Reading Priest in Geylang filled me with a sense of nostalgia and wonder for a lifestyle in Singapore that I was old enough to remember the dying ambers of but not old enough to have experienced to its fullest extent. Father Arotcarena’s descriptions of a communal way of life imbued by a certain Kampong spirit whereby your word is your bond was for me personally, bittersweet.
Have I romanticised bygone years through the rose tinted glasses of time? – Perhaps… But I wonder if a certain Singaporean spirit has been lost in the tireless quest for development such that if we fell foul of the “grand plan” we no longer have a stake in our country?
The Geylang Catholic Centre was founded through not just the Catholic Church but through the hard work and dedication of numerous social workers and volunteers. The way the establishment sought to define the boundaries between social work and political meddling was artificial and arbitrary.
At the infancy of the foundation of the Geylang Catholic Centre, there was virtually no such thing as rights for foreign workers or opportunities for those who fell through the cracks such as former convicts. The Geylang Catholic Centre was therefore vital in providing the stop gap measure for many of these vulnerable individuals.
The demise of the Geylang Catholic Centre was a travesty because the establishment allowed their bias towards the other activities of specific individuals involved in the Geylang Catholic Centre to colour their judgment of the Geylang Catholic Centre itself. In the government’s quest at consolidating control, the Geylang Catholic Centre became a pawn of the political game and the individuals became hostages in this needless conflict between religion and state.
Priest in Geylang was a riveting read because it provided a heartfelt narrative from someone who was involved in the forefront of things and not hampered by fear the way many Singaporeans have become paralysed by. As the book progresses, it becomes evident that Father Arotcarena is not the ignorant foreigner who wants to impose his western values on Singapore the way certain fear mongers would have us believe. On the contrary, the said Father speaks fluent mandarin and displays a healthy interest and knowledge of Singaporean culture.
It also makes the reader consider the deeper issue of whether our culture is so insecure that it cannot withstand discussion or question? And if not, is it an insidious means to fan the flames of suspicion so as to strengthen the establishment’s stranglehold on independent thought? I make no comment on whether such manoeuvres were essential to the development of our island state for that would be a digression from the book. That said, it is important to recognise that these strategies were indeed employed by the government to manipulate the public to its cause for it is through acknowledging what truly happened can we make informed decisions.
These volunteers who were punished so excessively by the establishment were Singaporeans who believed in contributing to their country. They felt they had a stake in the welfare of Singapore and how Singapore as a country evolved. In one fell swoop, a generation of Singaporeans who truly cared was eradicated. Time has proven that they were neither Marxists nor agents of an unseen hand. What then was the point?
As I neared the ending of the book, I found a heart wrenching paragraph written by Chew Kheng Chuan, a Harvard graduate and one of the 1987 detainees who when reiterating that he was not a Marxist said:
“So who am I ideologically and politically? I am a democrat, a believer in an open and democratic polity and in the values of an open and accountable government. I firmly believe that for a society to be truly democratic, interest in the public good and political action cannot be the sole prerogative of professional politicians. A citizen in a democracy, to be worthy of that society, has not just the right but also the duty to participate in the political life of his or her society. It is dangerous for democracy to suggest that to be entitled to comment on social and political issues or to have different political views; one should set up a political party and stand against the government. […] It appears that my crime may be one of association. I take it as an insult that it should be suggested I might have acted upon the instructions from someone else. I am not a cancer that spreads easily, but a healthy organ that was blown apart by the political chemotherapy I was subject to. […] My only fear during the various interrogations I went through was that I might get my friends into trouble because I did not know how what I said would be used. But even that fear dissipated when they threatened they would arrest my wife and let me go stale in jail indefinitely. Being a rebel without a cause isn’t very smart; being a martyr without a cause is totally stupid. I am neither this nor that and therefore I will become like other Singaporeans, forget about politics and get busy with making money”
This was how apathy began and accountability disregarded. Our stake in the country dissipated because we were told effectively that taking ownership was not required and in fact at our peril. How can a country develop if no one really cares? How can the PAP even stay in power if no one cared enough? If the game plan was to eradicate competition, it was a rather short term one.
A country’s soul lies in the personalities of its people. While I applaud the stellar economic success that is Singapore, I wonder if it was at the expense of something deeper. Besides, were they even mutually exclusive? The book certainly forces us to question what we have been told and what we want for our future now that we are permitted access, through the Internet to an alternative view. ¶