Thursday, September 20, 2012

MHA walks into a minefield

When I read Alex Au’s blog post on the letters written by Archbishop Nicholas Chia to Function 8 (one of the organisers of the Speakers’ Corner event to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the detention of the so-called Marxist conspirators), my eyebrows were raised a little.  But, I wasn’t too surprised at the possibility raised by Alex that some ‘friendly’ visit from the state might have persuaded the Archbishop to reconsider the wisdom of his original letter.

All the usual suspects (including myself) that would normally read Alex’s blog would have gotten wind of this information.  Very few would have bothered to discuss this beyond a few casual conversations.  Perhaps, one or two blogs might have picked up on it and repeated it.  After a short while (perhaps a couple of days), any interest in the subject would have died out. 

But, to my surprise, first the Archbishop comes forward to explain the reason behind his retraction and then Function 8 and MARUAH get upset and set down their position and guess who wades into the battlefield…..  the Ministry of Home Affairs.  Honestly, I didn’t expect MHA to come forward to release a statement on this one.  The best part is that they pretty much admitted that somebody from the government had met up with the Archbishop.  Of course, this is presented as a routine meeting. 

The MHA’s full press statement is as follows:

MHA’s Statement on Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s Comments

The Government values its long-standing relationship with the Catholic Church and the Catholic community in Singapore, and deeply appreciates Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s many contributions to religious harmony in Singapore.

2 As part of building trust and understanding and to maintain religious harmony in Singapore, government ministers meet regularly with various religious leaders in Singapore. Such closed-door meetings allow a frank exchange of views specially on sensitive subjects. This is a well-established process that is appreciated by both ministers and religious leaders.

3 We note Archbishop Chia’s statement yesterday that he had withdrawn his earlier letter as its contents did not accurately reflect his views on the subject. He also expressed concern that if the letter was used in a manner that he did not intend, it may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore. His decision to withdraw his letter ahead of a political event in June 2012, shows his appreciation of the complexity of our multi-racial, multireligious society, and the need to keep religion and politics separate.

4 The actions by this group to publicise the matter through Mr Au is disrespectful of the Archbishop, and contrary to his views and intentions as conveyed to the group after he had decided to retract his letter. This deliberate breach of the Archbishop’s trust confirms the objective of this group to publicly involve the Catholic Church and the Archbishop in their political agenda.

Issued by
Ministry Of Home Affairs

This seems to be a very ill-advised move on the part of the MHA.  This issue can now be amplified thanks to the fact that MHA came forward to issue a statement.  Now, the online community would have a field day raising question after question.  I did not, initially, have any intention to blog on this matter.  But, given the MHA response, there are more questions raised.  

In its statement, the MHA states:  . “He also expressed concern that if the letter was used in a manner that he did not intend, it may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore. His decision to withdraw his letter ahead of a political event in June 2012, shows his appreciation of the complexity of our multi-racial, multireligious society, and the need to keep religion and politics separate.”

If I take the statement at face value and do not construe any attempt by the government to put a spin on the Archbishop’s letter, then the following is clear:

a)      Something in the letter was capable of harming social harmony (although the Archbishop did not intend it).

b)     That ‘something’ relates to the ‘complexity of our multi-racial, multireligious society’

c)     That ‘something’ might involve the mixing of religion and politics

What kind of statement made by the Archbishop could be characterized as being capable of doing the above?

i)        A statement referring negatively to a particular race

ii)       A statement referring negatively to a particular religion or religious denomination

What is the likelihood of the Archbishop’s original letter making even an inadvertent statement to that effect?  He wrote an unsolicited letter to the organizers of the “That we may Dream again” event.  Any rational Singaporean reading about the sequence of events would come to the conclusion that the Archbishop’s letter would, at most, have contained one or all of the following assertions:

i)                    That his prayers are with the ex-detainees

ii)                   That he hopes that truth about the ‘Marxist conspiracy’ would be established one day

iii)                 That he does not support detention without trial

iv)                 That he supports the organisers’ call for the abolition of the ISA

v)                  That he supports the development of civil society in Singapore and the consequent call for greater human rights protections

None of the above assertions (whilst sensitive from the perspective of the PAP government) could be construed as being capable of disrupting social harmony.  (Of course, I am fully aware that the phrases ‘social harmony’, ‘multi-racial & multi-religious’ and ‘mixing religion with politics’ are part of the tiresome, clichéd routine employed by the government to keep reason at bay and they were probably deployed here unthinkingly and without realizing the illogicality in the present context.)

