Monthly Archives: January 2016

Our Common Home

January 2016 Pulse

In June 2015, the much- anticipated encyclical by Pope Francis finally appeared. Unlike papal encyclicals in the past, which were addressed to the Church, Pope Francis’ circular epistle is directed at the whole human family. The reason for this departure is clear: the fundamental concern of this new encyclical has to do with the ecological problem, a crisis that threatens “our common home”.

Also unlike previous encyclicals, the title of this epistle is in Medieval Central Italian, not in Latin. Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”) is an Umbrian phrase taken from Canticle of the Sun, the famous poem-prayer composed by the 13th century monk, St Francis of Assisi, whom the pope wishes to honour in his pontificate.

Although this document deals with a wide range of issues, its fundamental theological assumptions and moral framework are very much in line with the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. These assumptions are based on the teachings of the Bible and the church’s profound reflections of these truths for more than two millennia.

Beginning unapologetically with the Christian understanding of the world as God’s creation based on the biblical revelation (Genesis 1-2), Pope Francis roundly rejects any attempt to erase or blur the distinction between Creator and creation by divinising nature.

The Christian doctrine of creation has “demythologised nature”, he argues. “While continuing to admire its grandeur and immensity, it no longer saw nature as divine. In doing so, it emphasises all the more our human responsibility for nature.”

Taking the holistic view of reality in which the created universe is seen as an inter-connected system, Pope Francis argues that “each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous”. This means that human beings are to respect all living beings. But he rightly stops short of using the language of rights for non-human animals, preferring instead to speak of their value.

To speak of the value of every creature, however, is not to promote a kind of misguided egalitarianism that we see in some animal-rights activists who refuse to privilege humans over non-human creatures. Created in the image and likeness of God, human beings are the crown of God’s creation, their deep communion with the rest of the created order notwithstanding. To fail to acknowledge and respect human uniqueness, Pope Francis argues emphatically, is to “deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails”.

The encyclical is not afraid to speak about sin, that rupture of the relationship between God and man due to human rebellion, which in turn distorts and perverts our relationship with God’s creation.

The pope characterises human sin as man’s attempt to usurp the role of God due to his unwillingness to accept his own creaturehood: “The harmony between Creator, humanity, and creation as a whole, was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God, and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.”

This tragic colossalism of the human spirit has led to the distortions that lie at the very root of today’s ecological crisis, especially the destructive anthropocentrism which drives humankind to wantonly exploit the natural order to achieve its own goals.

Ironically, however, in doing this, man has become the subject of a techno-scientific tyranny in which the very tools that he has fashioned have become his masters. And this has led to a certain blindness and confusion in our culture.

The encyclical deals with a number of controversial topics on which there is no consensus. Consequently, not every person of goodwill would agree with the pope’s analyses and recommendations.

For instance, not every expert would agree with Pope Francis’ analysis – influenced greatly by the environmentalist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, known for his aggressive stance on climate policy – that climate change can be directly linked to human activities and habits. Furthermore, global warming has become so heavily politicised that clarity on the issue is hard to achieve.

Be that as it may, Laudato Si’ brings us back to the fundamentals concerning our collective responsibility to our common home and its future, which should never be taken for granted.

Pope Francis writes: “The notion of the common good also extends to future generations … We can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity.”

Even those who disagree with the pope’s analyses and proposals must take his exhortation seriously.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. 
This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

Obligation to Future Generations

January 2016 Pulse

One of the most significant and yet controversial developments in genetic science in recent decades is the Human Germline Genetic Modification (HGGM) technology. By employing a set of techniques, scientists hope to be able to change the genetic composition of the human germline (i.e., eggs, sperm, the cells that give rise to eggs and sperm, or early embryo) for the benefit of future descendents who will inherit them.

The main purpose of HGGM is to ‘cleanse’ the gene pool of ‘deleterious’ and inheritable genes that would predispose people to certain diseases. This approach, according to some scientists, is to be preferred to traditional therapeutic strategies. For example, molecular biologist Daniel E. Koshland, Jr. could argue that ‘keeping diabetics alive with insulin, which increases the propagation of an inherited disease, seems justified only if one ultimately is willing to do genetic engineering to remove diabetes from the germline and thus save the anguish and cost to millions’.

The ultimate goal of HGGM is therefore to eradicate harmful genes responsible for diseases like cystic fibrosis from the whole population.

