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Priest in Geylang - Book Review

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Published April 23rd 2015
The true story of the Geylang Catholic Centre
French priest Guillaume Arotcarena may not have intended his memoirs to become a tell-all account of Operation Spectrum.

Originally published in French in 2013, Priest in Geylang was subsequently translated into English in January 2015 and released in Singapore by Ethos Books, who also published human rights lawyer M Ravi's Kampong Boy. This happened just before Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's passing.

Arotcarena speaks of how the Catholic Centre for Migrant Workers was started from scratch in the working-class suburb of Geylang, known to be a red-light district. He details the troubles faced by the centre from its humble beginning in the early 1980s to its bitter demise following the arrest and detention of the bulk of its volunteers in 1987 at the height of Operation Spectrum. That was the codename given to the operation by Singapore's Internal Security Department to round up suspected anti-government Marxists, many of whom had ties to the Catholic Church.

Little has been said about Operation Spectrum, out of fear of possible repercussions from Singapore's dominant People's Action Party, which ruled with an iron fist when Lee was in charge and still does. Arotcarena, however, does not mince his words and has no qualms calling a spade a spade. After all, his conscience is clear and he has nothing to hide. The Singapore Government's actions against him and three other priests, as well as several social workers and lawyers are thus described as a form of persecution. Indeed, as has been reported by various international media outlets, there was no basis for those arrests.

What made the Catholic Centre for Migrant Workers stand out was the way it brought together volunteers from all walks of life, as well as different religious groups, who were united by a common goal: to make society better. Unfortunately their efforts were not appreciated by the PAP, who despatched the ISD after them on trumped-up charges of planning a conspiracy to topple the government and set up a communist state. This had the effect of setting back Singapore's civil society scene for several years. Although more people these days are willing to speak up against social injustice, their numbers are still too few to make any real difference.

True revelations: Guillaume Arotcarena's Priest in Geylang reveals a lot about Operation SPectrum that has not been publicly reported by Singapore's mainstream media


On the whole, Priest in Geylang is a great read as it brings to life a side of the Catholic Church in Singapore that has been virtually forgotten. Only by remembering it can the flame in our hearts be kept alive and burning. As Singapore approaches its golden jubilee this year, all the more these particular events stand out in the nation's short history. Given Arotcarena's close proximity to the events at the heart of Operation Spectrum, it is hard not to see this book as a no-holds-barred insider account of what really went down but was not covered by the mainstream media.
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Update October 7th 2015
Father Guillaume Arotcatena passed away in France on 3 September 2015 after a three-year battle with cancer, age 71. A memorial service in Singapore was officiated by Monsignor William Goh, the island republic's archbishop. Msgr Goh had earlier celebrated founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's funeral mass and the special SG50 mass to commemorate Singapore's fiftieth national day.
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