Tag Archives: cultural

Returning to Basics on SG50?

December 2015 Feature Article

In her inimitable style as one of Singapore’s leading writers of fiction and non-fiction, Catherine Lim [1] offers articles that might allude to the political mood of a young nation that has almost come of age. In her oft-witty and politically nuanced contributions, interspersed movingly with her own reminiscences, Catherine Lim also shares some of the aspirations and fears of what it is going to be like for the next 50 years for Singapore. One article in particular gives a foreboding scenario of Singapore’s 80th anniversary celebrations set in the alarming context of the China Co-Prosperity Sphere, hence putting to rest any remnant ‘Western’ hegemonic influence.

Nevertheless significant questions remain in my mind about Singapore’s future. What sort of nation do we wish to see, now that we have entered the post Lee Kuan Yew era? What sort of politics should we practise, in view of the nascent but increasingly credible opposition movement? How do we maintain the level of apparent sophistication that has been built up in the short time of practically one generation since the 1960s, with their concomitant high expectations and demands?

I often take heart, as an accidental emigrant who left Singapore in 1986 and having visited the island on countless occasions since, that Lee Kin Mun (otherwise affectionately known as “Mr Brown”) often captures the current political mood of Singapore. From this enduring satirist and lyricist comes the latest song in celebration of SG50, though with a slight sardonic tone about loyalty, and a characteristic refrain:

“We are an island … we’re a city … we’re a nation … just getting started …”

Is Singapore as a young nation really just getting started? Starting from what and where? Are we not deluding ourselves in thinking that we are a first-world country and truly a miracle or exception in a so-called third world context? [2] Should we, as a highly secular and deeply materialistic society, not return to some sort of basics so as to help us reflect critically on our journey? What has the Church to offer in such challenging socio-political, economic and cultural circumstances where our values are intricately shaped?

In his magisterial yet accessible style, Rowan Williams [3] challenges us about our calling as Christian disciples, having already been blessed with the restoration of our humanity through our baptism with Christ. In a real sense, he strongly encourages us to return to basics. Drawing on the important imagery from the Old Testament and more importantly, from the life and ministry of Jesus, how are we to act as Christians in today’s world and how do we engage with its messy reality? For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a three-fold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptised person, the Christian, identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human.

First, what does it mean to be a prophet? Old Testament prophets generally do not just tell about the future; they act and speak to call the people of Israel back to their own essential truth and identity. They act and they speak for the sake of a community’s integrity, its faithfulness as to who it is really meant to be. The prophets were constantly saying to Israel: “Don’t you remember who you are? Don’t you remember what God has called you to be? Here you are, sitting down comfortably with all kinds of inequality, injustice and corruption in your society. Have you completely forgotten what you’re here for?” The prophet spoke truth to power at the heart of the Establishment, and in the New Testament John the Baptist paid with his own life. They were not afraid to rock the boat!

Williams goes on to say that in reflecting the life of Jesus, we who are Christians need to exercise our minds and critical faculty, we need to question and uncomfortably, we need to be prophetic with one another. We need to be constantly reminding one another what we are here for. “What do you see? What’s your vision?” Who are you really accountable to?”

More importantly, the prophetic role of the church cannot be underestimated. We need to continue questioning the assumptions on which our society is currently based. “What’s that for?” “Why do we take that for granted?” So in the wake of the SG50 celebrations, when the euphoria has somewhat subsided, and when the reality sets in with another commuting day in over-crowded MRT trains, might we ask if there’s really no limit to efficiency and productivity in an island city-state with no natural resources? Hence the need for the Church to be extra vigilant and prophetic as it has always been throughout the ages, and dare I say that a truly prophetic church is a truly growing (I do not mean simply numerical growth) church!

Secondly, what does it mean to assume the priestly role? In the Old Testament, a priest is someone (usually a man in those ancient times) who interprets God and humanity to each other. He is someone who builds bridges between God and humanity, especially when that relationship has been wrecked. He is someone, in the very traditional understanding of priesthood, who by offering sacrifice to God (through the Eucharist) re-creates a shattered relationship. We who are baptised Christians are therefore drawn into the ‘priestliness’ of Jesus; we are called upon to mend shattered relationships between God and the world, through the power of Christ and his Spirit. It is a deeply Trinitarian task.

