Tag Archives: compassionate

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.

A Good Death?

May 2015 Feature Article

Many reasons are being offered to support making euthanasia (meaning “good death”) and assisted suicide legal. Some arise from sensitivity to the suffering of terminally ill patients, who desire to end their sufferings by speeding up their death through medical intervention. On the surface, it seems the most compassionate action that society can take to allow this. However, there are serious problems that require careful consideration.

Firstly, there is the question of suicide. In assisted suicide, the patient voluntarily takes his life. Hence the term “suicide” is used, as it was by Singapore’s Minister of Health in 2008. In many societies, including Singapore, suicide is an offence. While social values may be changing, suicide is still prohibited by the law, and for good reasons. The underlying logic, whether legally, socially or religiously expressed, is that the right to life cannot be extrapolated to the right to die. Life is sacred and one does not have the freedom to take one’s own life, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. This was echoed in 2002 by the European Court of Human Rights in its interpretation of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Proponents of euthanasia argue that patients have the absolute right to exercise autonomy. Even so, can a patient make a free and voluntary decision? In the first place, he depends on information regarding diagnosis and prognosis given to him by doctors whose knowledge is not perfect. Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in his lecture to the Singapore Medical Association in 2013, rightly cited the case of Singapore lawyer Suzanne Chin who was diagnosed with brain stem death. Her husband was advised by doctors to “pull the plug” but against all odds she recovered completely and is well.

When doctors are involved in the decision making, there is potential conflict of interest. Patients may also depend on information from the internet which may be misleading. In addition, patients may make their decisions in a state of depression, and if treated, studies show that they may think differently. There is also potential pressure on the patient from family and care-givers, and society at large.

Secondly, there is the problem of murder. Physicians are asked to be involved in euthanasia and assisted suicide, an involvement that would contravene the nature, identity and ethics of the medical profession. For more than 2000 years, physicians have held to the principles of the Hippocratic Oath: the goal of medicine is to heal, care, and bring relief. Harming patients or killing them is strongly prohibited. The World Medical Association has, over the years, repeatedly stated that euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are unethical and contrary to the practice of medicine. In its most recent statement in 2013, it reiterates the call for “physicians to refrain from participating in euthanasia, even if national law allows it or decriminalizes it under certain conditions.” The doctor-patient relationship which is based on trust would be adversely affected if physician-assisted suicide is allowed.

The medical profession will be under pressure to attend to patients who want assisted suicide. Though the involvement of doctors is voluntary, there is no guarantee that it will be strictly so, especially if there is pressure from superiors or from one’s institution. Dr Christoph Hufeland, Goethe’s doctor, articulated it well in 1806: “The physician should and may do nothing else but preserve life. Whether it is valuable or not, that is none of his business. If he once permits such considerations to influence his actions, the doctor will become the most dangerous man in the state.”

Some argue that the practice of euthanasia can be well-regulated to prevent abuse. But actual experience proves otherwise. Sundaresh Menon notes: “These concerns are not to be dismissed as patently fanciful. One study shows that whereas legal restrictions and safeguards have been enacted wherever euthanasia or assisted suicide has been legalised, these have been ‘regularly ignored and transgressed’ often without prosecution…”

Thirdly, allowing euthanasia and assisted suicide would have negative social consequences. There would be a widening of its application.

In Belgium, legislation was passed in early 2014 to extend euthanasia to children who can request for it if they are “in great pain” and no treatment is available. Not only is this open to abuse (for studies show that many doctors have been practising euthanasia without following the rules), but it will be a door to many more applications. In the Netherlands, one need not be terminally ill to be euthanized. That one cannot have a “livable life” is ground enough, as the Groningen Protocol (which allows infant euthanasia) shows.

Recently, a court in Belgium granted the request by a prisoner for assisted suicide. He is imprisoned for murder and rape and has pleaded to be put to death because of mental anguish caused by his violent impulses. It is significant that he is not suffering from terminal illness or physical pain but from mental anguish. Will this open the flood gates to those who are in a similar situation?

Terminally ill patients would not be able to escape pressure, either imposed by others or by themselves, to seek death and not trouble their loved ones and care givers or incur significant medical costs. In the longer term, legalising euthanasia would shape our society and affect the way we look at ourselves, and how we care for the vulnerable. It has been noted, for example, that hospices are not as well developed in the Netherlands (where euthanasia is legal) as in other European nations. A social mindset that has a “cure or kill” solution would have inadequate space to explore the responsibility to care for the dying and to help them die with dignity. It would affect private and public conscience and alter our society where utilitarianism will dominate and social responsibilities will diminish.

Some use pragmatic economic reasons to argue for euthanasia. However, economic concerns should not be used to support euthanasia. Patients’ lives should not be shortened simply because they occupy hospital beds or it costs money to care for them. We cannot reduce the value of human life to dollars and cents. If we do, we reduce human dignity and value and will think likewise about those who are considered a “burden” to society.

How, then, can we care for the dying? How can we help people dying painfully and feeling that their continuing suffering is pointless and meaningless? The solution of offering euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide has many serious moral and practical problems, a situation where the medicine offered is worse than the malady. A study in Holland showed that in 10% of euthanasia and 30% of assisted suicide, untoward complications arose. They included patients who recovered from an induced coma, vomiting and fits, and technical problems with administering the lethal substance.

Our response to such patients should be one of compassion. There are two points that will help us enable people in such situations to receive compassion and care and die with dignity, without resorting to solutions that will end up with patients taking their own lives or physicians being asked to terminate their lives. It is humane to want to do something to help someone who is suffering. However, euthanasia and assisted suicide are not as humane as they may seem. Pope John Paul II observed that in reality, “what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely seem to be senseless and inhumane”.

We should not seek to eliminate the sufferings of a person by eliminating him. There are better and more humane and ethical ways.

Firstly, we have the Advanced Medical Directive. This allows people to express their wish that should they be terminally ill, that “heroic” but futile medicine be excluded in their treatment so that their lives are not artificially and needlessly prolonged. This is different from speeding up death through suicide or homicide. It is a decision that can be rationally and carefully taken before the storm of pain and suffering that may mark terminal illness and cloud judgement.

Secondly, palliative medicine is being significantly improved and offers dying patients relief of pain and compassionate care that enables them to travel the last stage of their lives with dignity and in the company of caregivers. As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.

Palliative medicine must be mainlined to become part of the normal course of health care. As a medical science and art it must be further developed and offered to all who are dying, so that they can die comfortably and in dignity as recipients of compassionate care.

As a society, we should promote palliative medicine and find ways to care for the dying, thus emphasising the dignity of persons and a society that takes responsibility to care not only for the living but also the dying.


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Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. Dr Solomon has degrees in medicine, theology, intercultural studies, and a PhD in pastoral theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has contributed many articles to books, theological dictionaries and journals and authored 20 books, including ‘The Race’, ‘The Conscience’, ‘The Enduring Word’, ‘The Virtuous Life’, ‘The Sermon of Jesus’ and ‘Apprenticed to Jesus’. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.