Goat days

For a while, Daisy Hulou was good friends with Freda, even sending her a birthday card. But soon after, Daisy was seen being dragged into the bushes by Goat, the village head. We don’t know exactly what happened in the bushes, but immediately after that, Daisy asked Freda to return the birthday card she had sent. Freda asked her why she changed her mind, but she would not answer. She turned cold and uncommunicative.

Several months later, Specky told the village that the incident when Goat pulled her into the bushes was highly suggestive of rape.

Daisy said it wasn’t so. Maybe she was afraid of what Goat might do if she said otherwise.

Goat chimed in to accuse Specky, Freda and the villagers of being disrespectful to Daisy for even suggesting that she had been raped. Their actions were destructive of village harmony, Goat said.

Freda and her best friend Maran said the only way to clear the air was for Daisy to explain exactly what happened. Specky said that Goat was the key person who should explain his actions.

Goat raised his voice, declaring his abiding friendship with the Hulou family, implicitly accusing anyone who was asking questions of the incident of harbouring ill-will towards the Hulous. Meanwhile, the Hulou family got quite emotional. They denied that Daisy was raped; their family honour did not allow for such a stain. They instead turned on Freda and others for trying to “use” Daisy for their agenda.

Not the fable

I am sure readers can guess that I am referring to affair of the retracted archbishop’s letter, a series of events I outlined in last week’s post Lunch menu a 4-point letter. Till now, we have no explanation of what happened at the lunch the archbishop was called to with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and which preceded an abrupt withdrawal of the archbishop’s first letter to Function 8. Nor has there been any explanation why the retraction letter was written civil-service style with numbered paragraphs.

But the ensuing press statements from the archbishop and the Ministry of Home Affairs have, by their strained logic and nervous lashing out, immeasurably aided my original objective. I had said I wanted to show fellow Singaporeans through this particular incident how little has changed from 25 years ago; we should not be so easily beguiled by the government’s claims of opening up and a more consultative style. Their reactions over the last few days confirmed my point and would have opened many people’s eyes.

In a sense, this was also a kind of morality tale. The archbishop was caught between ideals and self-preservation.

I have reason to believe that the sentiments said to have been expressed in the first letter, “in support of the commemoration event of Operation Spectrum to be held on 2 June 2012” (in the words of Function 8’s letter to him dated 1 June 2012) were sincere.

As pointed out by Andrew Loh in his blogpost Seeking answers to worrying developments, such supportive sentiments would not be out of character for the archbishop.  In his National Day message 2011, Nicholas Chia wrote: “we have an obligation to raise our voices on behalf of those who cannot, taking action to correct injustices in our society” (source), while, on the eve of the May 2011 general election, his message to Catholic voters was “to use our free vote to further the common good while remaining true to the Christian values that Jesus has taught us. Human rights and the dignity of the human person must be respected” (source). On 6 November 2011, Chia also sent out a message about the “plight of migrants” (source).

What was out of character was the abrupt withdrawal of the first letter to Function 8 through means of a letter sent by registered post and written in curt, civil-service style. Was the archbishop at some point forced to choose between his ideals informed by the Church’s teaching of social justice and the imperative of self-preservation? And if so, how does the government have such a hold on him? What don’t we know? The last two questions are matters of significant public interest.

Andrew Loh also noticed that last week’s press statement by the archbishop bore an “uncanny similarity in tone” to the Ministry of Home Affairs’ statement (source). He asked: “Was the archbishop given advice on writing his statement, released on 19 September, a day before the MHA released its own statement”?

However, I also pointed out in my post Three statements that

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.

Government seeks to divert attention from its own actions and motives

Indeed, one can see the government attempting to deflect attention from themselves from the press statement they issued late last week. Just as Goat had a lot of explaining to do but conveniently fanned criticism of Freda and Specky, so the statement from the Ministry of Home Affairs created a smokescreen for themselves by vilifying Function 8. This was the page 3 headline in the Straits Times 21 September 2012:

Besides the shameless illogicality of the assertion (that Function 8 was scheming to “use” the archbishop for its aims), since the first letter was unsolicited, there are two things I wish to point out to readers about such a headline.

Chillingly reminiscent

The first is that it is chillingly reminiscent of 1987. Many of those detained without trial under Operation Spectrum that year were Catholic lay workers doing their utmost to realise the Church’s call to help the underprivileged. But in order to avoid rousing the tens of thousands of Catholic faithful, the government took the line that the Church had no leading role in whatever the detainees had done, and that the detainees had “used” the Church for their allegedly nefarious and seditious activities. The government also arm-twisted then-archbishop Gregory Yong to concur with this line of argument, which meant that Yong had to abandon the detainees to their fate. Many felt that the shepherd had no choice but to let the wolf take some from his flock. See also ‘Marxist Conspiracy’ anniversary remembered.

