Leaked recording reveals St Joseph’s Institution VP taking issue with activism in students

Two days before thousands of Singaporeans gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of gay pride rally Pink Dot, an LGBTQ activist was unceremoniously barred from taking part in a TEDx Talk session at St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI).

Despite being one of the key speakers asked to talk to students about her experiences, Rachel Yeo — Research & Advocacy director of the Inter-University LGBT Network — was disinvited just a day before the July 20 event by TedxYouth@SJI organizers, who pointed to still-unspecified Ministry of Education (MOE) regulations.

While the MOE did not respond to queries about the matter, an audio recording obtained by Coconuts Singapore of a recent speech to students made by SJI Vice Principal Leonard Tan seems to suggest that the school’s powers that be are not down with the concept of “activism.” Full stop.

In the 15-minute recording, which addresses the controversy at length, Tan took pains to remind students that as a Catholic Lutheran school, SJI has its own Gospel-driven beliefs and values to uphold, a philosophy that has no room for “socially divisive” ideas.

“Activism — any form of activism is socially divisive,” he told the students. “It divides society. It divides a community and a principle of the Josephian is we’re community builders. It goes against the very grain of what we stand for. We are community builders. We don’t divide community. That is something that every one of you [have] got to think about in your journey in SJI, as you grow.”

And if activism is bad, don’t even think about protests.

On that subject, Tan suggested students read Plato’s Republic for a better understanding of why Singapore is right to suppress demonstrations. We assume here that he’s referring to the philosopher’s discussion of the five types of regimes — a philosophy in which aristocracy is the highest form of government, while democracy — yikes — ranks just ahead of tyranny.

In other words, the impressionable young students were told that the right thing to do is to keep their heads down and stay in line, even if they think public policy or social mores might be incorrect or discriminatory.

Photo: Saint Joseph’s Institution / Facebook
Photo: Saint Joseph’s Institution / Facebook

But what exactly is “discrimination”? You might think it’s the kind of thing you know when you see it, but it’s more complicated than that, the students were told, much more complicated.

We’re not going to lie, what follows is a bit hard to dissect and we can’t really do it justice, so we’re just going to let it speak for itself.

“What exactly is this discrimination? Now before we jump on any bandwagon and say oh yeah, this so and so is discriminated against, this group is discriminated against … as potential leaders, as decision makers, as influencers, how do we understand discrimination? What is important to think about when we talk about discrimination? How does discrimination look like, in what forms does it take? How is the discriminated discriminated against? In what form? Is discrimination the lack of freedom for or the lack of freedom from” What exactly is discrimination and what about those who are affected by this discrimination. That means within this discriminated group and the groups outside, the feelings of others. How does it look like? Do we consider the feelings of those when we advocate for this particular group, OK?

“It’s important, yes, the newspapers, online media, there’s lots of information. But your call is to be discerning enough to see that through. You’ve got the ability to think and think well. Sieve through, muddle through, cut across, cut away all the misinformation, all the stepping, all the distraction… what exactly is the core issue when you talk about discrimination. What exactly is the point? What exactly is discriminated, is the discrimination about? And what exactly is wanted or not wanted? This begs a lot more discussion. I won’t say I have the full answer.”

Well, it may not have been the “full answer” but it was definitely a long one. Whew.

In response to the leaked recording of the speech, Yeo noted that she was most taken aback by VP Tan’s take on activism, something that’s typically the lifeblood of young minds on university campuses the world over.

“I think the public can form their own opinion. The only thing I’d like to say is how disturbed I was by his bit on activism… how warped it was,” said Yeo. “It’s a shame this is what the boys are being taught.”

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