by Teo Soh Lung
“Noting that the trauma resulting from the so-called “Marxist conspiracy” will “resurface from time to time”, he (Archbishop William Goh) stressed that there is “no other way forward” for the Church except “the way of forgiveness”. [Catholic News, 4 October 2015].
The Archbishop was speaking at the memorial mass for MEP priest, Fr Guillaume Arotcarena who passed away three years ago, on 3 September 2015. He was absolutely right.
The page of the Catholic News on what the archbishop said happened to fall out of a book I was holding this morning. Maybe Fr Arotcarena wanted me to say something on his third anniversary.
Fr Arot, as he was fondly called by the volunteers of the Geylang Catholic Centre passed away in France. He left behind an important legacy, a little book called “The Priest in Geylang, The Untold Story of the Geylang Catholic Centre”. This title is rather misleading for it is not a sleezy fiction that one expects to read. Instead, it is Fr Arot’s observation of Singapore and his recollection of his 17 years of work for the Catholic Church here after a stint in Taiwan to learn Mandarin. His knowledge of Chinese and his ability to pick up Singlish coupled with his quick wit and humour earned him much respect from the people he worked with - the migrant workers, prisoners and former prisoners.
In his book, Fr Arot narrated how he became acquainted with his neighbours, a group of Malaysian garment factory workers at the Geylang Catholic Centre which he founded. He wrote:
“Soon, I met 20 young Chinese female workers from Malaysia, who lived on the floor just above, where the firm which employed them had set up a dormitory. I quickly discovered that there were many similar dormitories in Geylang, used as lodging for migrant workers, mainly from Malaysia. My first encounter with my neighbours from the upper floor was rather funny. One evening, coming home, I met some of them at the common staircase of the building. As a joke directed to her co-workers, one of them shouted loudly in Mandarin: “Xiao xin, King Kong lai le!” (Be careful, here comes King Kong!) Her friends burst out laughing and so did I. I asked them in my best Mandarin, why they did not seem frightened at all. I must say that I created a little surprise. They did not expect me to understand Chinese. I took the opportunity to invite them to drop by and have a cup of tea at my place, whenever they were free.”
That was how the Geylang Catholic Centre for migrant workers, ex-offenders, battered women, homeless etc began.
Fr Arot spoke Singlish with a French accent. He enjoyed local cuisine at the hawkers’ centre. Barbequed stingrays with belachan sauce and all those hot and spicy food. He enjoyed cooking his meals too. One day I watched him prepare beef steak with lots of garlic for his lunch. He told me that anything with lots of garlic cannot go wrong!
Despite his easy going attitude and seemingly untroubled nature, Fr Arot was a very serious and religious person. He cared deeply for the poor and the marginalised. I recall that one of the earliest cases he referred to me was a claim for wrongful termination of employment. My clients refused to undergo “voluntary sterilization” after the birth of two daughters. She was summarily dismissed by the multi-national company she worked for because she had refused to comply with the government policy that required work permit holders and their spouses to undergo compulsory sterilization after the birth of two children.
I was told that several priests, including Fr Arot, had taken a stand against this policy as it was against the Catholic faith, but to no avail. Catholic schools implemented the policy of giving priority of registration to children of parents who could produce their sterilization certificates.
Returning to the Archbishop’s speech delivered at the memorial mass for Fr Arot, I want to comment on the following. The archbishop said:
“ We can imagine the pain, the disappointment and even anger, especially against authorities, whether of the state and even of the Church, for apparently not standing up for them. ...
“He noted that the immediate reaction of anyone who is misjudged is to seek justice, “to uncover the facts” and “to be vindicated.”
"However, “there are many sides to the same story,” he said. “People have different accounts of the same event. Different people have different explanations.”
"And even if the facts can be established, “can you establish the motives of everyone who is involved?” he asked. “IN TRUTH, THE MOTIVES OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO SERVE, THE MOTIVES OF THE AUTHORITIES WHO REACTED TO THE SITUATION PERHAPS WILL NEVER BE TRULY KNOWN.” (Emphasis mine).