Here in 2012, we see the same tactic being employed. Again, we see the archbishop having to deny any sympathies for the ex-detainees. Has anything changed?  As I pointed out in my first article, let the scales fall from our eyes.

Dangerously close to a rallying cry

The second thing I wish to point out is how, through the secondary headline, the government risked fanning religious animosity. Up to this point, the story was focussed on the events, unrelated to the Catholic faith, but when the Ministry of Home Affairs began using expressions like “disrespectful of the Archbishop”, it could be construed by some as a rallying cry to fellow Catholics to stand to arms. It could well have been unintentional — and for now I will give the government the benefit of doubt — but history has many examples to offer both of bumbling politicians and bureaucrats who say the wrong thing with catastrophic results, as well as the opposite — politicians out to use religious emotion as camouflage for their own aims. It is hard to say which explanation lay behind the choice of the ministry’s words, and as I said earlier, I will give the government the benefit of the doubt. But it is not hard to see that rousing the Catholics to “protect” the archbishop would divert attention from the key question, which is: why do events suggest that the government interfered with the archbishop’s letter in the first place?

Conveniently, should things get out of hand, it would also give Goat an excuse to detain Freda, Maran and Specky or charge them under the Sedition Act. But if so, never forget where sedition really began: from the party who first used emotional, mobilising words like “disrespectful of the Archbishop”, from the party who moved from the issue of actions and their needed explanations to religious-identity politics.

Politics must remain secular

Some readers seem to think I am all for the freedom of religious leaders to use the clout of their office to influence political affairs, and that I think the government was wrong to step in in this instance. They are mistaken. Those who know me will also know that I have don’t have a high regard for organised religion of any kind; the larger the organisation, the more suspicious I am of it. If you are familiar with all that I have written previously, you will know that I want religion kept to within private domains.

However, I am also a believer in open, transparent politics. So, if religious leaders insert themselves into political debates, the way to deal with them is to point this out openly. Say so in open forums, whether you’re a minister or an ordinary citizen. Convince fellow citizens to join you in taking the stand that political debate must be secular. Build a consensus that political space should be free of religion. Instead of leaving people sway-able by religiously-based arguments, inoculate them through open discussion.

Do not do things in dark corners, whispering the name of the Internal Security Act.

It’s like corruption. One incident breeds another. If we let one instance of the government getting away with using the veiled fist as a shortcut to protect secularism, we let the government use the same veiled fist to get their way in other areas.

One question remains, however: Is support of human rights and restorative justice for those detained without trial, politics? Aren’t these aims so universal, so compelling, that they are beyond politics? This brings me back to the question I posed in my first post on this subject, Lunch menu a 4-point letter: Where do we draw the line?

21 Responses to “Goat days”

  1. 1 MS 24 September 2012 at 17:47

    Brilliant. Thank you Alex. Thank you so much.

  2. 2 Chanel 24 September 2012 at 17:48

    This episode again reinforces the power of our mainstream media. They can turn black into white….and white to whiter

  3. 3 Lye Khuen Way 24 September 2012 at 18:51

    Well argued!
    Must all & sundry who have an opinion on say the ISA, be labelled as delving in politics?

    In fact, what is wrong for any citizen to be concerned about the politics in his country?

    Is an ordinary citizen’s only political rights the right to vote in a GE or By-Election?

    The Election for the President is political or non-political?

    Anyone care to educate me?

  4. 4 The Pariah 24 September 2012 at 20:02

    “Courage is not a lack of fear, but the ability to act while facing fear.”

    Mehhhh to Daisy.

  5. 5 ape@kinjioleaf 24 September 2012 at 20:14

    “Till now, we have no explanation of what happened at the lunch the archbishop was called to with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and which preceded an abrupt withdrawal of the archbishop’s first letter to Function 8. Nor has there been any explanation why the retraction letter was written civil-service style with numbered paragraphs.”

    Do we really need to know what happened and why the retraction letter was written as such? Some may think that the Archbishop was “arm-twisted” but it is also possible, and I guess it’s more likely that, the “close door meetings allow a frank exchange of views especially on sensitive subjects” as stated in MHA’s press statement. The fact remained that the Archbishop retracted his original letter after a close door session and no one denies it. Whether by force or otherwise, I’m satisfied to leave it to the discretion of the Archbishop to say it.

