Singapore Suppresses Christian Minority
WHEN a “new nation” is formed, people around the world generally wonder what course the government will chart for its people. To what extent will leaders of the new nation show wisdom and restraint in their exercise of power and authority? Will there be freedom for all? Or will minority groups suffer? People ask, “Would I want to live there, visit there or do business there?”
Among the “new nations” of the earth is Singapore, an island republic off the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. The capital city, also called Singapore, is one of the world’s busiest ports, handling something like 40,000 ships a year. Separating from the Federation of Malaysia, Singapore became an independent country in 1965. It has a multiracial population, about three fourths being of Chinese descent, about one sixth Malaysian, and the remainder being minority groups of Indians, Pakistanis and Europeans. Listen, now, to statements made by some of Singapore’s leaders back in 1967. They seemed to give assurance that the new government indeed presented no threat to the freedom of its people.
Under the headline “Success . . . that’s when a minority doesn’t feel it’s a minority: Lee,” The Straits Times of March 16, 1967, quoted Singapore’s Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, as telling the nation’s parliament that ‘if 10 years from now Singapore was still making exhortations of religious tolerance and the virtues of a multiracial society, then the Government would have failed.’ The Prime Minister said that ‘nobody feared any racial, religious or linguistic persecution or suppression in Singapore.’
Two months later (May 24, 1967) the same newspaper carried the headline: “SINGAPORE LEADS WORLD: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.” It reported that “the Minister for Labour, Mr. Jek Yeun Thong, today called on Buddhists and others, whatever their religion or race, to play their part to ensure that Singapore remains a bastion of multi-racial and multi-religious tolerance to give her strength and purpose.” The newspaper then quoted Mr. Jek as saying: “Our strength lies not in limiting the citizens to believe in only one state religion but in allowing everyone to believe in any religion so that everyone is happy and contented to contribute his fullest to the country. . . . No one has been or ever will be persecuted or discriminated against because of his faith.”
All this was in full harmony with the enlightened principles set forth in Article 11 of the Singapore Federal Constitution, guaranteeing every person the right to profess and practice his religion.
It may therefore come as a shock to many to learn that less than five years later Singapore has suddenly become the scene of government suppression of a religious minority, the Christian witnesses of Jehovah.
There are presently more than 27,000 congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses throughout the earth in some 207 lands. Aside from those in dictatorial and many Communist countries, these congregations are able to exercise freely their religion. The question obviously arises therefore: Why such action by Singapore’s government? Are Jehovah’s witnesses there different from their brothers elsewhere on earth? Do they teach some other doctrine or differ in their conduct?
Here is a firsthand report of what happened as related by Norman D. Bellotti, who, together with his wife, until recently was serving as a missionary in Singapore.
BANISHED AFTER TWENTY-THREE YEARS
His account begins:
“The morning of January 12, 1972, dawned just like any other day in the tropics and, really, it was a delightful morning in Singapore. I and my wife Gladys knew that, as the day moved on, it would soon get hotter and possibly reach a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit. After all, we had lived here for twenty-three years. Singapore was our home. And among Eastern cities it is one of the nicest, both clean and green. A visitor can quickly note that the society of people living here is an affluent one.
“My wife and I had arrived in Singapore in the early part of 1949 as missionaries of Jehovah’s witnesses. Knowing of the good things taught in the Bible and the wonderful hope that the Bible holds out for honest-hearted persons of all races, we had devoted our lives to helping others learn about the good news of God’s kingdom. This is the good news contained in the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven.—Matt. 6:9, 10.
“That morning of January 12, Gladys had appointments to conduct free home Bible studies and was soon on her way to meet the first family. I proceeded with work in the office of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, for which I served as branch representative in Singapore. I was just getting some mail off to congregations of Jehovah’s witnesses when the telephone rang and a Mr. Huan Tzu Hong wanted to speak with me. Identifying himself as an official of the Ministry of Home Affairs, he asked me to come down to his office right away to see him. The matter seemed urgent. As I had no transport available right then, it was arranged that the appointment be made for 2 p.m.
“About twenty minutes later, a police car came up the driveway of the branch office at 11 Jalan Sejarah, and a letter from Mr. Huan was delivered to me, confirming the appointment I had just made on the telephone. I signed the receipt book on receiving the letter. The matter indeed seemed urgent.