We are in the business of building bridges and we seek to be peacemakers, not trouble makers, living in hope to rebuild situations where there is suspicion and prejudice, lack of respect and integrity, damage and disorder. This naturally includes our environment, Mother Earth, and all our personal and social relationships, as well as our ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. Again, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has died down, when the reality sets in with construction and other projects that need to be completed let alone on time, how might we continue to accommodate the aspirations of the ‘foreign’ worker whose labour and sacrifice has much contributed to Singapore’s success? At a time when many countries have allowed immigration-related issues to ride on populist politics, how might we continue to build bridges between the ‘indigenous’ Singaporean and the ‘other’ in a confined space that appears over-populated? What has the biblical experience of the exile to offer the Church in this regard, bearing in mind the migrant foundations of Singapore society?

Thirdly, how does Christian discipleship bear the hallmark of kingship or royalty? In ancient Israel, the king was someone who spoke for others to God. Though the king also had a sort of priestly role, the king had the freedom to shape the law of the land and the justice of his society. He could make justice a reality or not a reality, though many kings had failed to follow God’s path and went on their own ways. The king, who had power and authority if used rightly and wisely, was meant to uphold the cause of the poor and lowly, and doing justice for the needy. In the process, Williams maintains, the king will know God! By directing and shaping human society in the path of God’s justice, we seek to show in our relationships and engagement with the world something of God’s own freedom, God’s desire for peoples and the nations to heal and to restore.

So, in the wake of the SG50 celebrations when the euphoria has finally dissipated, and when the reality once again sets in with the ever urgent need to care for those who have been marginalised by the years of relentless drive towards success, how might the predominantly sleek, affluent and middle-class Singaporean Church address such an injustice? What might we do to reflect truly the justice of God in situations of hidden poverty, the problem of long-term affordability of health and social care, and the viability of old age living in the midst of ever increasing costs of living and almost non-existent welfare benefits, and a fragile nation-state in a sea of geopolitical uncertainties?

Williams aptly summarises the essential basis of our Christian discipleship for the contemporary world:

‘So the [baptised] life of a Christian is a life that gives us the resource and strength to ask awkward but necessary questions of one another and of our world. It is a life that looks towards reconciliation, building bridges, repairing broken relationships. It is a life that looks towards justice and liberty, the liberty to work together to make human life in society some kind of reflection of the wisdom and order and justice of God’.

However, Williams rightly adds a word of caution as to how we should approach this three-fold identity. If we are only prophets, then we fall into the danger of being constantly negative in our dealings with each other and the world; we could in fact fall from being critical into being too cynical. If we are only priestly, then we get too caught up with wanting to achieve reconciliation without the due process of asking the right questions; we want to hurry on to the end of the story and not bother too much with the difficult middle bit, the process of questioning. And, if we are only concerned with kingship and royal freedom and justice, we would be in danger of constantly thinking about control and problem-solving. The Christian disciple, to be whole, needs to embody all three aspects that Jesus himself had embraced in his own life and ministry. The three become integral parts of one life, not just bits of our individual and corporate calling. I much believe that these three aspects of our Christian calling must be further honed through our willing engagement with the messiness of life.

Given that Singapore has always prided itself as a meritocratic and pragmatic society, built on seemingly harmonious but rather tenuous inter-cultural and inter-ethnic relationships, the call is ever more urgent for its Church to be truly prophetic, priestly and bearing the marks of royalty to a young nation-state stepping into an unknown future.


Andy LieAndy Lie (TTC Alumnus, 1986) is of Indonesian Chinese origin but grew up in Singapore from the late 1950s onwards. A long-standing Reader in the Diocese of Newcastle, Church of England, he is currently part-time Ecumenical Officer for the Northern Synod of the United Reformed Church. He and his family have now lived in the UK for almost 30 years. He has experience in inter-faith relations, and has also worked in the health service, and university and voluntary sectors.


Notes:

[1] Catherine Lim, Roll Out the Champagne, Singapore! An exuberant celebration of the nation’s 50th birthday. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014.

[2] “The Singapore Exception: A Special Report.” The Economist, July 18th-24th 2015.

