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.
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?