“In a milestone launch which may well be a highlight of the publishing year, Ethos Books brings to Singapore the English translation of the controversial Geylang Catholic Centre’s story, authored by its founder, Catholic priest Guillaume Arotçarena, now retired in his native France.
Provocatively titled Priest in Geylang, it will join the rapidly expanding library of Singaporean histories beginning to fill the shelves as we move to our fiftieth anniversary. Its launch is scheduled for the afternoon of 17 January.
Deviating from the laudatory and hagiographical accounts that tend to crowd out alternative narratives in any nation, Arotçarena, in fluent prose (and more importantly, a cheap format) tells the warmhearted, although often unnerving, story of an attempt at social justice in the form of a welfare centre deliberately situated in the heart of Geylang’s badlands, the better to minister to the downtrodden and abandoned.
Arotçarena and many of the young priests of his generation, inspired by a recircling of the Catholic Church back to the message of the Sermon on the Mount, understood their work to be as full an expression of the injunction to ‘love thy neighbour' as it might be possible to conceive. Within two decades of the Second Vatican Council, that groundbreaking moment of aggiornamento (updating) in the life of the church, Catholics and their priests were moving back into the community to engage with the material conditions of their neighbours’ lives on the assumption, as William Booth, the Salvation Army founder had said a hundred years earlier, that 'the poor cannot eat their Bible’.
Priest in Geylang, a riveting read (I finished it in a couple hours!), tells of a wonderful community of volunteers working with abused maids, battered wives, and ex-prisoners, slowly building, in terms they no doubt understood, the 'Kingdom of God’. Equally importantly, it tells of a government bewildered by, and eventually antagonistic to any attempt at social welfarism that might blunt the edge of a nation committed to rapid industrialisation, particularly in the climate of the Cold War.
Hitherto unknown, it recounts numerous encounters with the security services, hinting at the fact that Operation Spectrum, the security procedure designed to root out what the government called a Marxist Conspiracy, was not a flash-in-the-pan. But cataclysmic though it was, to my mind the principal contribution of the book is not the trauma of the Marxist Conspiracy, but the stories it tells of ordinary Singaporean women and men who rose up to the call of their citizenship to make Singapore fit for all her daughters and sons.
Arotçarena leaves the reader in no doubt of his uncompromising view that its final effect was to deeply wound and afflict the human impulse towards compassion and community. But it must be acknowledged that the jury is still out: the Singaporean reader must decide for herself what role the Marxist Conspiracy played in subsequent social development. What is clear, though, is that Priest in Geylang offers new data to encourage our contemplation. Buy it! You do not know our history if you do not know the story of the Geylang Catholic Centre.”
This review was written by a reader who wishes to stay anonymous. Let us know what you think of any of our titles and how it has impacted you!
Priest in Geylang is already available in all good bookstores, as well as on our webstore.