It would have been logically incongruous for a letter written to the organizers of an anti-ISA event, to include a statement making a negative reference to a race or religion.  The only possibility is a reference to Mas Selamat (being an ISA detainee) as an exception to the norm of political detention under the ISA.  Such reference may arguably be ‘sensitive’ if it is couched as an argument that it is ok to detain an alleged Islamic terrorist without trial, but not ok to detain any others without trial.  It is highly unlikely that the Archbishop would have said anything to that effect in his letter.  But, only such a statement could be even remotely be construed as affecting social harmony and having something to do with the complexity of our multi-blahblahbah society.   

So, taking the MHA statement at face value, I should arrive at the conclusion that there was some kind of racially or religiously sensitive statement.  But, that conclusion would be incongruous with the context of the letter.  In all likelihood, the content of the original letter was politically embarrassing for the government.  The Archbishop coming in support of a political event that was intended to commemorate the 1987 ISA detentions was capable of undermining the credibility of the PAP government.  Even a simple statement such as “I pray for you” or “I support your cause” would have been politically sensitive.  It would not have affected social harmony.  But, it would have cast the government in a bad light. 

So, it would appear that the real issue was not about social harmony or the multi-racial, multi-religious nature of our society.  The real issue was related to the mixing of religion and politics:-  The commentary by the head of a Church on a political matter where the negative publicity would damage the ruling party’s image.  It would not cause social disharmony.  Our society would not descend into a state of violence or chaos.  But, more people may be persuaded to see the PAP in a negative light. 

The following is the Archbishop’s statement to the press after Alex Au’s article.  Chronologically, this preceded the MHA’s statement. 


Archbishop’s Press Statement

"I refer to the article by Mr Alex Au which he says is based on second hand information. Mr Au could only have obtained such an ccount from the group he referred to, with which I had communicated in private. I had earlier decided to withdraw my letter to this group as, on reflection, its contents did not accurately reflect my views on the subject, and if used in a manner that I did not intend, may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore. The group had acknowledged my decision and returned the letter to me.

The article by Au, which has appeared now, months later, confirms the correctness of my earlier decision to withdraw the letter so as not to inadvertently embroil the Catholic Church and the office of the Archbishop in a political event which was being staged by the group.

The Catholic Church has always maintained the position that it will not involve itself in political activities. We have always worked in harmony with the Government to contribute positively to society, rather than set ourselves on a collision path with the Government.

Au's article confirmed my fear that the group would use my letter in a manner that I did not agree with, and make use of the Office of the Archbishop and the Catholic Church for their own ends.

These irresponsible actions can easily cause serious misunderstanding between the Catholic Church and the Government, and damage the longstanding trust and cooperation between the two. It is most regrettable that Au and the group have acted in this manner."


Whilst Function8 and MARUAH have taken issue with the Archbishop’s press statement, I want to highlight the last three sentences.  Operating on the mind of the Archbishop is the relationship between the Catholic Church and the government.  A reasonable inference to be drawn from this press release is that whilst the original letter from him would not have directly blamed the government, his solidarity with the organisers, detainees or their families by writing a letter relating to an anti-ISA event could be used by event organisers to suggest an anti-government stance on the part of the Archbishop.  This would have harmed the relationship between the Church and the government. 

This then, is the real issue of ‘harmony’ being referred to:  A cordial relationship between the government and the religious leaders in Singapore.  What the Archbishop must have feared is unnecessary bullying from the government.  What the government must have feared is the unraveling of the government’s image in the eyes of, if not a majority of the citizens, then at least a sizeable segment of the Catholic community. 

At this stage in this saga, what are the established facts?

a)      The Archbishop wrote a letter to Function 8 (presumably supportive of the anti-ISA event)

b)      The Archbishop retracted the letter (allegedly because the contents did not accurately reflect his views & they could inadvertently cause disharmony)

c)       Some meetings have taken place between government officials/ministers and the Archbishop (the purpose of the those meetings may or may not be related to the letter sent to Function 8)

What is the issue at stake here?  The possible behind-the-scenes government intervention in relation to the Archbishop’s letter.  If there was such involvement, then it would be confirmation that this government isn’t about to fundamentally alter the way it does things. 

For reference, the following are statements from Function 8 and MARUAH

Function8’s press statement:

We are deeply saddened by the comments of Archbishop Nicholas Chia reported in The Straits Times of 20th September 2012. He made three unsubstantiated remarks:

1.       That Mr Au’s account (in Yawningbread) could only have come from Function 8, with whom he had communicated in private.

