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

Bad memories (from Priest in Geylang)

Priest in Geylang cover - HLBy Bertha Henson

A couple of weeks ago, my publisher asked if he could play an excerpt from a video made during the launch of my book, Troublemaker. He was interested in the portion where I had been asked about the worst time of my journalistic career. I had replied that it was during the Marxist conspiracy of 1987.

His company, Ethos, had a book coming out, by Father G Arotcarena, one of four Catholic priests who had been named in so-called plot. The Frenchman had written Priest in Geylang, about the establishment of the Geylang Catholic Centre which had to be closed down during that time. I had described it as a terrible period when journalists twiddled their thumbs because an editorial decision had been made to simply run material from the Internal Security Department in full. There was to be, in journalistic parlance, no value-added reporting.

As a rookie reporter who was so pleased to have been recalled to work in anticipation of covering news of an Internal Security Department operation, the assignment was such a let-down – journalistically. We were not to ask questions of anyone nor can we do what we usually do with verbose reports – write it journalistically. I was too low in the hierarchy – and much too green – to give vent to my views. We did what editors, who presumably were better-informed than we were, told us to do – which was nothing.

My publisher, Hoe Fang, wanted to play the video during the book launch on the Saturday. The book reprised quite a lot of never-before-revealed details of the time. I said okay (in return for a free copy of the book!) I finished the slim volume in a few hours on Sunday, surprised that Hoe Fang had several mentions in it as well.

We’ve heard many views about Operation Spectrum (I certainly didn’t know at that time that that was its codename), including from those who had been incarcerated. But the Catholic church had kept a studious silence. Now a priest whom I knew from way back when I was a teenager, has spoken up.

I remember Fr Arotcarena as a very energetic priest who surprised people by breaking out into fluent Mandarin. He preached often in my Siglap parish as he was based at the next nearest church in Katong. When the names of four priests were released to the media, he was the only one I knew. I also knew that he ran the Geylang Catholic Centre which was well known for its work for abused Filipina maids. You could say it was the fore-runner of the groups which have since sprouted up looking to protect the interests of foreign workers against unscrupulous employers here. At that time, there was hardly any form of “civil society’’.

The book is a narrative of Fr Arotcarena’s attempts to put the faith into practice, whether by relating with prisoners in Changi or the marginalized, such as foreign maid population here. He wanted to do more than just preach from the pulpit. There are several accounts of the people he met. He told stories of robbers and thieves he’s met, as well as those on death row. Of abused maids with bosses so unreasonable that one of them even wrote on her passport indicating that she was carrying a bomb on the plane that she was about to board for home. (The employer was later convicted of disseminating a bomb hoax). Of the reformed and the un-reformed and those who couldn’t get their life back on trach. There was even a “kidnapping’’ that he was called to when one of his charges brandished a knife in front of another priest and some layman.

Fr Arotcarena also had his own personal tales. Of the centre being broke. Of warnings by friendly parties that his centre was being watched. Of attempted seductions which, he thinks, had been “officially’’ sanctioned to trip him up. Also, of course, of continued visits by officials, whether in uniform or plainclothes, his own call-up to ISD and a few cloak-and-dagger scenes which involved an ISD officer named Charly.

In a chapter titled Inside the Catholic Church in Singapore, he recounted how the Church had issued an official statement asserting that it had the right to intervene on social matters and to uphold its moral values. It was read out at all masses. One weekday evening, a solemn mass was organized in my parish church to pray for the detainees and their families.

I was there, in my capacity as a journalist. The church was filled to the rafters and beyond. Thousands crammed into the space. The atmosphere was so silent and tense you could have heard a pin drop. The congregation was clinging on to every word of the Archbishop who had 30 priests in attendance. I was recognized by fellow church-goers and endured the hostile glares sent my way. Still, that wasn’t as bad as the tongue-lashing I received from a priest in my parish a couple of days later. He had some choice  swear words for me. I went home crying.

