Saturday, November 12, 2011

Teo Soh Lung: For Minister Teo Chee Hean (4)

November 11, 2011 (source)

Referring to the arrest of the alleged Marxists on 21 May 1987, Minister Teo Chee Hean said in parliament:

“When the Government did move against this group in the mid-1980s, it made clear that it was not acting against genuine social activists or members of the clergy, but only those who were covertly pursuing their subversive Marxist political agenda by hiding within the church organisations. Appreciating the sensitivities involved, the Government made every effort to explain to the Church leadership that this was not targeted at the Church. The Church leaders and the Vatican itself acknowledged this publicly… “ (para 18).

It was by chance that I read the notes recorded by the ISD of the meeting between the late Archbishop Gregory Yong, Fr Giovanni D’Aniello of the Holy See, several representatives of the Catholic Church and the then prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew with the director of ISD and other officials at the Istana two weeks after 16 alleged Marxists were arrested. The notes reminded me of the hours I stood before the former prime minister and his colleagues at the parliamentary select committee hearing on the Legal Profession Amendment Bill in 1986 and the interrogation I was subjected to by ISD officers at Whitley Road Centre.

As Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, one would have expected His Holiness to be treated with courtesy, respect and patience. If the notes are accurate, the Archbishop and his colleagues were treated like political prisoners. They were “imprisoned” for nearly three hours at the Istana. The hot and cold tactics used by ISD interrogators were used on those eminent Church leaders. The Church was praised and then threatened. When threats failed, words softened. Ideas that the Church was being used by communists were subtly suggested. The “culprits” who the government alleged necessitated the arrests in 1987 shifted from the 16 detainees to four Catholic priests. Just study this passage and you will understand what I mean:

“PM said that he was not interested in VINCENT CHENG and his group, but he had to deal with them in a way that would make it less likely for others to follow in their wake. He was however more concerned about the involvement of several priests and that the Archbishop had been told about them by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) in JUL 86. PM said that he took the matter so seriously that when the Pope visited Singapore, he informed the Pope that the Church was a source of strength for Singapore but that there were now problems coming from the Church and that the Archbishop knew about it. PM said that the Archbishop was told about Fr EDGAR D’SOUZA, Fr PATRICK GOH, Fr JOSEPH HO and Fr AROTCARENA. PM then read out the Church’s press statement issued on 28 MAY 87 in which the Church stated that:
“The Catholic Church ….. must continue its mission of spreading its teachings on matters pertaining to justice as they apply to social, economic and political issues …. To the best of our knowledge, the full-time workers have been fully committed to the work of the Catholic organisation in which they served. The six voluntary workers have generously contributed their time and talents to specific work in the Catholic organisation with which they were associated. We hope and pray that justice will be done and be seen to be done.””

I was surprised that instead of arresting the four priests who were “creating problems” for the prime minister in 1986, 16 people were arrested in their stead! Was the government afraid of the Catholic Church? Did the prime minister think then that slaughtering 16 chickens would make the Church compliant? I don’t know. The notes were full of contradictions. It was familiar style. Even the issue of who initiated the meeting at the Istana had to be altered. The person in charge could say anything and no one, including His Grace, was brave enough to correct any error or contradiction.

And so statements were made and then contradicted. Like a theatre performance, actors appeared suddenly and key players bowed out only to return after a change of costume. The intervals were meant to temporarily relieve anxiety from the “prisoners”, giving them short respite. At the same time, (I suspect) ,it enabled the interrogators to plan their next move and change their tact. While political prisoners were interrogated in freezing cold rooms with spotlights shining into their eyes, the “interrogation” of Church leaders were done in the comfort of the Istana. The techniques used however, were the same. Documents were produced to His Holiness who must read them quickly.

“… PM pointed out that the Archbishop had read ISD’s documents in 3 meetings with MHA officials…”

Wow, three meetings to read, digest and be convinced about a conspiracy to overthrow the government!

From the notes, I gathered that agreements had to be reached quickly and statements issued for public consumption. Time was of the essence, at least on the part of the prime minister. It was either His Grace issued a statement there and then or the Church would be seen as being on a collision course with the government. The strange and bewildering Kafkaesque atmosphere was sufficient to frighten the Archbishop and the representative from the Holy See.

During the meeting, the Archbishop had read from a prepared statement defending the 16 arrested. I reproduce part of the notes:

“… The Archbishop said that the Church had given the Government the benefit of the doubt because they believed that it was a responsible Government. He ended that just as the Government could not condone corruption by one of its Ministers recently, the Church also could not condone any violation of human rights. He hoped the Government could show that the detainees were guilty of what they had been accused of and that when this had been done, the Church would have no reason to fight for them or fault the Government. He would then be most grateful to the Government for having prevented people from using the Church for subversive purposes. He added that the Church recognised the right of the Government to safeguard the security of the nation but at the same time the Government had an obligation to prove that those detained were a threat to security…”

That belief in the innocence of the 16 until proven guilty vanished in the three-hour meeting. His Grace issued a statement which read as follows:

“We are satisfied that the Government of Singapore has nothing against the Catholic Church when it detained 10 of our Church workers amongst the 16 who were arrested for possible involvement in the clandestine Communist network.”

The Church had abandoned her flock in three hours and saved herself from the wrath of the government. It was a wise decision – to save the majority, save the four priests and disown the ten detainees. The four priests were spared in that they were not detained though they were relieved of their duties a few days later by the Archbishop, because it was the 10 who had made use of the Church. I wonder who were the unlucky ten. To incur the wrath of the government is an inconsequential matter. To incur the wrath of God as represented by the Archbishop (if one believes in God) by making use of the Church is another matter.

