Singapore—Asia’s Tarnished Jewel
CLANG! Ominously, the heavy steel doors of Singapore’s Changi Women’s Prison slammed shut behind a frail 71-year-old widow, a Christian. One of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she had tried to explain her position to the presiding judge: “I’m no threat to this government.”
Clang! She was followed by a 72-year-old grandmother, another Christian. Her offense? Possession of four Bible publications of the Watch Tower Society, including her personal copy of the Holy Bible itself.
In all, 64 Singapore citizens, aged 16 to 72, were arrested and convicted. Forty-seven refused on principle to pay fines and were imprisoned for various periods ranging from one to four weeks. How could this happen in a city-state described as one of the best places to live in the entire world? How could this happen in a city-state famed the world over for its economic stability, phenomenal development, and modern buildings as well as its claimed religious tolerance?
A Modern City-State
First, a brief history. The modern-day story of Singapore began in 1819 with the arrival of Britain’s Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Raffles, a representative of the East India Company, was looking for a base of operations in the Eastern world. He decided to consider Singapore. So began a trading base that has had an impact on the development of East Asia to this day.
Preindependence Singapore has been described as a scruffy city. Today, no one would describe Singapore as scruffy. The opposite is true. Over the past 30 years, the city has been almost entirely rebuilt, retaining where possible the character of the old either by preserving the facade of older buildings or integrating entire historical structures into modern buildings. Singapore has become a crossroads of maritime traffic in the East, often counting as many as 800 ships in port at one time. Modern high-tech equipment allows a huge container ship to be unloaded and reloaded in a matter of hours. The city’s financial core demands and gets real estate prices in the range of $5,000 or more per square foot.
The population of approximately 3,400,000 is composed of a broad mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, Europeans, and others. Among the languages they speak are Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and English.
Fifty-two miles [83 km] of above- and below-ground rapid transit gives Singapore one of the most modern, efficient transportation systems in the world. Green parks are scattered liberally throughout the city, punctuating the towering landscapes of modern construction. A “must-see” for the first-time tourist is the completely refurbished Raffles Hotel, now designated a national monument because of its 1889 origins. A second is the 128-acre [52 ha] botanical and horticultural center, ten acres [4 ha] of which are preserved jungle, where tigers once roamed.
Religious Freedom Guaranteed
As a complement to its unparalleled economic progress, Singapore promises religious freedom to all residents. Regrettably, Singapore has not fulfilled its promise. Particularly have people who associate with the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses found that to be true.
The Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, in Article 15(1), provides the basic guarantee of freedom of worship: “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.”
Article 15(3) of the Constitution guarantees: “Every religious group has the right—
(a) to manage its own religious affairs;
(b) to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes; and
(c) to acquire and own property and hold and administer it in accordance with law.”
As early as 1936, Jehovah’s Witnesses were part of the Singapore community. For many years they carried on regular congregation meetings in their own Kingdom Hall located at 8 Exeter Road, just opposite a busy market. The congregation flourished, at the same time making its own unique contribution to the stability of community life.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Banned
All of this changed on January 12, 1972. An expulsion order was issued under the Government Banishment Act, chapter 109, ordering Christian missionary Norman David Bellotti and his wife, Gladys, 23-year residents of Singapore, to leave the country. This was quickly followed by an order deregistering the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Within hours the Kingdom Hall was seized by police who smashed their way through the front door. Following almost immediately was an official ban on all literature of the Watch Tower Society. Thus began a period of suppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Kingdom Hall was subsequently sold by the government as part of their arbitrary action, all of this without notification—no hearing, no trial, no opportunity to respond.
The government of Singapore has repeatedly cited the nonparticipation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in military service as justification for the total ban. As recently as December 29, 1995, Mr. K. Kesavapany, Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, in a letter addressed to H. E. Ibrahim Fall, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, of the United Nations in Geneva, stated the following:
“My Government’s ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement emanates from considerations of national security. The continued existence of the movement would be prejudicial to public welfare and good order in Singapore. A necessary corollary to the de-registration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was that all their publications be prohibited so as to reinforce the ban on the movement and to curb the dissemination and propagation of their beliefs.”
In view of the protest of risk to the national security of Singapore, it should be noted that the number of young men who refuse military service is approximately five persons per year. Singapore maintains a military force of about 300,000. The government of Singapore has refused to even discuss civilian national service for the small handful of people involved.