“At 2 p.m. I arrived at the office of the Minister for Home Affairs and was ushered inside. Mr. Huan greeted me after being introduced by Mr. Woon, another official from the department. Without delay Mr. Huan stated the purpose of the call. He said he had been instructed by the Minister for Home Affairs, Dr. Wong, to issue me with an Order, the contents of which were on a typed sheet he now handed me. It was an Expulsion Order, issued under the Government Banishment Act, Chapter 109. The Order read:
I, WONG LIN KEN, the Minister for the time being charged with responsibility for banishment, hereby order in accordance with the provisions of section 8 of the Banishment Act that NORMAN DAVID BELLOTTI born on 13th October, 1919 in AUSTRALIA leave SINGAPORE before the expiration of a period of fourteen days from the date of service of a copy of this order, and thereafter remain out of SINGAPORE.
And I hereby specify the 19th day of January, 1972, as the date on or before which the said NORMAN DAVID BELLOTTI shall execute the bond specified in subsection (5) of the said section in the sum of one thousand dollars with surety.
And in exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (3) of the said section, I hereby further order that you NORMAN DAVID BELLOTTI, before so leaving Singapore, shall report to the Controller of Immigration, Singapore.
Given under my hand this 12th day of January, 1972.
Signed: Wong Lin Ken
Minister for Home Affairs, Singapore.
“I read the order and was shocked. No reason was given as to why I was being banished. I asked Mr. Huan why this action was taken. He said that he did not know the details as he was only asked by the Minister to serve me with the order. ‘The Minister would know why.’ I asked if I could see the Minister. ‘No,’ he replied. Then could I make an appointment to see him? He said that this was ‘impossible.’ The law does not require that a reason be given for banishment. Mr. Huan was anxious to have me sign the copy of the order and his work would be over.
“But I pressed the matter further and pointed out that it is a blot on a man’s character to be banished from a country, especially a well-known place like Singapore. Was I being accused of some subversive activity? Or being labeled a Communist? One who is banished is usually of bad character and I surely would be glad to have some information as to why I was being given an expulsion order.
“Mr. Huan had no comment to give. So I said, ‘This means, then, that I have been able to live in this country for twenty-three years, during which time no one has made a complaint against me that I know of, no one in the government has ever come to talk to me about my Bible-educational work, no official has been man enough to interview me or accuse me of some wrong I have done, either real or supposed, and yet I am served with a banishment order and I am not given the privilege of knowing what it is all about and being able to make some kind of explanation.’ Mr. Huan answered that he had no further information to pass on to me and that ‘he had a job to do like everyone else.’
“I signed the order saying that I had received it. That part of his job finished, Mr. Huan proceeded to read to me that portion of the law which pertains to persons who have an expulsion order and who do not comply with it.
“I assured him that I had been a law-abiding person during the last twenty-three years and I would continue to obey the law. The government had no need to fear a God-fearing Bible lover. Over the years I had the privilege of meeting many of the officials of the government and talking with them about the Bible’s promises. Yearly assemblies were arranged and mostly we used Government auditoriums. We often used the Singapore Conference Hall, the Cultural Centre, the Victoria Memorial Hall, numerous Community Centres and Social Function Halls. My dealings with officials in these buildings were always cordial. The officials had no complaints and they never refused us the use of the halls. In 1963 the Watch Tower Society arranged a large international assembly in the Victoria Theatre and visitors came in from all over the world. In order to hold all these assemblies I applied and got police permits. Officers in the different Police Departments always treated me with respect. Many of them, too, believed the Bible. So, I was truly very surprised and shocked when I was issued a banishment order.
“Mr. Huan instructed that S$1,000 be deposited with him, on or before the 19th of January, as a surety that I would leave the country at the appointed time. Before leaving his office I said that I was startled that such action was taken against a man of the Bible, without giving a reason. Mr. Huan’s final words on that day were: ‘When you return by the 19th to pay the S$1,000, possibly the picture will have become a little clearer.’
“I returned home and broke the news to my wife. We both sat down to try to make some plans. Where to go? What to pack and what to leave behind? Would we get to say good-bye to all our good friends? We had been here for twenty-three years and we had friends all over Singapore and not only here but all throughout Malaysia. And what was behind that statement: ‘The picture will become a little clearer by the 19th’?
“We began to pack, needless to say with heavy hearts. Friends and neighbors called and wanted to know what it was all about. ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ ‘Why?’ But this question could not be answered. The Minister for Home Affairs, Dr. Wong Lin Ken, did not say in his Banishment Order. He had never talked with me and was not prepared to have an audience with me when requested. The order was ‘get out and stay out!’ But no reason, no explanation. Two days later, by the morning of January 14, departure plans were fairly well in hand. However, before the day ended, things happened that startled us all. It was to be a dark day for Singapore.