    But I agree with you that the headline and sub-headline could have been better written – reading them makes me feel like ST is stirring shit into the muddy waters.

    • 6 yawningbread 25 September 2012 at 00:40

      If the archbishop came out of the lunch fully agreeable with home ministry’s perspective — as the press statements try to suggest but don’t explicitly say so — then why was the archbishop’s retraction letter written civil-service style? This would suggest that the letter was pre-prepared for him; he was not even trusted to put it in his own words. Or, he could have said, “Well, if you want me to send a retraction letter, then you will have to write it for me. I refuse to write one myself.”

      We may never know what really happened, but we now know enough not to trust the government’s version of events, and not to put faith in promises of opening up.

  6. 7 Chow 24 September 2012 at 21:10

    They are doing what they can to reframe the incident. On another note, I’m afraid that this is just going to be another non-issue among most of the other Singaporeans. So far only the MSM has been running articles on it and the other players have no other recourse but to the internet. Anecdotal evidence from my FB and web trawlings show that not many others are talking about this. Perhaps it’s just too sensitive for them because they scent something in the air. Whatever it may be, I’m still happy that I actually got to know about this through your posting, otherwise I’d be just as in the dark, seeing that I don’t read the MSM much anymore.

  7. 8 patriot 25 September 2012 at 00:00

    I just do not see any reason for any citizen and or organization to be kept out of politics.
    Politics affect everything and everyone.
    So, why should anyone be excluded?
    Are religious organizations to be excluded from the National Conversation?


  8. 9 Chin Hock 25 September 2012 at 01:19

    Good Evening Mr Au.

    I hope this comment finds you well. I have not commented on the internet for a long time and I am probably regarded by the PAP as the “silent majority”. But I saw a comment in Singapore politics site earlier which I… agree with (especially the first paragraph).

    As bosses, we generally trust our subordinates when they seek our signatures for approvals and I sheepishly admit that I occasionally sign off documents without reading the contents fully.

    I suggest the parties involved (You, MHA, Catholic Church) should consider being transparent in the whole matter to bring the whole matter to a closure.

    From my friend who works inside the Church, the real story is that the archbishop was snooked into writing the letter by someone close to him and who happens to be close friends with the function8 people too. When his grace found out that the letter was going to read out loud in a rally, he asked to examine the letter and realised he kena pwned and thats why he ask to retract the letter and why he met mha to clarify in case got misunderstanding that church getting onvoled in politics.

    This than angered the function 8 people and they than got Alex Au to write about it, borrow a knife to kill someone … so the great source of alex au whom he keep trying to deflect and not answer by censoring comments in his blog is actually this person in the church who is in cahoots with function 8.

    His grace knows who it is but he is now taking all the knives thrown at him coz anything he say will kena twisted by these people. So who is sneaky here? Reporters should go ask the priests, they all know the real story but no one wants to be a bad guy.

    • 10 yawningbread 25 September 2012 at 10:12

      Firstly, this statement “This than angered the function 8 people and they than got Alex Au to write about it” is simply incorrect.

      Secondly, I too have heard this bit about “the real story is that the archbishop was snooked into writing the letter by someone close to him”, i.e. the archbishop signing off a letter he barely read, but it’s coming to me in a different way. I am told that this version is a freshly cooked dish, in other words a new “explanation” being developed in case the controversy does not blow away and the archbishop needs to defend himself further. The plan is to point a finger at one of his officials as the scapegoat, and sacrifice another church officer in order to keep the archbishop innocent. There’s a word for this kind of thing: Disinformation.

      This new version is useful to the MHA because it can be used to explain the archbishop’s twists and turns without having to account for the visit of 2 reportedly-ISD officers, or the lunch with Teo Chee Hean, or the mysterious cc to the letter. Nor does it explain why the retraction letter was written civil-service style with numbered paragraphs. If the archbishop was really so aghast that his sentiments were misrepresented by the first letter, wouldn’t he have written his own retraction letter? Why does the retraction letter look like it was penned by someone in government?

    • 11 mel 25 September 2012 at 11:59

      When ppl claim they belong to the silent majority, you have got to discount what they said. Truth is, silent majority is those who don’t bother. Once you write something here, you don’t belong to that group.

  9. 12 Rushifa A Rushifa A 25 September 2012 at 06:24

    I totally agree with alex on this however many are buying into the separation of church and state diversion instead of asking how such sopranos style browbeating can still happen in modern day singapore. the fact that no only even bothered to explain or clarify this shows their arrogance.

