Tag Archives: civil

Civil Society for the Common Good

October 2015 Pulse

In their essay ‘Developing Civil Society in Singapore’, Gillian Koh and Debbie Soon offer a brief but helpful account of the genesis and metamorphosis of civil society from pre-independent period to the present. The authors also discuss some of the forces that are expected to drive and shape civil society in the nation in the future.

In their essay, Koh and Soon have elected the broadest possible approach to achieve a working definition of civil society. For them, civil society ‘includes all forms of voluntary organisations, whether formally constituted or not, that lies between and is independent of the state and family’. Each of these groups, they add, ‘is held together by shared values, interests and purposes, and seeks to mobilise resources and people to achieve those’.

This broad and inclusive descriptor notwithstanding, it is important to note that most civil society scholars have underscored just how notoriously difficult it is to arrive at a definition of civil society that would satisfy everyone. As a result, there appears to be no consensus among scholars on what civil society actually is and what it does. There is also no agreement among scholars on whether, in certain parts of the world, civil society exists.

(Incidentally, because consensus on the nature of civil society and what it looks like is so elusive, some scholars have concluded that there’s hardly any civil society in Singapore, while others maintain that it has always existed – even before independence.)

Yet, despite the fact that the idea remains ambiguous and opaque in many ways, civil society appears to be hailed by many as a panacea for the ills and fractures of modern society.

The Advocacy Institute in the USA lauds it as ‘the single most viable alternative to the authoritarian state and the tyrannical market’. Politicians in the UK aver that civil society will hold society together against the onslaught of globalising markets, while the United Nations and the World Bank maintain that it is one of the keys to ‘good governance’. The American writer and activist Jeremy Rifkin even calls it ‘our last, best hope’.

While the Christian would be instinctively wary of such extravagant optimism invested in any form of social advocacy, the advantages of civil society as an expression of associational life must be duly recognised.

Many would no doubt agree that a good society – again, what this entails is contentious – is in some significant way dependent on the health of the associational life of different groups in society. Civil society, as part of the public sphere, is therefore in some strong sense vital to a healthy associational ecosystem of society.

Philosophers and social theorists have noted how certain instantiations and embodiments of social, economic and political systems have destroyed the bonds between different individuals, different groups and between humans and their environment. In different and sometimes significant ways, civil society can not only alert us to the problem but also reconstitute these important relationships.

By institutionalising ‘civility’, civil society may arrest alienating and destructive social habits, and open up a new and different way of living in the world.

Koh and Soon are right to stress that the goal of civil society is the common good. ‘An effective response’, they write towards the end of their essay, ‘would allow civic activism to result in a more socially inclusive and compassionate Singapore where citizens renew their commitment to the good of the collective, but not the tyranny of the majority’.

Civil society must have as its ultimate goal the common good of society, which must transcend the specific concerns and agendas of particular groups. Put differently, the special projects that drive individual civil society groups must always be inspired and energised by a larger and more expansive vision of the flourishing of society as a whole.

As Koh and Soon have alluded, this means that civil society should never be governed by a superficial and dismissive majoritarianism. This is because the majority can be blind to the very real needs of the minority – the invisible poor or the unborn – whose welfare and wellbeing must never be excluded when we think about the common good.

But in order for civil society to be committed to the ‘good of the collective’, it also must not cower to the tyranny of the minority. It must not allow minority groups to question or overturn important social institutions in the name of group rights and inclusiveness.

This means that the presence of civil society alone is not enough to guarantee that the compassion and justice that are indispensable for human flourishing will prevail, and that the common good will be served.

In our fallen world, civil society is a morally ambiguous reality. As such it can promote virtue or vice, and it can be morally progressive or regressive. As Richard Miller points out: ‘Civil society is an arena for moral formation and deformation’.

For civil society to really serve the common good, we must ask whether the attitudes and practices it embodies are truly civil and civilising. For civil society to fulfil its true vocation, its aspirations and goals must never violate or detract from God’s purpose for the human race.


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.

The Role of Government

In Paul’s epistle to the Church in Rome, we find the most profound statement in the New Testament on the role of the state or government. The Apostle teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God to establish social order and justice (Romans 13:4-15). This understanding of the role of the governing authorities is undergirded by Paul’s concept of the state as an institution that is established by God. ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities’, he writes, ‘for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (13:1).