PLACE OF WORSHIP PADLOCKED
“Just before midday, police came to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses at 8 Exeter Road, which is situated just opposite a very busy market. They posted an order of dissolution on the front door.
“That day, the 14th of January, 1972, the Minister for Home Affairs, Dr. Wong Lin Ken, had deregistered the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The congregation had registered under the Societies Act some ten years earlier and the Kingdom Hall was its registered headquarters. Regular Bible classes had been held there throughout the years in English and Chinese.
“Were these secret meetings? No, but all meetings were open to the public, and of recent years the hall was always filled on Sundays. Each year an annual general meeting was duly held and the business report and financial report were returned to the Registrar of Societies on the forms provided. All the office-bearers of the registered congregation were ministers of religion, none were foreigners. They were law-abiding citizens, men who do an honest day’s work, many of them working in government offices.
“This congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses, with which my wife and I had associated for twenty-three years, had orderly meetings, with no loud music or shouting to disturb the neighbors. They were not following some so-called ‘Western culture.’ The very Bible they use as their guide is an Oriental book, written and preserved by men of the Middle East. Not one of the members of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was ever arrested or charged for a criminal offense, or for any other offense for that matter. The congregation had gone about its preaching work in a public manner and there had been no complaints. Many thousands of persons enjoyed reading regularly the issues of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines in their different languages.
“Yet now the government of Singapore had acted to ban this Christian congregation. These honest men and women and children can no longer meet together for Christian worship in the Kingdom Hall. This has been declared illegal. No freedom of religion exists for them any longer.
“Officers of the law now prepared to break into the Kingdom Hall and steal out what did not belong to them. Had they but asked the president, vice-president or secretary-treasurer of the registered congregation for the key to the hall, it would have been supplied. A phone call is all that would have been necessary. But they preferred dramatically and forcibly to break in through the front door. They took everything of value, particularly seizing all Bibles, Bible literature and library books.
“The caretaker in the flat upstairs had gone out. They went into his flat and stole his personal property, even taking his personal copy of the Holy Bible! The hall was now padlocked. When the caretaker came back in the afternoon he could not even enter his own home. A citizen was locked out of his own house with just the clothes he stood in! Unable to pass the padlocked door to take a shower and change his shirt and trousers, he was forced to borrow a change of clothes.
“The bank account of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was also seized by the authorities. This money had all been contributed on a voluntary basis, being donated by good-hearted persons who wished to see the Bible-educational work expand in Singapore. None of it was obtained by taking up collections or soliciting it from the people. The congregation had not engaged in any kind of commercial business.
“On that Friday evening, January 14, a regular Bible meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the Kingdom Hall. Due to preparing for this meeting, many of the Witnesses and their friends did not hear a radio broadcast of the government’s action. On arriving at the Kingdom Hall, they were shocked to see a big padlock on its door. Among them were the president and vice-president of the registered congregation. No one had spoken to them about the banning. No official had shown the gentlemanly consideration to notify his fellow citizen of the government action against his religion and his freedom of worship and study of the Bible. Disappointed, these men and their families had to return to their homes.
BIBLE LITERATURE BANNED
“That same day another blow came. The Minister for Culture, Mr. Jek Yeun Thong, took action against the literature printed by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. Published in the Government Gazette of that date, the notice read:
In exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (1) of section 3 of the Undesirable Publications Act, the Minister for Culture hereby prohibits the importation, sale and circulation of all publications published or printed by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
“Mr. Jek was the same man who, five years earlier as Minister of Labour, had urged all people to help Singapore remain ‘a bastion of multi-racial and multi-religious tolerance.’ His promise then was that ‘no one has been or ever will be persecuted or discriminated against because of his faith.’ Yet now religious freedom was being forcibly taken away from the minority group of Jehovah’s witnesses, and Mr. Jek was involved in such action.
“Finally, on the evening of January 14, some statement was made as to the government’s justification for its action against this Christian minority. Radio and Television Singapore, in announcing the dissolving of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the banning of the Watch Tower literature, presented the press statement released by the Ministry of Home Affairs. It read as follows:
The Government today de-registered the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the ground that its continued existence is prejudicial to public welfare and good order in Singapore. The doctrine of the sect and nature of its propaganda are based on its claim that ‘Satan’ and its dispensation, are responsible for all organised Government and religion. The result of the impending ‘Armageddon’ will be the destruction of everyone except Jehovah’s Witnesses who will inherit the earth. By virtue of this doctrine the sect claims a neutral position for its members in wartime. This has led a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the National Service to refuse to do any military duty. Some of them even refuse to wear uniforms.
