Relating of the facts (May – September 1987)
Initial reactions of the Church of Singapore
THE city of Singapore, “the City of the Lion” in Sanskrit, was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, an English adventurer in the service of the Crown. It was then peopled by some dozens of Malays living by fishing and piracy. The position of Singapore, at the bottom of the Straits of Malacca, between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, would soon make of it a port and an important warehouse. For one hundred and fifty years it was the jewel of the British Empire in the Far East. In order to people this island and give themselves means to further their own interests, the British invited the Chinese and Indians to immigrate.
Granted a statute of independence
in 1959, it joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. It was expelled
from it two years later, and on the 9th of August 1965 it became the Republic
of Singapore. In the beginning, this independence seemed like an impossible
challenge to meet for a small island with a surface of only 618 square
kilometres and without natural resources. Nevertheless, the PAP (People’s
Action Party), in power since 1959, the Prime Minister: Lee Kuan Yew, surrounded
by a small team of technocrats, would in 25 years, make of this tiny State
an ultra-modern city whose citizens enjoy the second highest standard of
living per habitant, in Asia after Japan. In just a few years, Singapore
had become the second port of the world and its rate of development would
not give the lie to that in spite of two years of recession in 1985-1986.
Some 75 percent of the 2,600,000 inhabitants of the Republic are Chinese in origin. There are also 15 percent Malays and 8 percent Indians, the others are of different origins. Some 20 languages are spoken daily, of which only 4 are officially recognised: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. All the world’s great religions are represented. 17 percent Muslims are counted, 5 to 6 percent Hindus and Sikhs, 12 percent Christians of which 4 to 5 percent are Catholic. The rest of the population claims to be Buddhist, Taoist and other different forms of popular Chinese religions. It is to be noted that at the census of 1980, 13 percent of the population declared that they had no religion.
The Catholic Church:
Existed in Singapore since 1820. At first it was almost entirely implanted within one portion of the Chinese population speaking the Teochew dialect. It was to know an important growth after World War II. Today it affects all races except the Malays who are 100 percent Muslims. It can be defined as a Church of the middle classes especially present in the English-speaking circles.
On the 21st of May 1987, the Singapore Press announced on its front page the discovery of a Marxist plot aimed at overthrowing the State, that 16 persons had been arrested, among whom 10 were directly engaged in Christian-inspired movements. The developments which were to follow would not be slow to show that this offensive was partly directed against certain sectors of the Catholic Church of Singapore.
For many, this news had the effect of a thunderbolt in an otherwise serene sky. Until then, relations between the State and the little Catholic Church of Singapore (comprising 4 to 5 percent of the population) had been cloudless. All the same, for the circles concerned, it was but a half-surprise. Of course they were taken aback by the violence of the accusations and the rigour of the measures taken. But they knew already through a certain number of signs that for some years already, the government was worried about the activity of some Catholic circles in the Church, whose influence, even though they were in the minority, never stopped spreading. Among the group suspected there were the Young Christian Workers which was in full renewal and had re-discovered a certain dynamism, the Justice and Peace Commission which, after having led a stagnant life for many years, just reinforced their effectiveness and activities, the periodical Catholic News which had given itself a new orientation, the Catholic Students Association. The displeasure of the authorities bore down also on newly founded organisations such as, for example, the Catholic Centre for foreign workers begun in 1980 and which, since 1984, developed rapidly.
Premonitory signs had not been lacking. From 1984, in a publication of the Minister for Culture The Mirror, there had been a lengthy attack against Liberation Theology. In 1985, pressure was exercised upon the archbishop to change the chaplain for Catholic Students, and in penitential establishments which suddenly and for no apparent reason had judged that the Catholic chaplain was “a risk for security” and confiscated his permit to visit the prisons. In 1986, the archbishop was summoned by the police who had warned him against certain Catholic movements, and against the two priests mentioned above, they also expressed "displeasure" of a column called Just Living by Justus, which was published in the Catholic News. That same year, the Prime Minister told the Pope who was on a visit to Singapore, that he was very pleased with the Catholic Church in general, except for some uncontrollable priests. The day after this visit, Fr Guillaume Arotcarena of the Paris Foreign Missions was called by the political police who read a report to him in which he was reproached for publishing a book about foreigners (The Maid Tangle) who were employed in homes in Singapore, for a declaration to the press, a sermon on conditions placed upon immigrant workers, and for his part in Church and Society a review of Christian reflection on social problems.
This document will endeavour to
follow the events, day by day, during the four months the affair lasted.
It will also strive to sound out the intentions of the Singapore government
through the different declarations it made. Then, by way of conclusion,
it will propose a reflection replacing the so-called plot in the more general
context of the Singapore socio-political system.