After several years of uneasy tolerance, a new chapter of undisguised suppression of human rights began to unfold in 1992 when several people were arrested—charged with possession of literature prohibited under the Undesirable Publications Act. In 1994 the Watch Tower Society dispatched to Singapore 75-year-old W. Glen How, Q.C., a lawyer and one of Jehovah’s Witnesses all his life. His status as Queen’s Counsel gave him recognition that allowed him to appear before the Singapore courts. In view of the religious guarantee of the Constitution, an appeal was presented to the High Court of Singapore, including a challenge to the validity of the arrests and the 1972 ban. On August 8, 1994, the appeal was dismissed by Chief Justice Yong Pung How, of the High Court of Singapore. Additional efforts to appeal the decision were unsuccessful.
By early 1995 it appeared that the legal challenge based on the Constitution of Singapore had triggered even more repressive measures. Under a military-style plan called Operation Hope, undercover officers from the Secret Societies Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department swooped down on several small groups of Christians meeting in private homes. Approximately 70 officers and support staff conducted the commando-type raids, resulting in the arrest of 69 persons. All were transported to interrogation centers, some were questioned throughout the entire night, and all were charged with attending meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and possession of Bible publications. Some were held incommunicado for up to 18 hours, unable even to telephone their families.
Charges against foreigners were dropped. But 64 who are citizens of Singapore were tried in court in late 1995 and early 1996. All 64 were found guilty. Forty-seven, between the ages of 16 and 72, did not pay the fines of thousands of dollars and were sent to prison for from one to four weeks.
Before being sent to their cells, men and women were stripped naked and searched in front of several people. Some women were told to stretch out their arms, squat five times, and open their mouth and lift up their tongue. At least one woman was told to use her fingers to open her anus. In prison, some of the men had to drink water out of toilet bowls. Some young women were treated like dangerous criminals, held in solitary confinement for their entire sentence, and given half rations. Some prison wardens even denied the Witnesses their Bibles.
But let us look at a few comments from some of the imprisoned women. What their firsthand reports revealed was in sharp contrast with the pristine facade of this modern city.
“The cell was dirty. The washbasin and toilet were in a deplorable state. They were slimy and dirty. Beneath the bench that I sat on were cobwebs and dirt.”
“I was told to strip naked, and I was given a set of prison attire, a soap dish (without soap), and a toothbrush. I was told by the other prisoners in my cell that short-term prisoners did not receive toothpaste or toilet paper.”
“There were 20 of us in one cell. The toilet is the squatting type with the wall up to my waistline. The bathroom had only one shower and one washbasin with a tap. We had to bathe in batches of six—all of us in the cell had to shower within a half hour in the morning.”
Despite the trauma of the imprisonment, all considered it a privilege to serve God—whenever, wherever, and whatever the circumstances. Observe the following comment from a teenage girl:
“From the moment I stepped into the prison, I always reminded myself of the purpose for which I was there. Every day I prayed to Jehovah that he would listen to my prayer and not desert me. I felt that he answered my prayer because it was his holy spirit that helped me endure. Only then did I realize the closeness I had with him, and it has strengthened me greatly, knowing that he is watching over us. I feel privileged to be able to go through this trial for his name’s sake.”
Newspapers around the world quickly picked up the story. The press in Australia, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the United States, and other places echoed and reechoed the events. The Toronto Star, of Canada, summed up the outrage of the moment with its heading “Granny Convicted for Owning Bible.” Admittedly, the world has many serious problems involving far more people, but in this case the question asked by astounded people everywhere is the same. “In Singapore?”
It is difficult to understand why a religion that functions openly with the full protection of the law in more than 200 lands around the globe should be made the target of persecution in Singapore. It becomes still more difficult to understand when we consider that no other religion in Singapore has been dealt with so unreasonably and arbitrarily.
Indeed, an assistant superintendent of police who led a raiding party on Jehovah’s Witnesses admitted to the court that this was the only time that he and his officers had been ordered to break up a religious meeting. The following quotes are from the transcript of evidence:
Q: (To the witness) To your knowledge has the Secret Societies Branch ever investigated and prosecuted any unregistered religious groups, except Jehovah’s Witnesses?
A: Not that I know of.
Then the questioning continued.
Q: (To the witness) Have you personally at any time ever carried out a similar raid on a small religious group, meeting in a home and not registered under the Societies Act?
A: I have not.
Call for Action
Amnesty International and the International Bar Association each sent their own special observer to monitor the integrity of the trials. Amnesty International’s impartial observer, Andrew Raffell, himself a Hong Kong barrister, said the following: “I put in my report that it had the appearance of a show trial.” He explained further that government officials called as witnesses were unable to explain to the court why the literature of Jehovah’s Witnesses was deemed undesirable. Raffell listed some of the banned Bible publications including Happiness—How to Find It and Your Youth—Getting the Best Out Of It. He added that they could not really be considered undesirable in any sense of the word.
