Pope’s first visit to Singapore (1986)
by Chan, Meng Choo
The first-ever visit to Singapore by a Catholic pope was by John Paul II on 20 November 1986.1 During his brief stop in Singapore, Pope John Paul II met the Singapore president and prime minister, and conducted mass which was attended by about 70,000 people at the National Stadium.2 The five-hour visit at the invitation of then President Wee Kim Wee was part of the 66-year-old pontiff’s Asia-Pacific tour, which included visits to Bangladesh, Singapore, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and the Seychelles. Also head of state of the Vatican, the world’s smallest nation, the pontiff was accompanied by senior Vatican officials and an international press corps.3
A seven-member papal visit committee led by Reverend Robert Balhetchet, rector of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, presided over the organisation of the pope’s visit.4 The key challenges the committee faced included ensuring the tightest security for the pope, who had been shot in an assassination attempt in 1981.5 The committee met frequently to consider and to prepare for all possible scenarios and contingencies such as bad weather or sudden illness among spectators. Besides the seven-member committee, another committee of 29 people, representatives from each of the Catholic churches in Singapore, took care of three aspects of the papal visit: logistical organisation of the mass, spiritual preparation for Catholics and the arrival of the pontiff.6
Catholic nuns from the Carmelite order and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary sewed special robes for the 200 priests and bishops who were to attend the papal mass to be held at the National Stadium. The Carmelites also made 85,000 wafers out of unleavened bread for the communion. About 200 priests from Singapore and other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries rehearsed their roles in administering these communion wafers during the mass.7
Souvenirs such as red and white umbrellas, T-shirts, caps, medallions, pens and stickers were sold at churches to raise funds for the visit, which was estimated to cost S$59,000 an hour. A combined-schools band, comprising 300 boys and girls from the Christian Brothers schools and convents in Singapore, was formed to play the Vatican and Singapore national anthems and accompany the singing of hymns. About three to four months before the visit, specially prepared instructional materials were used in church bulletins, sermons and prayers to aid the Catholic population in spiritual preparations for the visit.8
The Singapore Mint produced a special medallion to commemorate the visit. Made of cupro-nickel, it measured 42 mm in diameter. One side was embossed with a portrait of the pope, while the other side depicted a dove in flight, carrying a ribbon with the phrase “Love and Peace”. Inscribed along the circumference of the medallion are the words “Pope John Paul II Singapore Visit – 20 Nov 86”.9
The pope arrived at Singapore Changi Airport at approximately 2.20pm on Thursday, 20 November 1986, in an Alitalia Boeing 747 jet. This was just hours after Israeli President Chaim Herzog had left Singapore that morning after a three-day visit. Three people boarded the plane to meet the pope: the head of the Catholic Church in Singapore, Archbishop Gregory Yong; the Vatican ambassador to Singapore, Archbishop Renato Martino; and the Minister for Communications and Information and Second Defence Minister, Yeo Ning Hong. The pope then alighted from the plane, kissed the ground (his traditional gesture marking the start of each state visit), rose and raised his hands in blessing. A limousine accompanied by police outriders drove him to the Istana, where he met President Wee and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.10
After the meeting, the pope proceeded to the National Stadium, where a special welcoming ceremony began with the playing of the national anthems of Singapore and the Vatican. He was driven round the track of the stadium in a jeep. He approached 400 disabled, aged and sick people seated at the football pitch and said special prayers for them. Standing at an elaborate altar, he then conducted a two-hour mass, including a half-hour sermon in English, with simultaneous translations in Mandarin and Tamil. He also distributed communion to the sick, aged and disabled. With him in the stands were Archbishop Yong, some 40 cardinals, 200 priests and 100 lay ministers.11 Some 80,000 Catholics, including those from Malaysia and Thailand, attended the papal mass. In his sermon to Singapore’s 105,000 Catholics, the pope spoke of love and peace. He also reaffirmed the Church’s stand against artificial forms of birth control, saying it was up to Catholic couples themselves to decide how many children they wanted.12
Four gifts representing the Chinese, Indian, Eurasian and Peranakan cultures of Singapore were presented to the pope. The Chinese community presented a scroll bearing two characters for righteousness, as well as a bouquet of orchids. The Indian community presented a piece of gold brocade reserved for dignitaries, a silver tray with a chalice, and a jasmine garland. The Eurasians offered a pewter plate and a solid gold coin imprinted with the pope’s face on one side and a dove (the Singapore logo for the papal visit) on the other. The Peranakan community gave a rattan basket with traditional items representing good luck, prosperity and longevity, as well as an ivory piece the size of a fingernail, with the Lord’s Prayer carved on it in micro-calligraphy.13