Minister Teo Chee Hean may be right to say that the arrests in 1987 was not targeted at the Church because the Church said so. But can we believe a statement that was drafted by the Archbishop within three hours? Maybe not. After all, the Archbishop was a sort of “prisoner” in the Istana. But if the statement was issued in haste or involuntarily, the Archbishop should have taken the earliest opportunity to correct the statement. She had that opportunity in 1989 when the Far Eastern Economic Review was sued for defamation for reporting among other matters, that the Archbishop was “tricked” into issuing the statement (at the Istana meeting). I remember the Church was silent then, thus impliedly disagreeing with the magazine’s report. In recent years, the Church repeated the government’s claims against the detainees in a publication Going forth … The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 [1]. With this publication, we should no longer doubt that the Archbishop voluntarily issued the Istana statement (even though the Archbishop never saw the publication as he passed away in 2000). Under the heading “Detention of some Catholics,” the authors dismissed the arrest of 22 people as an “unfortunate event” and the law suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review as an “unpleasant episode”.

The authors had their facts wrong from the beginning. The majority of the 22 arrested had absolutely nothing to do with the Catholic Church. They could have spared themselves from having to explain the “unfortunate event” if they had interviewed the living protagonists of the alleged conspiracy. I am sure the three priests and Vincent Cheng who are alive today would be happy to tell their side of the story. The authors could have analysed the 1987 event more carefully and inform the readers that the government’s allegations that those 22 arrested were not accurate because the majority had nothing to do with the Church. Disappointingly, the authors chose to regurgitate published materials without investigating the truth. They did not analyse or express their own views on those published materials thus misleading readers to believe that the detainees made use of the Church. They wrote:

“Articles appeared in The Catholic News on the issue of foreign workers and maids written by a priest. In 1986, Archbishop Gregory Yong was informed that this constituted involvement of the Church in politics. Nevertheless, the articles continued to appear. The authorities established that a communist net was growing and that a number of Catholic organisations, the Students’ Christian Movement, the Young Christian Workers’ Movement and the Catholic Students’ Societies of the National University and the Singapore Polytechnic had been drawn in. The Straits Times reported that a Marxist conspiracy to subvert the political and social system of Singapore had emerged which went beyond pure social concerns…”[2]

The authors even wrote briefly about similar arrests of Catholic priests and workers in Operation Lalang which took place in October 1987 without informing readers that the Catholic Church in Malaysia courageously stood up for their workers and those arrested in Singapore. I remember receiving many notes and cards from individuals and Catholic organisations in Malaysia throughout my detention. Again relying on secondary source, The China Post of 24 November 1988 was partially quoted by the authors:

“Meanwhile, a similar story was unfolding in Malaysia. In 1987, the Malaysian government arrested one hundred and six people connected to Marxists and Christian groups subscribing to liberation theology which threatened to “disrupt Malaysia’s delicate racial and religious balance. … (They) Had infiltrated several Christian societies, including the young Christian Movement and the Catholic Students’ Society to win wider acceptance of Marxist ideology… The government described liberation theology as an approach which stresses that Catholicism contains teachings that human freedom can be achieved through a class struggle, and force may be used when all other means have been exhausted.””[3]

The authors appeared intent on putting the Singapore government in good light by repeating the praises lavished by the former prime minister when they again cited published materials, this time The Straits Times of 3 June 1987. They wrote:

“Mr. Lee Kuan Yew met the press, accompanied by Archbishop Gregory Yong, after the meeting of 1 June 1987. “Twice during the Istana Press conference, Mr Lee showed that he held ordinary Catholics in high regard. He said that he had found the Catholics to be amongst the most stout-hearted defenders of the democratic society and against Marxism and totalitarianism as represented by the communists … good relations between Catholic Church and the state will be maintained … (lay Catholics) are very staunch supporters of the community in education, health, social work and so on”.[4]

If the Archbishop’s Istana statement made in 1987 was extracted under duress, surely an important publication on the illustrious history of the Catholic Church in Singapore published 20 years after should make clear the Church’s position. It was a golden opportunity for the Church to explain the work of the arrested Church workers and the intention of the Second Vatican Council which the authors proudly claimed “had emphasized a pastoral response to a fast changing world that had affected various groups of people. It found expression in what came to be known as Development Theology. It was directed at championing the cause of people in all situations of life and the creation of a more just society…” [5]

The Church chose not to dispute the voluntariness of the statement. Reading the authors’ brief exposition of the Second Vatican Council, I suddenly realised why the Catholic Church was so active in championing the rights of the workers’ in the 1980s. The four priests were putting the text of the Second Vatican Council into action. They sought help from Catholics and non Catholics to manage their organisations in Jurong (the Young Christian Workers’ Centre) and Geylang (the Geylang Catholic Centre). I was one of the volunteers. Those volunteers and underpaid Church staff worked very hard to defend the human rights of foreign workers. But what happened when the Church was confronted by the state about the work of those volunteers and workers? The Church buckled and left them to defend themselves. She sang the tune of the government. I cannot therefore agree with Archbishop Nicholas Chia that Going forth … The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 is a “well-documented publication of the history of the Church in Singapore.” [6] Until the Church investigate the 1987 arrests earnestly and preferably while witnesses to that “unfortunate event” or “unpleasant episode” are alive, there will be no closure for those volunteers and workers accused of making use of the Church and imprisoned without trial by the state. Until the Church examine her past action or inaction, the stain on the Catholic Church in Singapore for failing to stand up for her volunteers and workers in their time of need will remain, at least as far as I am concerned.


[1] E. Wijeysingha in collaboration with Fr. Rene` Nicolas, mep Going forth…The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 His Most Rev. Nicholas Chia, Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore 2006

[2] P. 197

[3] P. 199

[4] P. 199

[5] P. 196

[6] P. 3

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