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Photo from SJI's Facebook page

“Activism does not go against Lasallian values; it is central to it”: St Joseph Institution alumni

In a submission to TOC, an alumnus of St Joseph Institution (SJI) has expressed his disappointment towards the anti-activism stance held by the current heads of his alma mater, and their subsequent silence regarding the matter.

The alumnus wrote that "many alumni of the school were in shock, and there have been intense debates on closed Facebook groups" regarding Vice-Principal Leonard Tan's arguments against activism in SJI and Singapore society as a whole in a speech to the school's current students in July.

From a discussion in the SJI Alumni's Facebook group.

 

Screenshot of a comment by Brother Michael Broughton, who is previously the spiritual ‘brother president’ and former vice-principal of SJI, and who is now working abroad.

 

He and several other SJI alumni had then decided "to communicate to the Principal directly in a letter sent via email, in the hope that he would clarified the school’s position" regarding the school's decision to bar the Inter-University LGBT Network's Research & Advocacy Director Ms Rachel Yeo from speaking at a [email protected] event in July.

A petition started by several young alumni of the school, which has garnered around "50 or so signatories" was also sent to Fr Adrian Danker.

However, they have yet to receive any response from Fr Adrian Danker after "almost 2 months" since they wrote in to him.

Consequently, the alumnus said that he and his fellow former schoolmates are "sorely disappointed with the radio silence on the part of the principal," and what bothers him the most "as a member of the Catholic faith" is that Fr Adrian Danker is "the head of the Catholic Archdiocese’s Courage Singapore," which is "a support ministry for persons with same-sex attraction".

He added that their act of writing a letter to the school's Principal, The Reverend Father (Dr.) Adrian Augustus Danker SJ, could potentially serve as "a teachable moment to young SJI boys that while we might disagree with someone’s views, we should always allow their right to be heard without any prejudice".

"There is no one better in the church to speak on this controversy than him. What a moment of support it would have been to boys in SJI who had been uncertain of their sexuality, to know that their principal had come out in support of them, and had explained that the institution did not actually think that 377A challengers were activists who were a danger to the community," wrote the alumnus.

He added that it has hurt him and "many Old Boys of the school to see the way this controversy has tarnished the name of the school, which has long been a place that has taught moral courage," adding that the SJI brand has always been centred around the education of good moral and ethical values.

"The response from the school leadership has been disappointing to say the least. I hope members of the public will know that the school stands for so much more," he concluded.

SJI, like other educational institutions, have a duty to provide space for open dialogue and critical thinking for its students

Quoting the Ministry of Education’s press release “Refreshing Our Approach to National Education” which was published on 5 March 2018, the alumni wrote, in their letter to Fr Adrian Danker, that "educational institutions have a duty to provide space for open dialogue, exposing students to a multiplicity of ideas, and giving them the opportunity to explore and deconstruct them within a conducive and safe learning environment".

They added: "Encouraging open dialogue provides equal opportunity for differing – and even conflicting – perspectives and beliefs to be shared and discussed in a mature and respectful manner," which "nurtures critical thinking and fosters open-mindedness among students."

"Students should be taught to respect people with differing opinions and be given opportunities to engage in frank and constructive conversations on important and pressing issues, however difficult these issues may be," wrote the SJI alumni, thus arguing that the school's decision to disinvite Ms Yeo runs against the grain of what education truly ought to be.

They expressed, in their letter, their hope that "the school will address, clarify and/or reframe where appropriate," the following:

(1) its withdrawal of Ms Yeo’s invitation to speak in an event that is meant to serve as a platform for open dialogue; and

(2) its misportrayal of Ms Yeo and activism as socially divisive and incorrect.

The alumni added: "We would like for the school to restate its commitment to staying true to its Lasallian values of inclusivity – through creating a safe space for open dialogue, protecting the marginalised, and respecting differing perspectives (even those of non-Catholic) – and to do so with sincerity, importance and resolve."

Crucial to have "multi-faith inclusivity in education"

In reference to Mr Tan's statement regarding SJI having its own "set of values," the school's alumni have expressed, in their letter, concern over the implication of his statement, as it can be interpreted as suggesting that "the school’s Catholic identity is more important than the students’ own sense of belonging and prerogative to their own values and beliefs, in the context of educational activities, such as the [email protected] event."

They added: "These statements are dangerous, as they may have inadvertently perpetuated the damaging misconception that one can only be a Josephian if one is a practicing Catholic. We perceive such an idea as not only contrary to the Lasallian commitment to inclusion, but also a rejection of many of our classmates, who strongly embody the Josephian spirit, even as they do not profess a belief in the Catholic religion."

"Singapore’s education system is a largely secular one that respects the principles of a multiracial and multi-religious society. Like all Singapore schools, SJI should prepare students to be comfortable with diversity and respect their individual faiths, rather than insist that they subscribe solely to one objectively valid belief system, in the context of discussing social concerns," stressed the alumni.

They also emphasised that "it is SJI's social and moral duty to provide a safe, inclusive space for open dialogue," and that in the spirit of Saint John Baptist De La Salle, the Catholic saint who fought against socioeconomic discrimination during his time and whose words Mr Tan had quoted in his speech, SJI "should similarly refrain against discriminating against students who are not of Catholic faith, equally respecting students of all faiths and beliefs."

"No student should ever feel that he or she is any less of a Josephian because he or she is not a Catholic," wrote the SJI alumni.

Additionally, they disagreed with Mr Tan's argument that "all forms of activism are socially divisive," stating that St John Baptist de La Salle himself "embodies the very definition of an activist" through his "vision of establishing a network of schools for poor children," which was objected to by the French monarchy.

De La Salle, they added, had "exposed societal divisions and compelled French society to confront the injustices it was perpetrating against the poor, helping to build communities where there were none".

The SJI alumni strongly believed that "we would not have a Lasallian community today" if de La Salle "had meekly caved in to the demands of his detractors."

Consequently, they further dispelled Mr Tan's statements regarding activism by highlighting the nuances within different forms of activism, and rejecting the notion that superficial meekness is a sign of a peaceful and harmonious society:

Activism allows us to amplify these voices so that society becomes more aware of the injustices it knowingly or unknowingly inflicts upon them. A lack of activism does not resolve social divisions but, rather, masks them and leaves them to fester.

Activism should not be confused with extremism: activism is often conducted peacefully and within the remit of the law, and merely seeks to acknowledge and address social deficiencies through pushing for change.

As Josephians, it is important for us to uphold de La Salle’s courage and resolve in his lifelong campaign against inequality and injustice, and continue to bravely advocate for those marginalised and forgotten by society so that they need not suffer in silence or feel isolated.