The papal visit set records for Singapore, such as the deployment of about 550 policemen for security, and the police manning of 24 traffic lights so that the pope’s motorcade did not have to stop between destinations.14
While the pope’s visit was welcomed by Catholics in Singapore and neighbouring countries, it caused some controversy among Muslims in Singapore. Majlis Pusat, the Central Council of Malay Cultural Organisations Singapore, expressed regret over the visits by Israeli President Chaim Herzog and Pope John Paul II, saying that these would affect the harmony of Singapore’s multiracial and multireligious society.15
On 6 December 1986, Parliamentary Secretary (Foreign Affairs) Yatiman Yusof said that protests by some Singapore Muslims over the pope’s visit were “unwise”. He pointed out that Singapore Catholics “were not the ones who were aggressively trying to convert young Muslims”, and that Bangladesh, with a population that was more than 90-precent Muslim, had welcomed the pope warmly during the latter’s visit just prior to Singapore.16
In its editorial of 21 November 1986, The Jakarta Post commented that the pontiff’s remark about couples having the right to decide the size of their families free from government coercion was imprudent. The publication noted that Indonesia and Muslim religious schools had accepted the importance of limiting population growth in order to contain social problems.17
Merdeka, another Indonesian newspaper, published an editorial on 26 November 1986 positing that the pope’s visit neutralised suspicions of Singapore’s pro-Zionist stance, harboured by Singapore’s neighbouring countries and fellow ASEAN members, due to the Israeli president’s visit to Singapore.18
Another issue sparked by the pope’s visit was that of commercialisation. Some Singaporeans contended that there was too much “selling” of the pope due to the plethora of souvenirs produced for the event, and that the S$3 bus ride to the stadium was overpriced. However, others felt that this was mild compared to the commercialisation of the pope’s visit to India in February 1986.19
Chan Meng Choo
1. Hedwig, A. (1986, November 9). Catholics hard at work for Pope’s visit. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. A visit to the heart. (1986, November 21). The Business Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. John, A. (1986, November 21). A short, wet and busy visit: Pope John Paul II in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Hedwig, A. (1986, November 9). Catholics hard at work for Pope’s visit. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Persistence of a Pilgrim Pope. (1986, November 16). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Hedwig, A. (1986, November 9). Catholics hard at work for Pope’s visit. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Hedwig, A. (1986, November 9). Catholics hard at work for Pope’s visit. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Hedwig, A. (1986, November 9). Catholics hard at work for Pope’s visit. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Medallion to mark papal visit on sale. (1986, November 1). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. When the Pontiff sets foot on S’pore soil. (1986, November 9). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. When the Pontiff sets foot on S’pore soil. (1986, November 9). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. John, A. (1986, November 21). A short, wet and busy visit: Pope John Paul II in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Hedwig, A. (1986, November 16). Four S’pore gifts for Pope. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Papal visit will set records of sorts. (1986, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Protests by Muslims over Pope’s visit unwise: MP. (1986, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Protests by Muslims over Pope’s visit unwise: MP. (1986, December 7). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Show more understanding for population problems – and also Muslim feelings. (1986, December 6). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Pope’s visit neutralised suspicions. (1986, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Hoe, I. (1986, November 23). Was there too much ‘selling’ of the pope? The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Carey, J. (1986, November 19). Challenges that face the Pope today. The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Ee-Chooi, T. (1997). Father of charity and… my father. Singapore: SNP Publishing.
(Call no.: RSING 361.8092 EEC)
Malay body ‘regrets’ visit by Herzog, Pope. (1986, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Ooi, S. (1986, November 23). The Pope through a Catholic’s eyes. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Phang, M. S. L. (Ed.) (2005). Monument of love: The Church of St Teresa. Singapore: The Church of St Teresa, pp. 76–78.
(Call no.: RSING 282.5957 MON)
Pope meets the President and PM Lee. (1986, November 21). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Sign of love for the pope. (1986, November 20). The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The day S’pore hosted the Israeli President and the Pope. (1986, December 6). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth… The Catholic Church in Singapore 1819–2004. Singapore: His Most Rev. Nicholas Chia, Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore.
(Call no.: RSING 282.5957 WIJ)
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.