What is truly remarkable is that Paul could write in this way about the governing authorities despite the fact that he was a subject of a totalitarian state ruled with an iron fist by Caesar, who regarded himself as a demigod. Be that as it may, Romans 13 has become the locus classicus of the Church’s theology of the state. It has led the great Reformers of the sixteenth century to teach that despite its obvious imperfections and even perversions, the state is a manifestation of divine grace, used by God as an instrument to maintain earthly justice and restrain evil.

Of course, the concept of the state and government has evolved radically since the time of the Apostle Paul. In modern democracies the concept of the government and its role is extremely complex and nuanced. This subject was the focus of the Perspective 2013 Conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at the Shangri-la Hotel on 28 January. This flagship conference attracted more than 800 participants, many of whom were academics, civil servants, business people, and civil society advocates. The theme of the conference – Governance – and the fact that it was held only two days after the Workers’ Party won a decisive victory in the Punggol East by-election made it all the more poignant.

Among the distinguished speakers were Professor Chan Heng Chee, the former Ambassador to the United States, Kishore Mahbubani, the Dean and Professor in the Practice of Public Policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Lawrence Wong, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications and Information, and Sylvia Lim, Chairperson of the Workers’ Party. Security was tight as the Guest-of-Honour at the conference was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

That the political culture of Singapore is undergoing a transition is made quite evident in the 2011 General Election as well as in the more recent, but no less telling, results of the by-election in Punggol East. Not only are the younger electorate more political aware and vocal, they are also eager to play a more active role in shaping the future of the nation. This, together with the sweeping political and social changes that are taking place in many parts of the world, have resuscitated the old question of the role of the government.

Since independence, the government of Singapore has played a significant role in almost every aspect of the development of the city-state: economics, education, infrastructure, social cohesion, etc. It is through the fore-sight of our founding leaders and the interventionist approach to governance they espoused that a country like Singapore, with zero natural resources and profound constraints, is transformed into what it is today. Put differently, we may say that it is the ‘soft-authoritarianism’ of the government, as Professor Chan puts it in her talk, with its principled pragmatism that were largely responsible for the Republic’s success, against what appeared to be almost insurmountable odds.

But with the emergence of a younger electorate and the changing political and social scenarios, a tectonic shift appears to be taking place and big government may no longer be prized as highly or even deemed as effective as before. Democracy, as Professor Chan has perceptively pointed out, is after all, elastic. This emergent political sensibility is accompanied by the desire for greater citizen involvement, a shift from big government to a participatory form of democracy. This is surely to be welcomed because it would create the requisite  political ambiance for civil society in Singapore to truly flourish. PM Lee himself explicitly encourages this in his 90-minute session that concludes the IPS conference.

But, interestingly, while Singaporeans now want a greater say in national issues, they still think that the government must continue to play a prominent role. This came across quite clearly in the results of the Prisms project conducted by IPS, which sought ‘to engage the people of Singapore to reflect on the different dimensions of governance and to work towards a future they desire’. Whatever one’s concept of the government might be, the latter still has an important role to play in the life of the nation. But the role of the government has to do not only with the economy and the general wellbeing of the citizens, important though they undoubtedly are. It has to do essentially with the establishment and development of a social order that would ensure that justice and equity prevails.

This brings us back to the Apostle’s teaching in his epistle to the Christians in Rome. One of the ways in which the government maintains social order is of course through the Rule of Law. But to speak of social order is surely to presuppose a certain moral standard, no matter how vague and broad that standard may be. Therefore to say that the role and responsibility of the government is to maintain social order based on justice and equity is to suggest that the government should also take a keen interest in the moral integrity of society.

Of course morality cannot be legislated and there are certainly profound differences between law and morality. But there are also significant overlaps in the relationship that should never be hastily dismissed. Although morality is irreducible to law, there is a profound sense in which sound laws are not possible without morality. To some extent as least, the law is based on the moral values that society affirms and which are then translated into rules for the ordering of the common life. Having been so shaped by moral norms, the law in turn provides the ground and possibility for morality. As theologian Helmut Thielicke has put it, ‘For the state, as the majestic organ of the law, makes ordered existence possible, and this means that it makes ethical existence possible by creating its physical presuppositions’.

In this regard, the representative democracy according to which Singapore has elected to fashion its politics is perhaps the best model of governance to achieve the right balance of a strong government and energetic citizen participation. It is also the model which enables the government to resist the slide to a crude ‘majoritarianism’ or a crass moral populism, and exercise significant leadership that will not only ensure the establishment of social order, but also the preservation of the moral integrity of society. And it is precisely in the exercise of such governance that the state becomes by divine providence a faithful servant of God, even if it does not know his name or acknowledge his sovereignty.


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 Trumpet (TTC).