Controversial details of a priest in Geylang

Fr Guillaume Arotçarena and foreign workers at the Geylang Catholic Centre (image - Ethos Books)
Fr Guillaume Arotçarena and foreign workers at the Geylang Catholic Centre (image – Ethos Books)

By Howard Lee

“I say to you, that if these shall hold their peace, the stones will cry out.” –Luke, 19:40

Contrary to what the title of the book might suggest, Priest in Geylang – the Untold Story of the Geylang Catholic Centre offers a much less titillating experience than you might have expected.

But you will find no lack of humour, spirit and a certain contemplative fortitude. Fr Guillaume Arotçarena, author of the book, founder of the Geylang Catholic Centre and the priest who was caught in the middle of the Marxist Conspiracy, shares with us the amusing and fun-filled, yet at times sober and moving, experience of serving in Singapore’s lesser known community of foreign workers in trouble, prostitutes, drug addicts, gangsters and prisoners on death row.

The book is a heartening romp about the setting up a place in the heart of Geylang offering counselling, legal and educational services to the needy, the ups and downs of working with a team of spirited and socially diverse volunteers, and the centre’s eventual demise as result of one of the most troubling episodes in Singapore’s history.

If viewed in the parameters of Singapore’s 50th anniversary, Fr Arotçarena’s main contribution to historical examination would be his delving into the Marxist Conspiracy. In fact, he offered a new perspective into what happened behind the doors of the Catholic Church in Singapore in the months that followed the arrests of the supposed “Marxist conspirators” in May 1987.

This insight is something we might have heard murmured in rumour corridors, but never given the clarity of print from the perspective of an insider.

Particularly revealing was how the author related the circumstances and process that then Archbishop Gregory Yong was manipulated into. The deliberate sequence of events, which Fr Arotçarena attributed to the planning of the government through the Internal Security Department, was to become the official narrative on Operation Specturm that we are familiar with, a narrative that, according to the author, was riddled with inconsistencies and unsubstantiated claims.

Volunteers form the backbone of the Geylang Catholic Centre (image - Ethos Books)
Volunteers form the backbone of the Geylang Catholic Centre (image – Ethos Books)

However, Fr Arotçarena at no point indicated that he wanted to present an “alternative” historical account, although he has clearly stated his disdain for the official narrative.

If anything, the key drive of the book would be to present to us a different Singapore, in a different time that most of us today would not have experienced, nor would likely believe existed.

“Why not pay tribute, in a modest way, to the “little ones” according to the Gospel, whom I have rubbed shoulders with, and who have taught me so many things? Why not talk about all those people who have worked with me because they dreamt of a better society: more just, more fraternal, nearer to the evangelical ideal, who in some cases have been punished for their generosity by being imprisoned, ill-treated, and at the same time reproached by the self-righteous, in the Church and elsewhere?”

The Singapore described in the book was set in a time where civil society was flourishing, where individuals with the right skills and commitment came together, regardless of race or religious beliefs, to create positive change for their community. Such was the spirit that bound the Operation Spectrum detainees, even to this day.

This lost culture is in stark contrast to what we have today, where members of civil society are persistently labelled as “trouble makers” who campaign against the vein of “progress” and “efficiency”.

What is also interesting is the religious centricity of this effort, which drew in non-Catholics into its fold. Catholics, such as myself, reading the book might be drawn into the charm of this movement, centred on the faith of deeds, which carried with it a contagious effect. Perhaps this is also what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s “democracy of deeds” might have been, if allowed to flourish?

Unfortunately for us today, Fr Arotçarena described a situation where government intervention through Operation Spectrum was born of a fear of the people actively participating to bring positive change to their community. This intervention effective led to a chilling of civil society, as the clamp down routed those who could have wrought significant change to society and policy, given their professional background, abilities and dedication.

Operation Spectrum also led to a stigmatising fear, as Fr Arotçarena himself experienced, that promoted excessive caution among those who would have stepped forward, leading to the eventual paralysis of civil society.

The Centre taking part in a jumble sale (image - Ethos Books)
The Centre taking part in a jumble sale (image – Ethos Books)

More importantly, Fr Arotçarena insists that the arrests have no basis beyond the political, how the government sought to control the Catholic Church, and how the entire narrative was made into a national issue through a compliant mass media, the cracks which only appeared in international media.

The greatest angst that the book could have expressed was the loss that Fr Arotçarena felt for his volunteers – in particular those who were detained in their prime and some for years, and in general those who called the Geylang Catholic Centre a second home. The author transported us back to a time of a thriving place, full of activity and passion, now lost.

In essence, Priest in Geylang is more than a much needed missing piece in the history of Singapore. It is a reflection of how political hypersensitivity and unchecked power can lead to the destruction of something good in civil society. This is a part of history that we might never regain, unless we are able to re-embrace the spirit and dedication of Fr Guillaume Arotçarena and his Geylang Catholic Centre volunteers.

Priest in Geylang is available for sale online by Ethos Books and in stores. The book will also be launched on 17 January, 2pm at 10 Square @ Orchard Central.

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