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Any form of activism is socially divisive: St Joseph’s Institution’s Vice-Principal

Contained in a submission to TOC today (25 July), is a recording of a speech by Vice-Principal of St Joseph's Institution (SJI), Mr Leonard Tan, who has made the claim that activism creates social division.

The speech was made in the wake of the speaker ban that was held against the Inter-University LGBT Network Research & Advocacy Director, Ms Rachel Yeo, on the eve of a [email protected] event that was held on 20 July.

In his speech to the Catholic school's students, Mr Tan stressed the privilege of SJI students, who he believes are all in the "position to influence" Singapore society in the future:

Now I’m going to put in context [the issue to] all of you here. I must make this very, very clear. All of you here one day will be in the position to influence. That is very clear, okay? You’ll be going out there. I’ve seen [it], you know?

For the past few years, the number of scholarships reported, the number of prestigious universities you’ve been matriculated into, the jobs that you do . . . Whatever you do, by and large, Josephians, all of you will be in a very important position of influence, and influence is a responsibility that you cannot take lightly.

What you say, what you do will impact many, you know, many around you, be them five persons, fifty persons, five hundred persons, five thousand persons, like Mr Liew Yip - former Josephian, head of civil service - [who] commands a workforce of 60,000... Myself included. What he says will impact 60,000 persons, plus millions of Singaporeans, right? Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean [is] also a former Josephian. All of you will be in a position to influence.

Now, with this, every issue that comes across you and in front of you, [you] must bear careful thought and consideration. That’s why here, I think, at SJI, we make sure that when you leave SJI, you are ready. You are ready to face the world and you’re ready to lead, you’re ready to be a person for others, [ready] to make impactful, positive change."

Mr Tan rationalised the school's last-minute decision to withdraw their invitation to Ms Yeo and emphasised that the teachers have to support the decision:

Why we invited and disinvited the speakers -- that is something that the teachers that’s something we’ve got to support. We’ve got to support that, okay? [...] Now the speaker was a LGBTQ+ activist . . . She was an advocate for the LGBTQ+ issue.

In reference to Ms Yeo's role as an LGBTQ+ advocate, he urged his students to examine the definition of activism, and whether such a definition is applicable in Singapore.

Firstly, what we actually want to think about is the idea of an activist. What is an activist? Do any of you know what an activist is? ... [Has] Any of you taken part in an active demonstration, et cetera? You [do] realise [that] in Singapore, [we] don’t have the protests that [...] you know, the students do in France [and other] European countries, [and in North] America, and so on. If you read Plato’s [The] Republic, you will know the reason for that.

Citing what he suggested as the traditional definition of activism, he said that activism "is the vigorous campaigning of political change — structural, political change."

Mr Tan subsequently made a reference to a French Catholic patron saint, Saint Jean-Baptiste De La Salle, in his attempt to illustrate that activism as it is widely known in civil society today might not always be effective in creating political change:

When he was in France, he saw poverty around him . . . He saw children who were neglected in schools. He saw children that were not valued by society, and [...] as a Catholic priest, he knew that every single child [...] has intrinsic value, because that child is the child of God. God has placed his love and care in each child. 

Saint De La Salle didn’t go and campaign against the French government, or, you know, the Parisian bureaucracy, and say, "Hey, we have do something". No. He had a few teachers, and started his own school to deliver what he believed was best. He started a band of brothers -- the De La Salle brothers, the Christian brothers’ schools.

He impacted change from within, by directly affecting the person beside him [...] If we want to start a change, start with myself and what I can do for my fellow men. I’m not going to go write letters to the forums complaining this, complaining that. No.

Mr Tan further made his point by suggesting that the story of Saint De La Salle's pacifist social restructuring through education is thoroughly applicable to Christian educators and students in the present day, instead of engaging in what he deems as "divisive":

My call [...] as a Christian, as a Catholic: What can I do [...] to help my fellow men [who are] beside me? Simple. If I want to make a change, I’ll get into a position where I can make change peacefully, cohesively, [and] coherently.

Activism — any form of activism is socially divisive. It divides society, it divides a community and a principle of the Josephian […] is [that] we’re community builders.

It goes against the very grain of what we stand for. We are community builders. We don’t divide community. That is something that every one of you have to think about in your journey in SJI as you grow.

He also emphasised the need to remain steadfast towards Christian values in dealing with issues such as activism, particularly activism involving LGBTQ+ issues in this case:

[...] As a Catholic school, we have our own beliefs and values that are centred on the teachings of Christ and the gospel. [...] We also advocate our own set of values. How do we advocate them? By helping in education [...]

[...] also, as a Catholic school, shouldn’t we also stand for what we believe in? Everyone is called to stand up one day. The call . . . What do you believe in? As a Catholic school, this is what we believe in: the teachings of the Catholic church.

That’s why our call for all of you is really, as you form your identity, what do you believe in? [...] Because that will guide you throughout life. How meaningful and purposeful your life will be will be dependent on what you believe in.

Mr Tan also declared that he is guided by St Thomas the Apostle, who said: "I serve God and I serve country, in that order."

When queried on Mr Tan's speech, the Inter-University LGBT Network said that they have chosen to reserve their comments regarding the matter.