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Gregory Yong Sooi Nghean, Archbishop Emeritus (b. 20 May 1925, Perak, Malaysia – d. 28 June 2008, Singapore) was the Roman Catholic archbishop of Singapore from 1977 to 2000. He was the second archbishop of Singapore and the first local clergy to be appointed to this role.
Yong was born in the state of Perak, Malaysia in 1925. He received his early education here, at St. George’s Institution in Taiping and then at St. Michael’s Institution in Ipoh. He entered the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary in Singapore in January 1941 and joined the major seminary at College General in Penang, Malaysia in 1944. He was ordained as a priest in December 1951.
In his first parish appointment, he was posted to the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Upper Serangoon Road in Singapore. He went to St. Peter’s College in Rome, Italy for further studies in 1953 and was conferred a doctorate in Canon Law in 1956, becoming the first priest from the Singapore-Malaysia-Brunei region to obtain this qualification.
After returning to Singapore in August 1956, he joined the Church of the Sacred Heart at Tank Road as an assistant parish priest. He subsequently joined the teaching staff at the St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary, which was then located within the grounds of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1965, he started a short stint at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Highland Road. He took up a teaching position at College General in Penang a year later. On 1 July 1968, he was ordained the Bishop of Penang, taking over the role from Bishop Francis Chan, who had died in October 1967.
Archbishop of Singapore
In 1977, he returned to Singapore and succeeded Archbishop Michael Olcomendy, who had retired. He became the second archbishop of Singapore and the first Asian to be appointed to this role. He was officially installed as the archbishop of Singapore at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd at Queen Street on 2 April 1977.
He held the office of archbishop for 23 years and retired at the age of 75 in October 2000. On retirement, he was given the honorary title of archbishop emeritus. In October 2001, he was succeeded by the current archbishop, Nicholas Chia, who was then a parish priest at the Church of the Holy Cross at Clementi Avenue 1.
Establishment of St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary
Before the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, Catholic priests in Singapore studied for four years at the minor seminary in Singapore before proceeding to the major seminary at College General in Penang for their advanced training. The separation then made it difficult for the seminarians to proceed to College General, as the Malaysian government did not recognise the college as an institution of higher learning and the governments of Malaysia and Singapore imposed quotas on the number of foreign missionaries.
Finally, on 24 February 1983, Yong established the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary in Singapore. It initially operated in the grounds of the old St. Francis Xavier Minor Seminary. Its current building at Ponggol 17th Avenue was completed in 1987 and officially opened on 28 January 1988.
Setting up of Singapore Pastoral Institute and Family Life Society
He initiated many projects with the aims of nurturing a well-informed Catholic community, safeguarding spiritual values and promoting family ties. These included the establishment of the Singapore Pastoral Institute in 1978 and the setting up of the Family Life Society in 1983.
He founded the Singapore Pastoral Institute together with Chia, the current archbishop, who was at that time a member of the Board of Consultors assisting Yong. The institute was set up to provide courses on the Bible, church teachings and pastoral training programmes, and it is now a key unit in the Catholic Archdiocesan Education Centre at Highland Road.
The Family Life Society, registered in February 1985 under the Societies Act of Singapore, is a non-profit organisation that serves both Catholics and non-Catholics by providing counselling services and educational programmes that aim to strengthen ties within the family unit.
Member of presidential councils
Yong served on the first Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which was formed in August 1992 after the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act came into effect in March 1992. One of the key roles of the council is to consider and report to the Minister of Home Affairs on matters concerning the maintenance of religious harmony in Singapore.
He was also a member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The main function of this council is to scrutinise legislation passed by parliament to ensure that there would be no discrimination against any particular race, religion or community in Singapore.
Yong’s health faltered in his later years. His last public appearance was in May 2004, when he was a prosecution witness in the trial of Catholic priest Joachim Kang, who was subsequently jailed for misappropriating S$5.1 million in church funds. On 28 June 2008, he died of heart failure at the age of 83 in St. Joseph’s Home at Jurong Road.
His father, Yong Ah Choy, worked as a dresser or hospital assistant and was an active Catholic. His mother died when he was 13 years old and an older sister took over the role of mother. He was the fifth-born in a family of ten children and had three brothers and six sisters.
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Archbishop Gregory Yong, D.D. episcopal silver jubilee, July 1, 1993. (1993). Singapore: [s.n., 1993].
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Former Archbishop Yong very ill. (2004, June 20). The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 25, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
John, A., et al. (Eds.). (2004). Come, follow me: 40th sacerdotal annivesary of His Grace Archbishop Nicholas Chia (pp.8-9). Singapore: Church of the Holy Spirit.
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Leader of Singapore Catholics for 10 years. (1987, June 3). The Straits Times, p.10. Retrieved February 22, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
Pates, I. (1986, November 12). He’s great-grandpa to 105,000. The Straits Times, p.2. Retrieved February 22, 2010, from NewspaperSG.
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Wijeysingha, E. (2006). Going forth... the Catholic Church in Singapore 1819-2004 (pp.174-175, 180-182). Singapore: Nicholas Chia.
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Ho, A. (2001, August 17). People's priest nurtures human ties. The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 25, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to 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.
Yong, Gregory Sooi Nghean, 1925-2008
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