed his support for the rally and, I am told, endorsed the call for the abolition of the law in question. The letter has since been withdrawn, as this story will detail. I myself have not seen the letter; my reports of it, and of subsequent events, are second-hand.
A few days later, government officers, believed to be from the Internal Security Department, paid a call to the archbishop. It was apparently suggested to him that the church might be being made use of by Function 8 — a rather strange way to see things when it was a totally unsolicited letter. How could Function 8 be trying to make use of the church when they didn’t even ask for such a letter?
Exactly why the archbishop, out of the blue, chose to pen the letter is not known, but the Catholic Church was implicated in the arrests of over 20 persons in 1987/1988. These persons were accused of being engaged in a ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ to overthrow the government, but were never given an open trial. The June 2 rally was also intended to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the arrests.
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The persons who were arrested had for several years prior been working with low-wage workers helping them get a fairer deal and informing them of their rights. They were motivated by the Roman Catholic Church’s social teaching to care for the vulnerable and marginalised. For example, Vincent Cheng, who was detained for two years, wrote:
We in the seminary were directly affected with regard to our priestly training, our theological studies, and our ecclesiastical mission. The priest was now envisioned as a shepherd, devoted not only to care for the personal salvation of the individual soul, but also to promote the social salvation of this world. Justice and peace became areas of primary concern, based on the inalienable dignity of the human person.
— Vincent Cheng, in That we may dream again. Ed: Fong Hoe Fang
He deferred his ordination after completing his training in order to work in the “real world”.
What made the following years a turning point in my life was the fact that, for the first time, I was thrown into a sea of injustices. An ecumenical community building project called the Jurong Industrial Mission had been started in the new industrial township… [snip]
… The training was tough, demanding constant interaction with the residents who were mainly lower-income Singaporeans and young workers from Malaysia.
Never in my life had I seen so much hardship and pain, injustice and repression.
A week after the first wave of arrests on 21 May 1987, then-archbishop Gregory Yong and 23 priests held a solidarity mass to pray for the detainees and their families. 2,500 people attended, according to a published chronology of events. A pastoral letter supporting the detained Church workers was also read in all Catholic churches.
Then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew summoned the archbishop to a meeting, and it was probably no coincidence that four priests soon after “resigned” from all their Church positions. Their preaching duties were also suspended.
The detainees felt that the leadership of the Church had capitulated and disowned them.
* * * * *
Nicholas Chia in 2012 might have been mindful of Gregory Yong’s fast retreat in 1987. Despite having been visited by the two officers, he sent a message to Function 8 to say that the organisers could announce to the crowd at the rally that they had received a letter of support from the Catholic Church. However, could they not read out the full contents of the letter please?
As far as I know, Function 8 had not asked the archbishop if they could read out the letter, so how did the archbishop even know it was a possibility?
My best guess is that it was discussed internally among the organisers, but the discussion was bugged. Perhaps their discussion of this idea was then relayed to the archbishop by the two officers at the meeting.
But Chia’s half-retreat was not good enough for the government. So, in a reprise of 1987, the archbishop was summoned to lunch with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. He was told to show up alone.
I don’t know what transpired at the lunch, but the result was soon apparent. A fresh letter from the archbishop was sent — this time by registered mail, no less — to Function 8, withdrawing the first letter and asking for it to be returned. It said that the first letter “does not express my sentiments” or something to that effect. What was particularly notable however was that this fresh letter was written in civil service style, with four numbered paragraphs and curt language.
I think we know enough to be able to paint in what really happened at the lunch.
Has anything changed since 1987? What “opening up” is this government boasting about?
* * * * *
However, readers should also pause and recall what happened during the Aware saga. That was when a group of fundamentalist Christian women launched an audacious raid to seize control of Aware, a women’s rights organisation, aiming to reverse the increasingly gay-friendly tone of the organisation. The raiders were egged on by the pastor of their smallish church, which was part of the Anglican communion.
The government then arm-twisted the head of the Anglican church in order to get him to rein him his local pastor. The position the government took was that religious leaders and groups should not be getting involved in causes with a political element.
Liberal-minded Singaporeans were aghast at the way religiously-motivated women seized control of a secular organisation for their homophobic objectives. They were surely glad that the government stepped in to stop the church from getting further involved. But in the light of that, where does one stand on the Nicholas Chia incident? To be consistent, shouldn’t one be equally glad that he was summoned to lunch?
Some might suggest that the two incidents are not entirely comparable. In the case of the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ arrests and the 2 June 2012 rally commemorating them, the Catholic Church was already involved — albeit way back — accused by the government of being the indirect promoter of the kind of social work the arrested persons were doing. Even today, the church has a responsibility to atone for the wretched way it abandoned its own priests and lay workers 25 years ago, some might say, and the now-withdrawn letter of support it initially issued was a reasonable response to this history.
What do you think?