Here appear occasional jottings of my random musings. Profound or jejune, they reveal the contours of my mental universe, with world history, intellectual history, civilizations, philosophy, religion, society, knowledge, and books as some major themes.
Since May 2011, this blog has been exclusively focused on Singapore. All my other reflections are now posted in "Notes from Noosphere" (see link under "Miscellany" on the right margin).
So King Henry II was supposed to have said in a frustrated rage at the principled refusal of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, to allow the English Crown’s encroachment into ancient Church privileges.
Interpreting their King’s frustration as royal command, four knights of King Henry’s Court set out to murder Thomas Becket on a cold December evening at the altar of his Church.
Thomas Becket was canonized by the Pope just two years after his death, a martyr of the Church.
Who is James Minchin?
If you’d asked me the above question last week, the answer I’d have given you is: “I have no idea”.
Obscure as the reference to Thomas Becket might be, there’s a good chance more Singaporeans knew who Becket was than the Reverend James Minchin.
That was before the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) decision to detain Reverend Minchin at Changi airport and put him on the next plane to Oz.
Thanks to MHA, my curiousity was piqued enough for me to want to find out why this Anglican priest was considered enough of a troublemaker by the Singapore Government for them to give him a free plane ticket back to Australia.
Thanks to MHA, I, like many other now curious Singaporeans, am probably going to order Reverend Minchin’s book psychoanalyzing Lee Kuan Yew from Amazon (I’m told that you can’t get it off the bookshelves here).
In fact, my curiousity was stoked enough for me to spend 25 minutes of my Sunday morning watching the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Vincent Wijeysingha’s interview (video below) of the Reverend Minchin.
Given the Government’s reaction, I expected a fire breathing polemicist taking un-informed and condescending potshots at the Singapore Government.
Instead, what I ended up watching was an interview with an external observer of Singapore who had a decent sense of the nuances of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. In fact, it was so nuanced I almost felt bored, but soldiered through and found myself feeling marginally better informed about the historical figure that is Lee Kuan Yew.
Minchin’s perspective was by no means unbiased, but his critique of the Singapore system was far more subtle than the some of the adulation Lee Kuan Yew’s favourite Singapore apologists shower him with.
For example, American journalist Tom Plate.
At the 2010 launch of what was billed as a “candid book” on Lee Kuan Yew, Plate gushed:
"At one point, his press secretary felt that Minister Mentor was tired and we should cut the session short and (as a) typical journalist, you're a journalist, you know what I mean, we weren't going to let that happen, right?
"We want to squeeze every last minute we could and I said 'No, I'm not moving. You can leave, but I'm not moving.' And I think Lee Kuan Yew might have overheard the conversation and he came back and he said, 'No I'm staying, we're going to finish.' So he was very committed to finishing the project."
So let me pre-empt the inevitable barrage of invective against meddlesome foreigners by the blinkered pro-government apologists by calling them out in advance: what you really mean is you’re fine with foreign perspectives as long as they champion your worldview.
Playing half the fool?
What really puzzled me was MHA’s reason for sending Reverend Minchin on his way.
First, according to MHA, Minchin had spoken at a political forum “where he alleged that the rule of law was bypassed and corrupted in Singapore and questioned the independence and integrity of the judiciary”.
This forum was, I understand, a private event organized by civil society group Function 8. Forum 8 is a civil society group set up by ex-Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees. The group was recently involved in a very public tussle with the Government over their correspondence with the Catholic Archbishop of Singapore.
While it’s fairly disturbing that the MHA was somehow apprised of what went on at a private function, what really stumps me is why MHA was so confident that Minchin made comments running down Singapore’s legal system and judiciary but were not confident enough to cite Minchin for contempt of Court.
Surely, if Minchin’s comments were in contempt, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) would have acted, as they did in the case of British journalist Alan Shadrake. It speaks volumes of the strength of the MHA allegations against Minchin that no charges were levelled. The reality is that we might now never know whether the Ministry’s assessment of Minchin’s statements is accurate as they will never have to be tested in a Court of law.
Could this be intentional?
It is certainly in the Government’s interest to avoid the spectacle of an elderly foreign clergyman being thrown in jail after the international attention British journalist Alan Shadrake’s protracted contempt of Court trial attracted.
Perhaps a risk manager in the Ministry’s bureaucracy decided it would be less damaging to look only half a fool of by sending Minchin off on less than clear grounds.
While that calculation sounds plausible in some convoluted damage-control sense, the question really is why the Ministry decided to inflict that damage on themselves in the first place.
As I pointed out earlier in the article, no one (apart from the few thousand who regularly watch the SDP videos) would have been any the wiser if Minchin had come and gone.
While it’s debatable if MHA have managed to turn Minchin into a bit of a martyr or a momentary cause celebre, what’s clear is that someone’s managed to make a complete muddle of the entire situation.
And in any case, more Singaporeans now know about Minchin than Becket.
Vindictive, Petty and mean: Singapore government shows true colours: here