French Catholic priest’s story on social work in 1980s Geylang revealed the vibrancy of civil society back then

Author hopes the book can "contribute to the opening of imagination for the future".

Ng Yi Shu| January 18, 09:04 AM

Former volunteers and social workers recounted their experiences with foreign workers and social work, as they promoted a book by French Catholic priest Father Guillaume Arotçarena to a packed theatre at Orchard Central yesterday (Jan.17).

The book, titled Priest in Geylang, contains the autobiographical story of Fr. Arotçarena, a priest of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP).

In 1972, Fr. Arotçarena was sent on mission to Singapore where he stayed until 1989. He was also the founder of Geylang Catholic Centre (1980-1987), located at the heart of the red-light district.

The centre provided support and social services to disadvantaged and marginalised groups in Singapore back in the 1980s, when civil society was nearly unheard of at the time. The centre provided aid to foreign workers, battered women, and even conducted courses for prisoners.

Audience at Priest in Geylang

A packed theatre in 10Square at Orchard Central.

Book "a tribute" to volunteers

The book, first published in French - Fr. Arotçarena’s native language - in 2013, was intended to "pay tribute in a modest way" to the volunteers and friends who worked at Geylang Catholic Centre.

The priest, currently residing in France, was unable to travel to Singapore due to health reasons. In an email to Ethos Book publisher Fong Hoe Fang, he said:

“I would not like the book to breed a nostalgia of our past youth. That would be negative and would only encourage resentment I’d rather like the book to contribute to the opening of imagination for the future.”

This was in spite of the controversial circumstances surrounding the eventual closure of the centre in 1987, in what would be eventually known as Operation Spectrum. A number of former volunteers for the centre were arrested in 1987 for their alleged role in a "Marxist conspiracy".

A spirit of community

It was in Fr Arotçarena's spirit of "community and love", in Fong's words, that former volunteers for the centre shared with the audience their story, presenting old photographs of activities the centre’s foreign workers organised.

Former volunteers for the centre also read passages from the book, recounting the centre’s activities, such as trips to East Coast Park and Seletar.

Fong_Hoe_Fang Ethos Books founder Fong Hoe Fang talked about the activities Geylang Catholic Centre conducted

A different type of activism

When asked if the centre represented a "lost culture" of activism, Ethos Books founder Fong said that "times and contexts were different" - and that activists and civil servants in the past "responded in a different way".

Fong cited examples of public servants willing to act independently in the 80s.

“If you run through (Fr. Arotçarena’s) book, you’ll find that many times… some of the civil servants were trying to help him, but they couldn’t do so,” he said.

"There were moments that public servants – like the police – were more willing to adapt and act beyond their restrictions, especially on domestic abuse cases."

“We do get cases where the police themselves bring (battered) women to the center,” Fong said.

On activism and civil society today, Fong added: “I see that today, it’s a different culture, and of course, today, the tools are different… There’s no longer that face-to-face meeting with the people who you are advocating for (except for) groups that are (doing) direct service… it’s a different type of advocacy.”

This did not mean that he disapproved of the new methods. “I think every age, every generation will find its own way,” he said.

“You just got to remember, at the end of it all, look at the heart, look at the people you were trying to serve.”

Top photo from Priest in Geylang. Other photos by Ng Yi Shu.

Priest in Geylang is available for purchase online at Ethos Books and costs $21.40.