The Roman Catholic Archbishop Gregory Yong must have felt terrified after his meeting with Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 2 June 1987. It led him to take immediate action against his own priests and abandon his full time workers namely, Vincent Cheng, Ng Bee Leng, Kevin de Souza and Tang Lay Lee. Just a week ago, on 27 May 1987, 6 days after 16 people were arrested, he had concelebrated a 90 minute mass with 23 priests at the East Coast parish of the Church of Perpetual Succour. Family members of the four church workers gave moving testimonies of the detainees to a packed church.
Never in the history of the Church had there been a mass concelebrated by 23 priests and the Archbishop and a congregation of more than 2,500 praying for 16 people who were suddenly removed from society and dumped into the cold rooms of the Whitley Detention Centre. It led the Archbishop to say in his homily that this “is one great moment in the history of the local Church”. He predicted that the present situation could “polarise” the Church causing “divisions, disunity and factions.” Why then, after having considered the likely consequences of his support for his workers did he change his view subsequently?
The well attended church service called at a day’s notice, must have sent alarm bells ringing. Until then, the prime minister was happy to leave the unpleasant task of finishing off his critics by his ministers, Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong, S Jayakumar and S Dhanabalan. The report of 2,500 thronging the church and 23 priests concelebrating mass with the Archbishop had to be dealt with. A man who would not take risks (even though he proclaims otherwise) and who would nip even buds that would not bloom, he was not going to let the organisers of the mass and the families of the detainees to gain support from the public. He had to prevent the support from getting out of hand. He had to show his young subordinates how to put down a powerful organisation like the Catholic Church. And so he entered the fray.
In the Vatican, the Pope receives heads of state to his house. The prime minister was not going to see the Archbishop in his house. He was not even going to contact the Archbishop directly and request to see him. According to Edgar D’ Souza, he asked Dr Ee Peng Liang, a lay Church leader to deliver the message to the Archbishop that he would like to see him and a church delegation.
He required a list of Church delegates, not that he wanted to hear their views but just to show the public that he had met and consulted a Church delegation. Then he deleted nine names from the list of 19. Of course, Edgar D’ Souza who was the spokesperson and who was one of the four courageous priests who dared to stand up for what they believed was right had to be removed from the list.
On 2 June, the prime minister met with the Archbishop and his delegation. He then dismissed the delegation and retained the Archbishop.
As if treating the Church in the above shabby manner was not sufficient, the prime minister had a master stroke. I think he wanted the Archbishop to have the impression that he had consulted Rome with regard to the further imprisonment of the detainees. He had invited the nuncio, Fr Giovanni D’Aniello from Bangkok to his palace. Again according to Edgar, even the Archbishop was unaware of his presence in Singapore, what more to find him in the palace!
After a short meeting with the nuncio, the Archbishop was ushered into a room to meet the local press. Naturally, His Grace was totally unprepared for the press conference. As Edgar in his interview with Public House (21 May 2012) said, the Archbishop was a “Church leader and not astute in political matters.”
Reading the report in The Straits Times of 3 June 1987, I agree that the Archbishop was not astute. How could he anticipate that his 10 man delegation supposedly arranged to discuss the detention of his church workers would result in his being left alone in the istana and meeting the nuncio? How could he anticipate that he would have to meet the local press and answer prepared and approved questions from them?
One intriguing question posed by the Straits Times journalist was:
“What was it, Archbishop, that you read in those documents that convinced you?
Archbishop: “That the man himself (Vincent Cheng) admitted that he was using the Church … I think this is one of the biggest reasons why I have to accept the Government’s statement saying that he acted …
Prime Minister: It’s an admission of his intention. I mean, he thought that using the Church as a cover, he had sanctuary. …”
I do not know how much time the Archbishop and his delegation spent at the istana reading Vincent Cheng’s voluminous statements. Did he and his delegation read the documents carefully? Did they have photographic memory?
The Archbishop’s was naturally overwhelmed with fear for he was all alone facing the press with the prime minister by his side. It was totally unexpected. He could have responded that he did not have the time to read the documents carefully. But what would the prime minister do to him after such a response?
Not wanting the Church to have a conflict with the government, the Archbishop did what he did. He suspended the four priests from preaching, withdrew the circulation of The Catholic News containing his pastoral letter and ordered the closure of the Geylang Catholic Centre. Needless to say, the Archbishop’s actions caused untold misery and hardship to the Catholic workers and their families which until today, remained unresolved. At least two of them have left Singapore.