  10. 13 Norm 25 September 2012 at 09:13

    What is “political” and hence OB for any “religious leader”? When a pastor says be nice to new immigrants, is that political? When he says no to abortion, is that political?

    Clearly there are some OB markers. But they are not transparent. As recommended in the Remaking Singapore committee, if we must have OB markers at least say what they are. And clarify who is not allowed to transgress them.

  11. 14 Ed 25 September 2012 at 09:28

    Hi there,

    I would suggest that the notion of ‘secularism’ in Singapore has to be interrogated. In taking decisive action to ensure that religion does not ‘contaminate’ politics (and this is not the first incident), the PAP government may appear to be upholding secular neutrality and protecting racial harmony. However, as already noted, this has the effect of surpressing questions and silencing voices. Yet, if we examine the ways in which certain Christian movements have taken it upon themselves to speak about certain moral issues in Singapore, we find that in some instances the PAP government appear to be quite accommodating to their views—perhaps because what they espouse are aligned with the government’s econo-political outlooks. If memory serves, I think you’ve actually mentioned this article before: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/routledg/cjcr/2009/00000024/00000001/art00004

    What this implies, then, is that rather than seek to tightly contain religion within the ‘private’ domain, it could be fruitful to allow their voices to be heard in the ‘public’ domain. There are several reasons for this:

    1.) Received understandings about religion/secular derive from a particular Eurocentric cultural and intellectual history, hence it ought not be universalised. This is not to say that we should allow for the conflation of the two but simply that we need to pay attention to the ways in which the cultural history and lived experiences of Singaporeans may not fit neatly into this schema.

    2.) With this in mind, we could begin to see that for segments of the population, religious affiliation is intertwined with ethnic identity and/or social status-mobility. I don’t have specific data, but my general understanding is that American-style Pentecostal-Evangelical Megachurches have been very successful in appealing to Chinese middle-class Singaporeans and those with upwardly mobile aspirations. So if, as the article above suggests, when the PAP accommodates the views of Christian (while pretending that they are upholding secular neutrality, racial harmony, equal ethnic-religious participation, etc)—who are they giving voice to? Who is being left out or silenced?

    3.) It is important to pay attention to the above because there may be many Muslim (Malay or otherwise), non-Christian Chinese and Indian Singaporeans whose voices and concerns are silenced. And if we take into account the socio-economic status of these Singaporeans, it becomes more urgent that we find ways for them to participate in ‘public’ discourses. Allowing their ‘private’ beliefs to be heard could be one way forward.

    To suggest this is NOT to say that we should allow religious beliefs to determine political decisions or that we should abandon certain secular ideals like equal participation. This is merely to point out: a.) the need to not overlook the inter-involvement of religious affiliation and ethnic identity/social status in the context of Singapore; and b.) the PAP’s deployment of ‘secularism’ takes advantage of whilst also effacing such inter-involvements, and hence may not be as neutral as it presents itself to be.

    Until we pay attention to these issues, we might continue to find PAP spokespersons echoing MM Lee’s remark about how the Muslim community ought not be ‘too strict’ in their observances, whilst keeping their mouth shuts and happily accepting what certain Christian figures say when their views are aligned.

    Yes, it is risky business to talk about religion and ethnic matters–not least because certain governmental bodies might invite us to ‘lim kopi’. But the fact that these matters readily evoke such reactions from the PAP government perhaps suggest that these matters are precisely the structural weakpoints of the PAP edifice.

  12. 15 mel 25 September 2012 at 10:15

    It is very funny. Just read what Lawrence Wong said today. “Politics is important. But surely we do not want to end up in a situation where every activity…. becomes politicised…. where Singaporeans are set against Singaporeans based on creed or political affiliation. When decent people step forward to be part of a genuine national effort to welcome our overseas guests, or volunteer their time to be part of a national tv forum with the PM, and yet get vilified by their citizens, then we should pause and reflect, and ask ourselves whether this is the kind of society we want.”

    I have decided. No. This is not the kind of government I want.

  13. 16 The 25 September 2012 at 10:55

    Silence of the lambs…………?

  14. 17 Norm 26 September 2012 at 00:32

    Curious why this story doesn’t appear to have been picked up by any of the international media. “Singapore renews F1, muzzles Archbishop”… 🙂

  15. 20 snoozer@gmail.com 26 September 2012 at 22:46

    The headline should be; “Singapore renews F1, rebukes F8, transparency: F9”

  16. 21 Micu 27 September 2012 at 10:42

    I still don’t quite understand why our Archbishop would put himself is such a position in the first place. Has he ever done anything to support the marxist detainees before?

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