[3] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible Eucharist, Prayer. London: SPCK, 2014. Please see especially Chapter 1, and I am indebted to Williams for the summary of his thoughts in what follows.

What’s Wrong with Human Rights

One of the great achievements of the previous century is the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The Declaration was composed soon after the end of the Second World War when experiences of the horrific carnage are still fresh in the collective memories of its crafters.

Translated into at least 375 languages and dialects, the UDHR is established on the philosophical premise that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (Article 1). It emphasises that ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status’ (Article 2). As I have argued elsewhere, Christians should have no difficulties accepting the fundamental principles enshrined in the UDHR because they enjoy broad scriptural warrant and endorsement.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the language of rights alone is not sufficient to encourage civility in modern society. The right to freedom of expression is a case in point. Article 19 of the UDHR reads: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

That the insistence on such rights alone is unable to foster social cohesion and ensure civility in our multicultural societies is brought to our attention by the furore over the publication in 2006 of the notorious cartoons of the prophet Mohammed by the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. Amidst protests and criticisms by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the paper staunchly defends his decision with this terse statement: ‘We do not apologise for printing the cartoons. It was our right to do so’.

A very different and more recent incident brings to the fore the same problem concerning the inadequacies of the exclusive use of the language of rights in society. It concerns the proposal to build an Islamic Centre and mosque near Ground Zero in New York City. Critics of the project argue that building an Islamic Centre just two blocks away from the World Trade Centre, the site of the 9/11 attacks is a blatant insult to the victims of the terror attacks that were perpetrated in the name of Islam.

In a speech at a White House dinner celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, U.S. President Barack Obama defended the project by appealing to the rights of Muslims to practise their religion: ‘But let me be clear, as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practise their religion as anyone else in this country … That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.’ Obama’s statement is supported by Article 18 of the UDHR that deals with the question of religious freedom.

Both these examples illustrate the fact that rights alone are insufficient for civilising societies. This is especially true in modern liberal societies where the language of rights is often embedded in a cultural ethos shaped by secularism and individualism. If human rights are to be properly understood, other values must also be brought into the picture. Put differently, human rights discourse must be located within a broader and more robust ethical matrix. It is my view that an account of human rights must be anchored by an ethics of obligation. Any human right, it must be pointed out, has as its counterpart some obligation. In fact, it is interesting to note that in the history of moral philosophy, theories of obligations antedate theories of rights.

It is therefore useful to think of the priority of obligations over rights. As Simone Weil has put it so perceptively in her book, The Need for Roots: ‘The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinated and relative to the former.’  It is perhaps beneficial for society to provide a counter-balance to its excessive appeal to the language and rhetoric of human rights by giving more attention to moral obligations.

Moral obligation is in fact stressed in Article 10 of the UDHR which states that the exercise of freedoms carries with it duties and responsibilities. The sense of moral obligation introduces sanity to the modern emphasis on rights. In the case of the derogatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, the emphasis on moral obligation would mean that the rights of free speech and expression must be limited and constrained by other important considerations, not least the obligation to respect other rights and the rights of others. The sense of moral obligation would keep the emphasis on the freedom of speech sane and civil by insisting that freedom does not confer an unconditional licence to intimidate, insult or incite hatred.

The ethics of obligation also brings with it an important corrective to the stark individualism that frames modern human rights discourse. The concept of obligation implies relationality and community – the relationship between the ‘obligation bearers’ and their ‘beneficiaries’, so to speak. And it is precisely on this critical issue that Obama’s White House speech disappoints.

Although Obama did allude to the sensitive nature of the proposed Islamic Centre near Ground Zero, the emphasis of his speech was mainly on the rights of Muslims. Even when he made a swift but clumsy about-turn later (which his office roundly denies) due to mounting criticisms of his endorsement of the project, his emphasis is still misplaced: ‘I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.’  The weight is still placed on rights when it should be placed on moral obligations.

The Christian ethic of love requires that concern for one’s moral obligations towards others (i.e., their interests and the rights) be given priority over one’s own interests and rights. It is on the basis of the Christian ethic of love that we should understand Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians: ‘Each of you should not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others’ (Phil 2:4). For it is only in serving one another in this way that the interests, rights and welfare of everyone are taken seriously and respected.


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).