In this sense, HGGM must be distinguished from somatic cell therapy that involves the genetic modification of cells in the body apart from the reproductive cells. Somatic cell therapy treats the person with a genetic disease in a way that does not affect his or her offspring. While there is currently an international moratorium on HGGM, many countries in the world allow somatic cell therapy.

Although it is the intention of many scientists to use HGGM for therapeutic purposes, some are advocating that it should also be used to enhance certain desirable traits in the future generation. While many theologians and ethicists are opposed to this, the debate is complexified by the fact that the distinction between eliminating harmful genes and improving hereditary is very often blurred.

The main concern about HGGM is safety. Because these techniques edit the genetic makeup of the gametes, the changes inherited by future generations are deemed irreversible. Thus, the European Council for the Protection of Human Dignity states in its 1997 document that ‘Whilst developments in this field may lead to great benefit for humanity, misuse of these developments may endanger not only the individual but the species itself’.

Many scientists and ethicists maintain that it is simply impossible to envision the consequences of HGGM at this point. The debate sometimes gravitates to the question about the acceptable criteria for ascertaining whether it would be safe to proceed with HGGM. Although the current standard and protocol for research states that an intervention is considered adequate if it enjoys 70% success, some are arguing (for obvious reasons) that in the case of HGGM the requirement should be no less than a success rate of 100%.

In 1979, the influential philosopher and ethicist Hans Jonas in his remarkable book, The Imperative of Responsibility reminded us that in the midst of the tantalising progress of science and technology we must always pause to consider our responsibility to the future generation. The advance of science should not only fill society with a sense of hope, Jonas argues. It should also fill us with a sense of fear.

It is only when fear has its rightful place in our reflections on the promises of science and technology, he wisely counsels, that we will come to see that the ‘starry-eyed ethics of perfectibility has to give way to the sterner one of responsibility’.

Because the long-term adverse consequences of HGGM for future generations are not yet known or fully understood by scientists, and in light of the ethics of responsibility that Jonas emphatically advocates, both religious and secular institutions are opposed to the use of this technology on humans.

Dignitatis Personae, issued by the Roman Catholic Church in 2009, states that ‘Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and as yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause harm to the resulting progeny’.

This is echoed in a statement on HGGM issued by the United Methodist Church in 2012, which states quite categorically that ‘We oppose human germ-line therapies (those that result in changes that can be passed to offspring) because of the possibility of unintended consequences and of abuse’.

‘With current technology’, it continues, ‘it is not possible to know if artificially introduced genes will have unexpected or delayed long-term effects not identifiable until the genes have been dispersed in the population’.

In similar vein, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) calls for a moratorium on HGGM in a statement issued in 2015: ‘The ISSCR calls for a moratorium on attempts to apply nuclear genome editing of the human germ line in clinical practice. Scientists currently lack an adequate understanding of the safety and potential long-term risks of germ line genome modification’.

The call to acknowledge our responsibility towards future generations serves to remind us that no human being – present or future – should be excluded from our moral community or moral consideration. It must therefore be taken very seriously.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


Foreigners, Integration and Christian Civil Society

January 2016 Feature Article  

Matthew 25:35-40 New International Version (NIV)

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

As I write this, the world is still reeling from the Paris terror attacks of Friday 13 November 2015 in which 130 people who were enjoying a night on the town perished.

One of the most disturbing yet odd things was the discovery of a Syrian refugee passport near the remains of a suicide bomber.

While security agencies check on the details and especially whether it was planted there, it has certainly stirred greater ambivalence within Europe about admitting the people felling war-torn Syria and the rest of the Middle-East.

The jihadist group ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks and it is known to be unhappy that people are fleeing Syria instead of remaining in its self-proclaimed caliphate; it finds it galling to watch Europe’s relatively humane and moral response to the refugee crisis.  It would have cause to undermine that and the passport so conveniently retrieved does that.

Sitting in Singapore we are spared these acute moral dilemmas.  Some of you might recall the emerging crisis of the Rohingya refugees in the middle of this year which unexpectedly went away as quickly as it came. There was a strong pushback by the Southeast Asian countries that were the key destination points – Thailand and Malaysia – with the capture and prosecution of human traffickers who had ostensibly fed the problem.

Singapore’s position at the time was that we are too small to host the refugees but we would contribute financially to humanitarian aid.  Our leaders also urged the redirection of focus on dealing with the root causes of the migration – the illegal trafficking and the troubled status of the Rohingya in their current habitat in Myanmar.