Not being a Catholic and having left the Geylang Catholic Centre for some time before the 1987 arrests, I did not expect any support from the Church. The problem however lies with the Church’s initial support for the 16 people who were arrested and her sudden withdrawal of such support.
In May 1987, a mass held for the 16 detainees at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour was attended by 2500 people. The crowd may not be as large as the mass held at St Joseph’s Church that prayed for the departure of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. It was reported in The Straits Times that that mass attracted 5000 Catholics, a number that is difficult to believe as St Joseph’s Church is not so large as to accommodate that number of people.
The Church’s support for the 16 detainees suddenly disappeared soon after the then Archbishop, Gregory Yong was summoned to the Istana to meet the prime minister on 2 June 1987. What took place at the meeting must be in the records of the Church and the Vatican. We can however read about the meeting in the publication “1987 Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On” published by Function 8.
I can only surmise that Archbishop Yong was persuaded or pressured to disbelieve the innocence of his church workers at the Istana. My grouse with the Church is that she did not attempt to seek the truth. The archbishop did not summon the families of his church volunteers or listen to his priests, especially the four who were implicated by the prime minister, including Fr Arot. In his book, Fr Arot recalled:
“…It was a Friday and I felt completely powerless. The next day I had the shock of my life when I woke up. There were five columns on the front page of The Straits Times reporting that the four priests whose organisations were connected with the arrests had been officially “suspended” by the Archbishop who forbade them to speak in or outside the church and to have contact with each other or with members of the organisation they had been in charge of. Our faces were splashed on the front page. If a new world war had been declared the night before, the headlines would not have been more prominent. No one in the Archbishop’s office had thought it fit that they should inform me of what had been decided, apparently the night before, and the reasons for it. I was shattered and above all, I felt betrayed and let down, stranded alone in the middle of nowhere. At about 9 a.m. the Vicar-General who was the main counsellor of the Archbishop, called me on the phone to find out if I had read the newspapers. He said he had not been able to get in touch with me the day before to explain things to me. Anyway, he said, it was for my own good. With some men, it is at times difficult to figure out what comes first: hypocrisy or stupidity. The combination of the two is definitely unbearable.”
The four priests were not even given a chance to explain their work. They were summarily relieved of their duties without notice and apparently threatened with arrest if they failed to do so. So in order to save the Church, some sacrifices had to be made.
What did Archbishop William Goh mean when he proclaimed that “there are many sides to the same story?”
I do not think the Church had bothered to even investigate the allegations against the volunteers or the four priests. He simply believed in the allegations of the government.
I also find these words offensive. The archbishop said, “In truth, the motives of those people who serve, the motives of the authorities who reacted to the situation perhaps will never be truly known.”
I take it that he doubts the good intentions of the volunteers. There is nothing wrong with having doubts but for the church to continue to doubt the motives of those volunteers without making any attempt to investigate the truth after nearly 30 years is disappointing.
Another statement which I wish to comment on is this:
“…the Church’s social mission is principally a spiritually one. The social mission of the Church is an expression of the proclamation of the Gospel… The Church must never ever be reduced to a humanitarian organisation. We are not another NGO.”
The archbishop should have restricted his comment to the Catholic Church of Singapore. He is very different from Pope Francis. Pope Francis had spoken against the death penalty, the plight of refugees and injustice everywhere. I do not for one second, think that by his words and action, he has reduced the Catholic Church to an NGO.
The Singapore church can continue her spiritual journey and keep a blind eye to the sufferings of the impoverished, the migrant workers and the poor. Forget about the Eight Beatitudes. Just pray and human sufferings will disappear.
The survivors of 1987 do not rely on the Catholic Church to vindicate their names. That was why they issued a joint statement in 1988, denying the government’s account for the arrests. In recent years, former detainees have participated in the making of a documentary by filmmaker Jason Soo and published several books and articles to clear their names.
To me, the archbishop’s speech at the memorial mass of Fr Arot was most inappropriate. He had used the solemn occasion to assure the government that the Church will forever be obedient to the state and undermine the former detainees. He had no good words for Fr Arot and it would have been better if he did not say anything at the mass.