The ‘parent’ body of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society incorporated in the United States of America. This Society has an Australian missionary (Mr. N. D. Bellotti) in Singapore, whose task is to see to the importation of the Society’s literature and its distribution to the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others. With the dissolution of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there will be no further need for such literature or for him to remain in Singapore. The Government has therefore banned the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society literature and asked Mr. Bellotti to leave the country.
BIBLE WAY OF LIFE: PREJUDICIAL OR BENEFICIAL?
“The following day, January 15, the newspapers reported the banning. Local reporters and photographers and foreign press representatives besieged the branch office for more information; they said the matter was not clear. I could give no information other than what the government press statement provided. I was being banished because I was importing Bibles and Bible literature into the Republic, just as I had been doing for the past twenty-three years. The office-bearers of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been told anything. Apparently their ‘crime’ was that they were reading the Bible and these kindred publications.
“Note the government’s press statement that the continued existence of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘is prejudicial to public welfare and good order in Singapore.’ What proof, what facts were there to back up such a statement? Surely, because a small minority believes that God will soon bring an end to all wickedness and will restore this earth to a paradise state, and that the ‘meek will inherit the earth,’ this is not going to upset the good order of any nation, large or small. Look at any country on this earth today and you will find no evidence that Jehovah’s witnesses have ever been a disrupting force as to the good order of any land. Like the apostle Paul, they have ‘renounced the underhanded things of which to be ashamed, not walking with cunning, neither adulterating the word of God, but by making the truth manifest recommending [themselves] to every human conscience in the sight of God.’ (2 Cor. 4:2) They earnestly seek to obey the apostle Peter’s exhortation: ‘Maintain your conduct fine among the nations, that, in the thing in which they are speaking against you as evildoers, they may as a result of your fine works of which they are eyewitnesses glorify God in the day for his inspection.’—1 Pet. 2:12.
“For twenty-three years my wife and I had used the literature of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in our Bible-educational work in Singapore. Even as Jesus and the apostle Paul could say, so we could say that nothing was done ‘in secret,’ ‘in a corner,’ but openly, ‘publicly.’ (John 18:20; Acts 26:26) We shared in distributing the Bible in English, Chinese and Tamil and offered our services free to help Bible-loving persons to get a better understanding of it. In a world that has moved and is moving farther away from the high standards of conduct found in the Bible, Jehovah’s witnesses find that there are many people anxious to know what God says about this in his Word. We were not trying to push a new religion on someone, but were aiding those who wanted to know more about the Bible and what hope it gives for the future.
“Far from favoring or fomenting disorder or anarchy, Jehovah’s witnesses teach the rightness of submission to authority. They recognize that it is God’s arrangement to allow human governments to operate in the present system of things and that therefore ‘he who opposes the [governmental] authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God.’ (Rom. 13:1, 2) They do, of course, believe the Bible’s teaching that God is shortly going to replace all human forms of government with the perfect rule of his own Son, Christ Jesus, from heaven. (Dan. 2:44) But Jehovah’s witnesses know that this will be by divine power, not by trying to effect such change themselves. So, they are careful not to interfere in the operation of the existing governments.
“Their stand of neutrality as to worldly conflicts and as to participation in military activities is not based on some sectarian dogma or propaganda, but on plain statements in the Bible. It was Jesus Christ who said to his followers: ‘If you were part of the world, the world would be fond of what is its own. Now because you are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you. . . . A slave is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you also; if they have observed my word, they will observe yours also.’—John 15:19, 20.
“Jehovah’s witnesses are living in harmony with the words found on a wall of the United Nations Plaza, words taken from the Bible at Isaiah 2:4 (Authorized Version): ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ Singapore is a member nation of the United Nations Organization. True, the nations today do not live in accord with those words. They continue to stockpile weapons and learn war. But is it right to condemn as ‘prejudicial to public welfare and good order’ those who do live in accord with those words, yes, who are even willing to suffer persecution rather than violate them? In a world that is steadily filling with violence, how can it be said that such persons are setting a bad example by their peaceful and peaceable way of life? Would not this whole earth be a safer, finer, more pleasant place to live if all, or even the great majority of persons, followed the example of such sincere Christians?
“During my years in Singapore I lived through several riots in which many persons lost their lives. But not one of Jehovah’s witnesses was ever involved in such disorder. None of the publications of the Watch Tower Society has ever advocated such use of violence.
