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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.

Mind the Gap

November 2015 Pulse

In his speech during the 2011 Presidential Address Debate, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong alluded to the rising income inequality in Singapore when he said: ‘the most successful Singaporeans will continue to do very well. The average Singaporeans will be able to make improvements in their lives and are much better off than people in most other countries. But at the lower end, incomes have risen slowly, especially in real terms.’

Scholars have been tracking the rising income inequality in Singapore for more than ten years, taking their cue from the Gini co-efficient and other income inequality metrics like the Palma or Hoover indices. Although this trend is a matter of concern for some, what is perhaps even more worrying is that it is accompanied by wage stagnations and slowing social mobility.

This phenomenon is, of course, not unique to Singapore. The United States and many countries in the European Union are experiencing rise in inequality, as are developed Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.

But as some scholars have pointed out, ‘What makes Singapore’s inequality picture stand out is the speed at which it has increased as well as the level which it has increased to.’

In responding to this issue, it is crucial to see that not all forms of inequality are unnatural or unjust. While all human beings created in the image and likeness of God are equally loved and valued by their Creator, each is given unique talents and abilities. And in this life, these talents and abilities carry unequal rewards, one of which is income.

Income inequality is therefore a fact of economic life. It should be pointed out that far from being unjust, some income inequality is actually the sign of fair distribution of income based on factors such as abilities, experience, productivity and work ethic. Thus, a society that ignores these factors and pays everyone equally may be said to be unjust.

This means that income inequality per se is not the problem. Neither can it be regarded as an indication of the economic health of a country.

The Gini co-efficient, which is often used to measure income inequality, does not present a reliable picture of the economic flourishing of a country. For instance, it tells us nothing about its living standards.

Take, for example, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, two very different countries that had the same Gini index of 0.31 in 2010. While these two countries had the same level of income inequality, their per capita incomes were vastly different: US$1,693 in Bangladesh and US$42,183 in the Netherlands.

If inequality is not the problem, what is? The simple answer is poverty.

Armatya Sen defines poverty as a condition of having less than what is required to function. Notice that poverty is not defined as a condition of having less than others. Sen’s definition underscores the important distinction between income inequality and poverty: there can be income inequality without poverty.

Is there poverty in Singapore?

Singapore does not have an official poverty line. But in a 2011 study, which used household income of S$1,250 to S$1,500 per month as the poverty line, it was estimated that 10 to 12 per cent or 110,000 to 140,000 Singapore resident households fall below the mark. A 2008 study, which set the poverty line at S$1,500 per month, arrived at the same ballpark figure of 130,000 to 150,000 Singapore resident households.

Although income inequality alone is not an issue, extreme inequality mixed with poverty makes for a lethal cocktail for any country.

This is precisely the challenge that Singapore is currently facing.

As the report on domestic poverty published by The Lien Centre for Social Innovation and SMU School of Social Sciences states: ‘Rising inequality does not necessarily denote the existence of poverty. However, rising inequality combined with evidence of poverty indicates that the poor are left behind, and this appears to be what is happening in Singapore.’

In addition, extreme inequality plus poverty can arouse an amorphous but real sense of antipathy towards prevailing economic and political policies, which in turn can threaten social stability.

Singapore must therefore focus on helping the poor.

The Bible has much to say about God’s preferential option for the poor. The people of God are enjoined to take care of the poor, the vulnerable and the unprotected (Deut 16:11-12; Exodus 22:21-27, Isa 1:16-17). There is a profound sense in which the justice of a society is tested by the way it treats the disadvantaged.

Justice to the poor is not about eradicating income inequality (even if that were possible) but about ensuring that they are not forgotten, that their conditions are improved.

The Singapore Government has always understood this. Its fiscal policies are designed in such a way that lower income citizens receive most of the benefits while higher income earners pay most of the tax revenues.

But helping the poor does not only have to do with the distribution of resources. The question that must also be asked is: Do the people at the bottom of the economic ladder have opportunities to move up that ladder? Or are they hopelessly trapped, no matter what they do?

The Government is well aware of the importance of social mobility. It has put numerous measures in place, such as education, home ownership and skills upgrading, to ensure that mobility is not thwarted.

As a result, in Singapore 14 per cent of young adults from families in the poorest one-fifth of income earners have moved into the top one-fifth of income earners compared to 7.5 per cent in the US and 9 per cent in the UK. The Government understands that meritocracy requires a society in which fair equality of opportunity is satisfied.

However, due to a confluence of factors sustaining such fluidity in the future would be more and more challenging.

Singapore is well placed to meet these challenges. Thanks to the leadership of its late founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his exceptional colleagues, Singapore has established a social compact that has served the country well.

And although this compact needs to be tweaked and enhanced, the principles upon which it was established – individual responsibility, self-reliance, economic growth, jobs for all and a security system based on savings and home ownership – continue to be sound.

But helping the poor and addressing the discrimination and stratification that inequality can engender is the responsibility of every member of society.

As Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has put it, ‘we must preserve a sense of compact among Singaporeans, a sense of obligation on the part of those who are doing well to help others in their own society. We cannot build an inclusive society without the spirit of inclusiveness. It is not just a matter of getting the right policies.’

SG50 should not only be an occasion for celebrating past and present successes. It should also be an occasion for Singaporeans from all walks of life to renew their resolve to stand in solidarity and to work together for the common good and build a better future for all.


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 Trumpet.