2.      That he decided to withdraw his letter of support “because if the letter were to be used in a manner that I (Archbishop) did not intend, it may inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore.”

3.      That Mr Au’s article appearing now, months later, “confirms the correctness of my (Archbishop’s) earlier decision to withdraw the letter so as not to inadvertently embroil the Catholic Church and the office of the Archbishop in a political event which was being staged by the group.”

Our response is as follows:

1.       Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s initial letter to us, and the subsequent one withdrawing the first letter, were not marked “private and/or confidential”. Indeed, in discussing his first letter, members of Function 8 concluded that it was intended to be made public on 2 June 2012, the 25th anniversary of Operation Spectrum. The retraction of the first letter made us cancel the plan. The organisers of the 2 June event subsequently decided that we would try to have a private dialogue with the Ministry of Home Affairs.

2.      Archbishop Nicholas Chia assumed that Mr Au could only have obtained an account of what he wrote in his article from Function 8. Has His Grace forgotten that his second letter was cc to a third party and that his staff and others within the Church may also have sight of the letters?

3.      What was his initial letter intended for and what are the unintended manners in which it could possibly be used to ‘harm the social harmony in Singapore’?

4.      Finally, we do not understand how His Grace can draw the conclusion that the disclosure of his own letter can “inadvertently harm the social harmony in Singapore” and that the fact that Mr Au has now written an article confirms the correctness of his earlier decision to withdraw the letter.

In the midst of a national conversation called by the prime minister, we believe there is no room for whispered meetings on the issues above. We request Archbishop Nicholas Chia to publish his first and second letters and advise on what transpired between the time his first letter was written and his second letter so that the public can judge for themselves whether the actions or inaction of Function 8 and Mr Au were “irresponsible and regrettable”. For clarity, His Grace should also make known to members of the public if his first letter to the organisers of the 2 June event was solicited or unsolicited.

Function 8 Ltd

Here is MARUAH's press statement in full:

"MARUAH, a human rights NGO, is a partner with Function 8, in particular for the June 2nd 2012 event to mark the 25th Anniversary of the alleged Marxist Conspiracy. MARUAH's position is that it is timely for a Commission of Inquiry to be set up to review the detentions under Operation Spectrum.

As part of this collaborative effort MARUAH was informed of the letters that the Archbishop had sent to Function 8 and we are aware of the contents. The letters reflect diverse views on key content areas in relation to preventive detention without trial. Both organisations made a decision not to publicise the letter(s) till we sought clarifications from Ministry of Home Affairs and other relevant parties. This decision was taken as we feel it is a better way forward as both organisations are mindful of the previous pain within the Catholic community over what happened in 1987 where the Church, the government, the detainees and the community were involved. We agreed that after these approaches to reach out for dialogues had been tried and tested we would review this incident of the letters. It is unfortunate that the matter of the letters was leaked to the media before we could receive clarifications from the relevant bodies. Both organisations had wanted to focuson seeking a dialogue rather than dealing with the Archbishop's letters a public manner through the media.

Having said that, MARUAH has to state that we are deeply disappointed with the remarks of the Archbishop in his response to the media queries. An opportunity to understand the change in the position of the Archbishop vis-a-vis preventive detention without trial was missed. We are still clueless as to whether there was intervention by the State in this matter and if so, on what grounds and to what extent. Instead civil society has been vilified in the Archbishop's remarks which are the opposite of our intentions to preserve harmony by seeking clarifications.

Nevertheless, it is more important to move forward. We are keen to have dialogue with the Ministry of Home Affairs on our ongoing efforts at public education and advocacy on preventive detentions without trial. We will also be very happy to meet the Archbishop in relation to this matter.

More importantly, it is very important to us, and to many other Singaporeans that an independent Commission of Inquiry be set up as we are perturbed by the many contradictions in this case. This was the work that began on June 2nd between MARUAH and Function 8, to ensure that the rights of those detained are protected and fulfilled through an inquiry.

Braema Mathi


MARUAH Singapore"


Anonymous said...

good post. well thought out and balanced.

TSH said...

I think we all know what happens at the "exchange of views". The government gives its views and whoever is invited to lunch exchanges them with his own in his mind.

Subra said...

Hahaha... I like that 'exchange of views'

Anonymous said...

The shepard needs to protect his flock and ensure that his flock has pastures to grow and feed on.
No pastures, no food lead to eventually no flock.

Subra said...

Can't blame the shepherd. It is the wolves that we are all concerned about.

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