“On the other hand, is it considered prejudicial to a country for Jehovah’s witnesses to point out what the Holy Bible says at Revelation 16, verses 14-16, that the great war of God is coming and that it is called ‘Armageddon’? A person who warns his neighbor of an approaching disaster and points to the way of safety is considered a good friend. Jehovah’s witnesses give such warning, doing so out of friendship for the people of all lands. Of course, they can only sound the warning. As to whether people believe it or not, this is up to them.
“On January 18 I returned to the Ministry of Home Affairs to pay over the S$1,000. Mr. Huan’s words, ‘The picture will become a little clearer by the 19th,’ had already been fulfilled. A small community of Christians were no longer able to meet for worship. Their religious meeting place had been raided and the property seized and sealed; their bank account was frozen.
“Now, when I offered Mr. Huan the money, he apologized, saying that he had misinformed me. What was really required was some local person to come and sign a bond or surety, guaranteeing that I would leave the country at the stated time. If I defaulted, then this man would lose his money and I could be arrested and dealt with. Having made many good friends in Singapore, I found it no problem to get one to sign the bond.
SADDENED MISSIONARIES LEAVE
“Time was now running out. The saying of good-byes was a tearful experience, yet faith in the true God Jehovah was still strong. Truth is not mere ‘propaganda’ but something that comforts and strengthens the mind and heart. It gives honest-hearted persons a purpose in life. It makes them better men and women.
“Both to Mr. Huan, in the office of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and to the Deputy Controller of Immigration, Mr. Tan Han Tuan, who held my passport just prior to departure, I explained that I felt no vindictiveness toward the government of Singapore. I had come into the country as a respectful guest and I would leave as a respectful guest. My stay in the country had been a very enjoyable one. But I was very sad to see that something terrible had happened, the taking away from citizens of Singapore the freedom of worship, an effort to suppress the exercise of their own conscience and the making of expression of their faith. It is a pity that such harsh treatment has been handed out to a minority group of sincere law-abiding Christians, whose only desire is to live peaceful lives in harmony with the teachings of the Bible. Other progressive countries have spoken out very favorably about the fine Christian conduct of Jehovah’s witnesses. It is indeed a shame that these Christian witnesses of Jehovah cannot meet together for worship in Singapore, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and that even the various Bible translations they use, and which are printed on the presses of the Watch Tower Society, have come under Government ban along with the literature they use to announce the kingdom of God.
“On the evening of January 25, 1972, my wife and I took our departure from the Republic of Singapore. We left behind us our beloved, lifelong friends of the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP?
Our prayers go out on behalf of this small group of Christians in Singapore. You, too, may wish to express your concern for them in prayer to Jehovah God, petitioning him for the safety of those loving him and that he may prosper the proclamation of his word of truth even under severe difficulties. (2 Cor. 1:8-11; 2 Thess. 3:1, 2) As the apostle Paul, when a prisoner for preaching the good news of God’s kingdom, declared: “Nevertheless, the word of God is not bound.”—2 Tim. 2:9.
You may also wish to express your concern to the government of the Republic of Singapore, expressing to them your plea for a judicious and fair-minded reevaluation of the action taken. Certainly the “new nation” of Singapore has nothing to fear from people who hold to the high standards of Christian conduct as set forth in the Bible. Their insistence on neutrality in worldly conflicts is surely no reason for locking Christian men, women and children out of their place of worship.
May the newspaper headline of 1967, “SINGAPORE LEADS WORLD: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM,” yet prove true in 1972. Yes, may the governmental leaders of the Republic of Singapore set an enlightened example and dignify themselves as men of wise judgment by restoring to this small minority, Jehovah’s Christian witnesses, their religious freedom. Following are the names and addresses of members of the government of the Republic of Singapore to whom you may wish to write:
His Excellency Dr. B. H. Sheares
President of the Republic of Singapore
Republic of Singapore
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew
Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore
Prime Minister’s Office
Republic of Singapore
Dr. Goh Keng Swee
Minister of Defence
Ministry of Defence
Republic of Singapore
Dr. Wong Lin Ken
Minister for Home Affairs
Ministry of Home Affairs
Republic of Singapore
Mr. Jek Yeun Thong
Minister for Culture
Ministry of Culture
Republic of Singapore
Mr. S. Rajaratnam
Minister for Foreign Affairs
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Republic of Singapore
Mr. E. W. Barker
Minister of Law and National Development
National Development Building
Republic of Singapore
Mr. Michael Chai
Acting Controller of Immigration
Republic of Singapore