The observer from the International Bar Association, Cecil Rajendra, stated the following:
“From the outset, it was apparent to this observer that the whole trial was nothing more than a . . . farce ostensibly staged to demonstrate to the world that democracy is still practised in Singapore.
“The outcome was a foregone conclusion and there was never a shadow of a doubt at any time before, during or at the conclusion of the trial that all the accused would be found guilty as charged.
“Though the trial was held in a subordinate court and the charges were in fact minor breaches of the Societies Act the atmosphere surrounding the courthouse was one of fear and intimidation.
“This was in no small measure due to the fact that no less than 10 uniformed police were stationed there (6 inside the courtroom and 4 outside) with several Special Branch men in plainclothes sitting in the gallery.”
Commenting on the way the trial itself was conducted, Rajendra continued:
“The conduct of the said Judge during the period of observation (as well as during the whole course of the trial, as evidenced by the transcripts) left much to be desired. . . . Against all norms of a fair trial, the Judge time and time again intervened on the side of the prosecution and frustrated the defence from cross-examining prosecution witnesses on exhibits e.g. the King James version of the Bible, tendered by the prosecution to show that the accused were in possession of banned publications!”
Such is the level of international concern resulting from Singapore’s suppression of human rights that a Belgium-based magazine entitled Human Rights Without Frontiers published an 18-page report dealing entirely with the attack by the government of Singapore on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Writing editorially, Willy Fautré, editor in chief of that journal, defined most succinctly the real measure of human freedom in any political state:
“Although religious liberty is one of the best indications of the general state of human freedom in any given society, very few secular human rights organizations have been involved either in the process of eliminating those forms of discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief, or in the development of policies which would safeguard and promote religious freedom.”
Human Rights Without Frontiers published its list of recommendations in bold print on the back cover of their report.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a benefit to Singapore. They respect the rights of their neighbors and will not commit any crime against them. No citizen of Singapore need worry about having his home broken into or about being mugged, beaten, or raped by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Their voluntary public ministry strengthens and improves family life and fosters good citizenship. They conduct free Bible studies with anyone who wants to learn the upbuilding principles of the Bible and how to apply them in his or her life. Their meetings for Bible study and prayer are part of their Christian education. This has caused them to be fine citizens.
Citizens of Singapore who respect their republic and want the best for its future should urge the government to take a fresh look at the rightful place of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Singapore’s society. It is time to remove the sanctions against them and restore to them what every citizen is entitled to—freedom of worship.
[Box on page 26]
The World Is Watching
1. “When Singapore police swooped on five homes one night last February in a military-style blitz, 69 men, women and teenagers were arrested and hauled off to police headquarters. It was not the way bible study meetings were supposed to end.”−The Ottawa Citizen, Canada, December 28, 1995, page A10.
2. “It would be a source of real gratification to all those concerned with religious liberty and the rights of conscience were the Government of Singapore to amend its position with regard to the members of this innocent and harmless people and to allow them to practise and propagate their faith without fear or hindrance.”—Professor Bryan R. Wilson, University of Oxford, England.
3. “In a series of trials that sparked protests by international civil liberties groups, Singapore courts have convicted 63 Jehovah’s Witnesses since last November.”—Asahi Evening News, Japan, January 19, 1996, page 3.
4. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses should be allowed to meet and practise their religion peacefully without threat of arrest or imprisonment. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right which is guaranteed by the Constitution of Singapore.”—Amnesty International, November 22, 1995.
5. Chan Siu-ching, chairperson of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, in a letter to Lee Kuan Yew, Senior Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, dated June 1, 1995, stated: “The main issue is that even if the Singapore government think those rejecting military service as violating the law and they should be charged, other members who just participate in religious gathering for worshipping purpose should not be affected. . . .
“We therefore write to request your Government:
1. not to ban the Jehovah’s Witnesses so that they can enjoy freedom of worship and conscience;
2. stop charging the members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who just attend the gatherings of religious purpose.
3. release those members of the Jehovah[’s] Witnesses who have been arrested recently simply for attending religious activities.”
[Picture on page 23]
Jehovah’s Witnesses at the courthouse after charges were made
[Picture on page 23]
This 71-year-old Witness told the judge: “I’m no threat to this government.” Yet, she was imprisoned