Fighting faith of stoic witnesses to repression

Sydney Morning Herald. April 11, 1998

Government attempts to drive underground the city-state's band of Jehovah's Witnesses has only strengthened their determination, reports CHRIS LYDGATE

Jehovah Witnesses charged in Singapore

WITH her thatch of white hair, her demure smile, and her hearing aid, 74-year-old grandmother Yu Nguk Ding hardly seems like a menace to public safety. Her hands tremble slightly as she offers a groaning tray of cakes to her guests, and the stuffed chairs in her pin-neat sitting room are adorned with little pillows.

In the eyes of the Singapore government, however, Mrs Yu constitutes a security threat.

Mrs Yu is a Jehovah's Witness ---- one of an estimated 1500 believers stuck in a surreal twilight zone somewhere between the Kingdom of God and the Republic of Singapore. Although the city-state's constitution guarantees the right to "practice, profess, and propagate" religious beliefs, members of the group can be arrested for carrying a single leaflet, or holding a "meeting" of three people. They can be fired for refusing to salute the flag. And they routinely spend years in prison because they won't perform military service.

More than 25 years after their congregation was officially deregistered, however, a recent string of court hearings shows that the Jehovah's Witnesses have lost none of their spirit. In fact, their numbers have grown - and they appear more determined than ever to stand up for their beliefs.

Last week, before a courtroom packed with supporters, two Jehovah's Witnesses pleaded innocent to charges of possessing and distributing dozens of banned religious books and pamphlets, including titles such as "Why is Life so full of Problems?"

Two weeks ago the court of appeals ruled that a former teacher training officer could cross-examine witnesses in a wrongful-dismissal suit he brought against a state-run technical college. (The teacher was sacked because he refused to sing the national anthem or salute the flag during morning assembly.)

Government policies against the group "have accomplished nothing," says Mrs Yu, shaking her head. "Our faith will be even stronger. We become more determined and we will still go out and preach."

Behind the smoked glass of its office towers and shopping malls, Singapore is a jigsaw puzzle of cultures, peoples, languages and religions., with 3.1 million citizens living a peaceful but delicate coexistence. The government insists on evenhandedness in religious matters, and mainstream members of major religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam generally report few incidents of discrimination.

Smaller groups tell a different story, however. In the case of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the trouble stems from their staunch opposition to military service.

As a tiny, prosperous, overwhelmingly Chinese island surrounded by giant, poorer, Islamic neighbors, Singapore has pursued an aggressive defense policy, devoting a higher percentage of its GDP to defense than any other nation in the southeast Asia. All male Singaporeans are required to perform two years of military service, followed by periodic call-ups until the age of 40. Even Buddhist monks are required to swap their saffron robes for olive drab and practice target-shooting.

But Jehovah's Witnesses believe that military training amounts to "taking up the sword" - and remain implacably opposed to it. Citing this opposition, the government officially deregistered the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in 1972 - using a law originally designed to stamp out gangs and secret societies - because it was "prejudicial to public welfare and good order." The group's religious publications were banned and its meeting hall closed down, leaving the group's 300 members without a gathering place.

Since then, the Jehovah's Witnesses have gained adherents and gone underground, while playing a tense cat-and-mouse game with authorities which occasionally erupts into public view.

In February 1995, Singapore police mounted a major crackdown codenamed "Operation Hope," raiding private homes where group members were holding prayer meetings. Officers seized bibles, religious literature, documents and computers, and eventually brought charges against 69 Jehovah's Witnesses, many of whom went to jail.

Barely a month later, Mrs Yu herself was arrrested for carrying two "undesirable publications" - one of them a bible -- printed by the group. She spent a week in jail rather than pay a fine. Besides the constant fear of arrest, group members face other threats. Some have been warned to quit the group or lose their job. Others worry they won't be able to obtain government flats or business licenses, or that their children will face trouble in school. Since 1977, the group says, 38 schoolchildren have been suspended for refusing to salute the flag.

Even when they try to be discreet, the very nature of the group's beliefs invariably draws attention. Perhaps the most conspicuous act of defiance is refusing to perform military service. About 40 male Jehovah's Witnesses are currently detained in military gaol because they won't don uniforms, according to group members (The Ministry of Defense declined to confirm the figure). "We're willing to perform non-military service," says elder Wan, whose son has been in jail for almost two years. "We're not freeloaders. But military service would be incongrous with our being ministers of Christ, who's the Prince of Peace. It's a matter of conscience."

The young men who spend up to three years in prison seem remarkably stoic about their fate - even in a country where people have long resigned themselves to harsh government policies banning everything from begging to bubble-gum.

"I am just doing what Jehovah requires me to do," Chai Tshun Chieh, a 24-year-old accounting student, told the Sydney Morning Herald during a break in his court-martial last October. "It's very plain in the bible."

The group has tried in the past to overturn the laws banning their group on constitutional grounds, but their appeals have so far cut little ice with Singapore's top judges. In 1996, Chief Justice Yong Pung How scolded Canadian Queens Counsel Glen How, who argued that the restrictions against the Jehovah's Witnesses violated their constitutional rights. Chief Justice Yong questioned How's sanity, accused him of "living in a cartoon world" and referred to "funny, cranky religious groups" before denying the appeal.

Law lecturer Thio Li-Ann says the Singapore constitution's guarantee of religious freedom contains an escape clause which allows the government to restrict activity on the grounds of public order, public health, and morality. "Obviously, in a 'communitarian' society, a very broad construction is given to public order by the government," Thio says. "And this is affirmed by a court which seems to display a bureaucratic ethos."

"Ridiculous" is how elder Wan describes the government's guarantee of religious freedom, as he drives a reporter to a friend's home, taking detours to throw off possible surveillance. "It's a false claim. We don't deserve this clandestine status and this constant harrassment."

But this harrassment only seem to stiffen their resolve. "A captain in the army once told me his impression of Jehovah's Witnesses who go to jail," says Wan. "When they first go in, sometimes they're not rock solid in their beliefs. But when they come out, they're breathing fire."

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald. April 11, 1998