Sometimes, people respond to a hole by digging a deeper one. Archbishop Nicholas Chia of the Catholic Church issued a press statement at around 10:30 pm last night in response to my post Lunch menu a 4-point letter. I only heard about it from reporters, and at the time of writing this, have not seen a copy of the press statement he issued.
According to the Straits Times:
The head of the Catholic Church in Singapore has confirmed that he wrote to an activist group backing its call to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) – but withdrew the letter later fearing it could affect the country’s social harmony.
Archbishop Nicholas Chia, 73, yesterday said he had retracted the letter to Function 8 after he reflected on it and became concerned it could be used “in a manner that I did not intend”.
Last night, Archbishop Chia sent The Straits Times a one-page response, saying the fact that the incident had come to light confirmed his fears. “Au’s article confirmed my fear that the group would use my letter in a manner that I did not agree with, and make use of the Office of the Archbishop and the Catholic Church for their own ends,” he said.
He noted that Mr Au’s account could only have come from Function8, with which he had communicated in private.
He said he had decided to withdraw his letter after reflecting on it, “because if the letter were to be used in a manner that I did not intend, it may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore”.
Function8 acknowledged his decision and returned the Archbishop his letter, he added.
He said: “The article by Mr Au, which has appeared now, months later, confirms the correctness of my 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.”
— Straits Times, 20 September 2012, Archbishop clarifies retraction of letter to group, by Tessa Wong
Today newspaper reported likewise:
The head of the Catholic Church here has criticised a blogger and the organisers of a rally against the Internal Security Act (ISA) over a blog post which suggested that he was pressured by the Government into retracting a letter he had sent expressing support for the event.
The flap arose from Mr Alex Au’s lengthy critique on his blog – posted on Tuesday – of what he described as the Government’s “arm-twisting” of Archbishop Nicholas Chia.
Archbishop Chia said yesterday that he had decided to withdraw his letter because “on reflection, its contents did not accurately reflect my views on the subject, and if used in a manner that I did not intend, may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore”.
— Today, 20 September 2012, Archbishop slams Alex Au, anti-ISA rally organisers
He described as “irresponsible” my publication of the chronology of events and his assumption that it was Function 8 which told me about it.
“These irresponsible actions can easily cause serious misunderstanding between the Catholic Church and the Government, and damage the long-standing trust and cooperation between the two. It is most regrettable that Au and the group have acted in this manner,” he said in his press statement.
On the contrary, I think it is the responsible thing to do to expose these hidden events to public scrutiny. They show Singaporeans the inner workings of how our country is governed, and transparency is essential to a healthier democracy. The very fact that powerful forces would want these goings-on to be kept from the public eye is itself suspicious.
In addition, I had hoped through telling this story, to generate, inter alia, a debate about where citizens would like to draw the line between religious organisations and politics, and how that line is to be maintained. Going by the comments to the earlier article that have been received so far, I think a very civil discussion has indeed started.
So, when he says the exposure of those events “confirms the correctness of my 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”, it sounds a bit strange. After all, the point of my article was to raise the very same issue of whether or not a religious organisation should be lending voice to a political position. Do note that not only was the original letter supportive of the rally against detention without trial, his second letter said the organisers were free to tell the rally participants that the archbishop had sent a letter of support. What can he possibly mean when he now says that he was afraid of his first letter being used “in a manner that I did not intend”?
The chronology of events that I published indicated that it was the Internal Security Department that first planted the argument that the Church could be “used” by a group. This amazing possibility arose even when the group had not solicited the archbishop’s support in the first place.
I understand from reporters that nothing in his press statement contradicted my account of events.
Chia wrote about his fears of harming social harmony in Singapore. Is that not misplaced? Did he use offensive language against other religions, ethnic or social groups in his original (now withdrawn) letter? Not that I know of. The only “harmony” that might feel threatened by his now-retracted letter is the silence the government might want over its (mis)use of arbitrary arrest and detention without trial.
Alternatively, one could say the only “harmony” that might be put at risk is the take-for-granted support among Roman Catholics for the ruling party. After they hear of the shabby way the government treated the local head of the faith, maybe the flock won’t be so “harmonious” towards the ruling party anymore? Is that the “social disquiet” one fears? If so, who is it exactly who has reason to be anxious? The Church or the government?
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Now, let me share with you a second chronology of events:
At about 7 pm last evening, several reporters called me when I was standing amidst 200 out-of-work foreign workers, all of them needing help and advice about their situation. Amidst the cacophony of twenty people trying to speak at the same time, two of the reporters asked me whether I could forward to them the email the archbishop had sent me, and what my comments to that email were.
What email? I asked. When I last checked my mailbox, around 6 pm, there was none from Nicholas Chia, and now I had no internet access. However, I promised them that I’d check and respond as soon as I got to a computer, though that might be after 10 pm.
In the end, it was 11 pm before I could get online (I tried to check my email on my ipad while on the train going home but our 3G service sucks). And still there was no email from Chia. So I told the reporters that I had received nothing. One reporter then said: Oh, the archdiocese has sent out a press statement instead, just half an hour earlier.
This chronology itself is highly suggestive of “interference”. The press was alerted in advance of a response by the archbishop. If indeed the archbishop intended to write me a private email, it would be most unusual for him to be publicising its future existence to the press beforehand. We can only wonder what he really intended as of the afternoon.
Or we can speculate that the earlier intention to send an email was overruled and recast as a press statement, a process that took several more hours to hammer out (and be agreed to by others?) before eventual release at 10:30 pm.
Maybe the reporters misheard? Maybe it wasn’t an email that the archbishop was drafting, but a press statement all along? It’s possible, but here’s the funny thing: Is the archbishop’s office so well organised for media publicity that it would be asking reporters at several newsrooms in different languages to stand by for a statement to be released later? Government departments do that routinely, but the archbishopric? Guess what? The archdiocese’s website doesn’t even have a section for containing its press statements (nor can the statement be found on its Facebook page – as at 9:45 am on Thursday 20 September 2012), and you expect me to believe they’re so well organised for media relations to be giving advance notice?
Given this sequence of events, and the earlier sequence of events as told in my previous article, it is very hard to know who makes up the archbishop’s mind for him. And that again, I think, is a matter of public interest and worthy of concerned discussion.