It is, I think, a testament of our hard work and efforts over the past 50 years in building a resilient, multi-racial and multi-religious society, that you have chosen to invite me – a Malay-Muslim Minister - as your Guest of Honour, to launch a book documenting the establishment and evolution of a Catholic Church and community in Singapore by Portuguese Missionaries.
2 For many of us, this is perhaps no more than a reflection of the natural state of affairs in Singapore. But for those of us immediately concerned with governance, we know that this is not something we can ever take as a given or for granted. This “give and take” between the different communities in Singapore as PM Lee had observed earlier, has been built over a long period and helped to create what is gradually emerging as a Singaporean identity. Ethnic and religious harmony is a key concept in our sense of national identity.
3 Let me just say how delighted I am to be here for the launch of Professor James Newton Boss’ book - “Journey of 190 Years: A History of The Eurasian Catholic Community in Singapore 1825 – 2015”. I am intrigued to note that Prof Boss is in fact a ‘biomedical engineering research scientist’ but with a keen interest, and indeed passion to document the evolution of St Joseph’s Church, its unique customs and practices and the key role it has played in the Eurasian community in Singapore.
4 The Catholic Church and Eurasian community share some similar strengths – its diversity and its staying power. The Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions in the western world dating back over 2000 years with more than a billion followers spread across all five continents. What binds them all is their faith and also obedience to the papacy based in Rome. Despite all the many challenges it has faced, the Catholic Church and its followers continue to thrive and grow in strength.
5 The Eurasian community in Singapore, on the other hand, is very small, but an influential ethnic group nonetheless. The term “Eurasian” was apparently first used officially in the Straits Settlements records around 1820. The first Europeans married Asians between the 16th and 18th centuries over three distinct colonial periods. The community has seen the rise and fall of the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires, all in quick succession. In short, the community hails its origins from this mix of traders, administrators and individuals who travelled to Asia with the Portuguese among the earliest Europeans to arrive in Asia. Prof Boss noted in his book that the first mention of Catholics in Singapore was in 1821 and that this small community of about 12 Catholics was ministered by priests from Malacca. By 1829, the numbers had increased to about 200.
6 The Eurasians had some advantages over other ethnic communities in colonial Singapore because of their fluency in English and as most were Catholics, they had better access to mission schools and were generally better educated. Indeed many went on to take senior positions in Government after independence – Head of Civil Service - George Bogaars, John Le Cain our first Asian Commissioner of Police, diplomat Maurice Baker and our Director of the National Library Hedwig Anuar. And I would be remiss in failing to mention Barry Desker who is here with us this afternoon, - our former Ambassador to Indonesia, retried Director at RSIS, NTU and now Singapore’s representative to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.
7 Many Eurasians have contributed to Singapore’s success – indeed well more than their numbers have allowed by population. Many Singaporeans will readily recall the late Dr Benjamin Sheares, our second President from 1971 to 1981, who was also recognised as Singapore’s ‘father of modern obstetrics and gynaecology’. And of course - we all, as a nation together, applauded Joseph Schooling and his stunning achievement as our first Olympic Gold medallist in 2016. Prof Boss makes special mention also in his book of well-known Catholic families such as the D’Almeida and Desker families and their contribution to industry and philanthropy.
8 I am happy to note that Prof Boss’ book was supported by the Eurasian Association and also the Global Cultural Alliance, a non-profit arts and culture organisation. I understand the Eurasian Association is the oldest self-help group in Singapore set up long before the other ethnic self-help groups were established. It distributes food and rations to needy families regularly under their Family Support Services, and it also supports students through educational programmes like the Homework Supervision Programme, where Eurasian youths have an opportunity to serve as mentors to younger students - particularly those whose families are facing financial difficulties. The Association has also been working hard to integrate the community into Singapore’s multi-racial society.
9 Prof Boss book is very much “a labour of love” as Barry Desker describes it in his foreword. It is apparent in his careful documentation of the establishment and unique features – especially its high altar installed in 1912, and activities of the Church of St Joseph, its Iberian origins reflected prominently in some of its practices which distinguishes it from other churches in Singapore – Palm Sunday and Good Friday observance is especially mentioned. It is evident from his book that the Church has played a central role in the life of the community.
10 I applaud Prof Boss’ Book, which he dedicates “to those who yearn to know about the heritage of the Portuguese Eurasians and the legacy of St Joseph’s Church”. I am glad that the Eurasian Association has also been at the forefront in driving the preservation and sharing of Eurasian culture and played a key role in this publication. Prof Boss’ book should help in our understanding of the social fabric of a key community in our midst, and adds to our appreciation of the rich tapestry that is the Singapore story.
11 Thank you.