When Vincent and Beng Lan were doing pioneering work as Community Organisers under JIM (Jurong Industrial Mission), Fr Joseph Ho was their important ally, and friend. He was the true Shepherd of Jurong, whose work as a Parish priest in the 1970s brought light, not just in the spiritual sense, but also in a socio-political way, to young workers under his charge during the early years of the industrialization process in Singapore.
He was the chaplain to the Young Christian Workers, and a member of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Church. His Parish work brought him into contact with workers, and therefore their workplace problems such as issues relating to graveyard shifts. – a term I learnt from him.
One issue we worked together in 1972 concerned workers welfare at an American owned Gulf Plastic factory. In the quest for foreign capital, workers basic rights and interests were sacrificed in the name of national interests. There was no avenue for the workers to air their grievances, the trade unions were compromised, protest was illegal, people were scared to speak.
By facilitating meetings in his humble parish premises, we got acquainted with workers from Gulf Plastics, and shared their plights with concerned Singaporeans. Eventually a Jesuit Priest at Nanyang University and his students were involved. Likewise the Quarkers and students from Singapore University and my mates from the Architecture faculty were also mobilised to give solidarity to the mostly female workers from Gulf Plastic.
Miraculously we even managed to obtain a bus to transport the workers and other supporters from Jurong to the American Embassy at Hill Street to lodge a protest. That was regarded as the best way to highlight the issues of exploitation by transnational companies. The event was publicized in the US media. It was unsurprisingly followed by the usual crackdowns, arrests, and deportations.
A decade and a half later during the Operation Spectrum, such laudable priestly concerns for his flock’s earthly welfare was condemned by Lee Kuan Yew as evidence of Marxists infiltration and religious intervention into politics. The ISD even sent their officers to the CIA during Operation Spectrum to learn how to combat Liberation Theology.
Vincent Cheng was arrested without trial in 1987 during Operation Spectrum.
Vincent Cheng: “Of course Fr Ho was mentioned in the interrogations. He was chairman of J&P. But ISD queried me little about the YCW itself. They were more interested in how the YCW related to J&P… After my release in 1990, I could only get ISD permission to visit him once. He was paralyzed by two strokes and couldn’t talk. Four months later he died, and I was only allowed to attend the funeral service, but not the burial. I carried his coffin and cried uncontrollably. ”
This good Parish priest whose work went beyond preaching pie in the sky is now forgotten by the Catholic Church in Singapore. When Vincent tried to trace the whereabouts of FrJoseph Ho grave, he discovered that the general office of the Catholic Church did not have his record! He was likewise regarded as ancient by those currently in charge of his Parish, and they were unable to help.
After making more enquiries, Vincent eventually identified the cemetery where Father Ho was buried. With great reluctance, and some difficulties, the cemetery janitor managed to identify the plot number where Fr Ho was buried. To his dismay, Vincent discovered that there was no headstone or plot number, just two mounts of earth where Father Ho burial plot was supposed to be. Eventually, he placed some fresh flowers over one of the mount, and prayed, hoping that it was the right grave.
Still troubled, he approached the janitor before leaving. After further examination of the record, Vincent was told that he had visited the wrong grave, and was given a new plot number.
He found the right plot, but still without a headstone. After agonizing over whether retrieve the fresh flowers from the first mistaken plot, he decided not to disturb the dead buried there, and bought new flowers and prayed.
But why an unmarked grave? He returned to the janitor who was not at all pleased to see him. He had already waived the $20 enquiries fees. ‘Oh, the remains were exhumed sometime ago”, declared the Janitor. There was no record of the remains new whereabouts, or by whom it was exhumed.
When Vincent related his adventures in his search for Father Ho grave, we had a good laugh. I was thinking, where was God going to file the two mis-prayers over the unmarked mount.
After more leg work, Vincent discovered that Fr Ho remains were exhumed by his family, and he is now resting at St Michael’s Church. Niche 561.
Now that Vincent has come to the end of the search, I wrote him a note, “at least there is now a closure”.
“But where is the closure? Fr Ho’s name and history have to be publicly corrected.”
Vincent is right. This May is the 30th Anniversary of Operation Spectrum, and history has to be put right.
Tan Wah Piow