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)

Fr. Arotcarena thinks that the mass mass was the trigger for the scaling up of official activity. A meeting between Church and State was organized and the Archbishop was surprised into holding a press conference. The Prime Minister had ushered him into a roomful of waiting journalists, something that was not on the agenda of their meeting, said Fr Arotcarena. I can still recall the Archbishop’s face and posture on “live’’ TV. He looked beaten down, especially next to a vigorous Lee Kuan Yew who even finished some of his sentences on his behalf. As a Catholic, I felt tremendous pain for the gentle bishop. When the dust had more or less settled, he suffered a heart attack.

There were some things Fr Arotcarena said which were new to me, like the kind of pressure the ISD asserted on the Church authorities to have the four priests not just resign from their respective posts as they had offered to, but to be officially suspended with no contact allowed with each other. Despite the bishop’s protestations that such ecclesiastical sanctions took time, Fr Arotcarena asserted that the bishop was forced to make a statement almost immediately. “That was the end of the resistance of the Catholic Church,’’ said Fr Arotcarena. He left town for Paris that same evening.

His departure, and that of another priest, was the subject of the only exclusive story I wrote during the whole period. I had heard about their departures the next morning and had proceeded to the Church of St Peter and Paul where I knew the Vicar-General, right-hand man of the bishop, would be. He was in church, deep in prayer on his knees. I waited for what seemed like ages for him to get up from his knees and emerge, feeling more wretched by the minute. He was kind enough to confirm the story and I had my exclusive printed on the back page of ST. (At that time, the front and back pages were the premium pages.) It was picked up the world over.

There was one other instance of reporting I was involved in. We had been told that the G had met leading Catholics, including the late Dr Ee Peng Liang, over the matter. The media made a beeline for Dr Ee’s home late that night after the meeting was over. He tried oh so carefully to answer questions, mainly to reiterate that “yes, we met’’ and trying very hard not to say more. He looked wretched. And I felt wretched.

Truth to tell, I have never found the ISD’s reasons for the arrests convincing. What Marxism? What liberation theology? The detainees seemed to be a bunch of people who wanted to do good. Maybe it was because Fr Arotcarena is French, despite being a PR, and we can’t have foreigners interfering in local politics? But what “politics’’ is this? Were their actions really subversive? If so, plenty of groups today should be locked up by the ISD for doing more or less what the “conspirators’’ did.

I doubt that the G won the political battle for the people’s hearts and minds over this issue then. Although the ISA was in place to nab people “before bad things happen’’, the evidence produced was simply unconvincing and the actions taken, too high-handed, to put it mildly. Even Mr Goh Chok Tong who was then-DPM, said the next year that the G could have been gentler.  Of course, several more things happened after the first round of arrests. Some of the detainees who were released recanted and got thrown back in.

Then came a tip-off that one of the priests involved was seeing a woman. My bosses wanted the story “broken’’ – and assigned it to me. I said no. I suggested to him that it would be better to move the assignment to another journalist, maybe a non-Catholic. I got a dressing down from my boss for being “unprofessional’’. Still, the job went to someone else. Now, a rookie reporter getting such a drubbing from a top boss is a big deal. But I really did not want to be the one who hung up my church’s dirty linen, if there was any, to dry. My church is bigger than my job. (The priest has since left the church and married the woman.)

Reading Priest in Geylang only made me feel wretched. It was one period in my reporting career, and even in Singapore’s short history, that I would rather forget. Older Catholics will remember how we felt under siege at that time. It left a deep mark on the Catholic psyche.

Then I think about the celebrations being drummed up for SG50. Yes, I agree that this little red dot has come a long way. But I don’t think we should ignore the parts of history that aren’t so agreeable or politically acceptable. We have warts – and they too make up the face that is now Singapore.

This article first appeared on Bertha Henson's blog, Bertha Harian. We thank Bertha for allowing us to republish it.