We are thankful that we live in a relatively peaceful country but we cannot escape the fact that we do have a large foreign population in our midst and that every now and then, some controversy erupts in foreign-local relations. The situation is less than a happy one.

The problem of illegal migrants is neglible. The foreigners registered to be here are primarily for work ranging from the unskilled to the cutting-edge creative and knowledge-based, and to accompany family members. Non-residents constitute 29.4% of our total population or 1.63 million persons. The profile of that non-resident population can be found in Table 1.

The question then is how do we treat the “stranger” in our midst? Government policies relating to admitting foreigners have been a huge political hot potato but with the calibration of those over the past four years, the political climate has been tempered. Congestion of physical infrastructure will gradually ease with development of the necessary transport, healthcare facilities and dormitories. Competition for jobs, housing and schools is being managed. The fair and humane treatment of foreign migrant workers is being address by the government and non-government agencies.

However, the management of the cultural impact of increased social diversity, the fair and friendly employment practices among the most low-skilled migrant workers and the holding out of Singapore as a welcoming second home are not things that legislation and government programmes can deal with effectively.

Table 1

Non-resident population (1.6 million)
Category Percentage
Work permit holders 45%
Foreign domestic workers 13%
S pass holders 11%
Employment pass holders 11%
Dependents 16%
Students 4%

Source: Population in Brief, 2015, published by the National Population and Talent Division, p.5.

Tolerating the foreigner and getting the most value out of him or her as long as possible do not require much effort or consideration on our part. Treating him or her humanely, compassionately or even with a warm sense of collegiality and friendship requires effort.  We have to go beyond ourselves and our self or corporate interests to do so.

While it has been mentioned above that there are non-government organisations that take on the task of ensuring fair employment practices for foreign labour especially at the humblest levels of the labour market, say the unskilled and semiskilled workers and maids who work under coercive conditions, this is far from enough.

Given the past controversy around the issue of immigrants, government and government-related agencies are doing more to foster more harmonious integration of foreigners into our national community but these are bound or limited by state budgets and public accountability.

It is really up to other non-government organisations to go the extra mile in extending help, friendship and social support to this group of people. As long as there is the motivation to do so and the values to guide and undergrid the effort, authentic and sustained efforts can be had.

This is where the special quality of Christian-inspired civil society can play a role.  Civil society which is that social sector that lies between family and the state; a community that is brought together by a common social interest autonomous of the government has the liberty of going that extra mile to serve the alien and attend to his or her physical, social and spiritual needs.

It is motivated by the call of the Lord, first to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Who are our neighbours – more than a quarter of them will be a non-Singaporean and many of them will be in our homes as domestic helpers. We are called to help the stranger, to “invite him in”; not keep him at a distance or worse scorn him. We are called to let our light shine in the darkness and take the lead in social action; not wait till the government tells you or puts in place a policy to incentivise you to do good. We are called to give and not ask for repayment as we have received the glorious riches of heaven through Christ Jesus and we know that even the last mite offered within limited means can be anointed and multiplied in its impact. We are to do our good deeds in humility and discreetly and if there be any boasting let us boast in the Lord for He has given us all that we have needed.

 Matthew 5:16 New International Version (NIV)

Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

In this space of civil society, we can be driven by faith-inspired values to mobilise many others outside of Christian circles to act in love and truth, to bless the stranger or foreigner in our midst. The effort may not be labelled as a Christian one and need not tap solely on the resources of our churches but can certainly achieve the same outcome and impact.

The key thing to do is to answer the question of what is the current social need at hand; what would the Lord have to say about it; how would He want you to address it if He were standing right there in front of you; and would He have you, in that specific instance draw primarily on the context and the resources of your local church, or would He have you mobilise a broader social group and draw on its resources to spread the mission of doing good?

We have many vulnerable social groups in our midst but within the Asian context and given the debates of the day, the most neglected would be the foreigners who will be defined as being well outside our kinship circles and the broader national family even if we draw upon them so much to build our homes, look after our sick, our elderly and children.

Your ministry is close at hand, your impact on the nations right there at your workplace, at your doorstep or right there in your home. It is not easy; it will be difficult to sustain through the rough patches that will inevitably be there. But we won’t be doing it alone.

 Dr Gillian Koh

Dr Gillian Koh is a member of an Anglican church and does research on Singapore’s political and governance system. She is a graduate of the National University of Singapore and the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.




[1] Kingsley, Patrick, ‘Why Syrian refugee passport found at Paris attack scene must be treated with caution’, The Guardian, 15 November 2015.