By Howard Lee
“I would not like the book to breed a nostalgia of our past youth. That would be negative and would only breed resentment. I’d rather like the book to contribute to the opening of imagination for the future.” –Fr Guillaume Arotçarena, email dated 2 January 2015
The crowd of about a hundred packed into the small auditorium at 10 Square @ Orchard Central was abuzz with energy, as Mr Fong Hoe Fang of Ethos Books kicked off the reading session for Priest in Geylang – the Untold Story of the Geylang Catholic Centre.
The book described the activities of the Geylang Catholic Centre in the 1980s and offered an insight into one of the more troubling parts of Singapore history, the Marxist Conspiracy. (Read also TOC’s earlier book review).
The book reading, however, steered away from an over indulgence into the events of Operation Spectrum. It was interesting to be in the company of some of the former volunteers of the centre seated among the audience, who were there not just to support the event, but also stand up to share their experiences at the centre.
“Most of us were there just for the food and dancing,” joked Chan Wai Han, to peals of laughter from the audience, when asked why they chose to volunteer. She described an atmosphere of camaraderie at the centre, where people from all walks of life would simply chip in to do their part for the community.
Volunteers also shared pictures of the activities conducted at the centre, such as field trips, music and language lessons, and festive events. Some of the classes conducted were not by the volunteers, but the beneficiaries and temporary residents of the centre, indicating a community of sharing that is less top-down in approach. There were even thank you notes written by participants, indicating that they gave as much as they received.
For sure, the Marxist Conspiracy lingered in the background. Russell Heng, president of Transient Workers Count Too, recounted that Operation Spectrum cast a long shadow, making civil society more careful about doing work for migrant workers for many years following the arrests.
There was also a mention about how Bertha Henson, former journalist and author of Troublemaker, as a rookie reporter covering the detentions was only allowed to rehash the information fed by the Internal Security Department.
“That was a very, very difficult period not just for me but for a lot of journalists as well,” Ms Henson had related during the launch of her book.
Nevertheless, this particular reading event was really about sharing the experiences of the volunteers, how then have contributed to building a community that is bigger than themselves, and to point the way forward for how Singapore society can be like if we look beyond the current structures and boundaries of civic engagement.
Mr Fong said that he plans to organise more book reading events for Priest in Geylang, given the positive response from this reading.