Tag Archives: Genre: Civility and Society

Common Morality in a World Wounded by Fragmentations

January 2017 Feature

“Get off your moral high horse,” we have heard this phrase thrown by people who think that you have been too demanding when making an ethical judgement or they just do not agree with a stand which you have made. Sometimes this is put differently.

They may appear as a convenient retort, saying “do not impose your moral views on us” usually in an attempt to cut short a conversation on a controversial subject, for example, when dismissing a person who thinks there is valid ground for reviewing the policy on current laws governing abortion.

This kind of reaction is taking an escapist way out of legitimate discussion. It short-circuits calm reasonable debate.

More seriously, however, that kind of attitude may suggest that on matters of morals, it is impossible to find consensus. In other words, morality, to use a phrase borrowed from Alasdair MacIntyre, is too fragmented in our post-enlightenment world that we cannot talk anymore with people who do not share, say, our religious beliefs or world views.

The assertion is that we cannot have any in-depth conversation with those who hold different perspectives on life especially on issues relating to what constitute moral standards deemed to be acceptable for people of differing faiths and those with no religious affiliation.

In many ways when we look at what is happening in our world today where conflicts seem to have escalated and opposing groups try to “settle” disagreement with violence or the imposition of will on other groups, we may have cause to conclude that finding common grounds is like trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Such pessimistic view seem credible enough if we consider the many interlaced factors to explain the surge in violence in our world.

From a historical perspective, we can see that most if not all the conflicts we have witnessed in recent times might have been brought about by a festering combination of combustible conditions, including failure to address dehumanising poverty and political disenfranchisement, worsened by the growing gap of the privileged class and those who are trapped in the quagmire of socio-economic cesspool.

The situation is compounded by the anxiety that it is unlikely that the privileged class will be able to understand fully the plight of, or talk sense with, those who have lived deprived and disadvantaged life.

Invariably, those who are deprived and disadvantaged would harbour suspicion of those who are in direct or indirect control over economic apparatus and tools for creation of wealth both at the national and at the international level. In other words, if there is a pernicious cycle of action and reaction, the violence is not just a response driven by politics of envy, as some might suggest. It has historical root often incubated over a long period of time in misery and a life of despair.

In the wider world scene, when talks have been initiated to resolve issues, such talks appear to be more like courtesy gatherings, a vacuous diplomatic road show, often with no concrete proposal and if there is a semblance of solution, they would be shot down by various legislatures and interest groups or placed at the bottom of a held-in-abeyance tray.

The unfortunate signal from such road show is that the participants seem more absorbed by political posturing and in exercise of political correctness marked by a clear lack of serious dialogue and commitment to find implementable common ground.

When people who are the under-class and marginalised are oppressed or pushed around over a long period of time, frequently crossing different generations, and when talks seem so detached from social reality, the disaffected tend to hit back and they have fought back.

That is why at the international level, this multi-faceted perspective explains in parts the rise of terrorist attacks when no meaningful avenues are open for negotiation and when there is no clear evidence of commitment to listen to each other in search of mutually beneficial and sustainable policies that would generate human flourishing.

In any case, often because of entrenched interest and suspicions, it is extremely difficult to expect trusting conversation to take immediate effect, assuming that we can bring people to the same table.

So while it might be correct to say, as an example, that a particular strand of Islamic teachings might have contributed to the radicalisation of young Muslims who have taken on extreme expression of their faith, might it not also be true that radicalisation is, in part, facilitated by the over-emphasis of an arrogant type of Euro-North American centric liberalism that worships unbridled individual rights aided by a constant persistent push by liberal fundamentalists among them politicians, the academia and those who control the major media who have sought to shut out the views of others or to ridicule them in the name of “progress”?

They underestimated that those who have found solace and strength in time-tested communitarian values would not accept such not-too-subtle cultural imperialism. You cannot legislate and export self-centred values by pushing such values down the throat of others who may not want to receive them.

Clearly fragmentations of the world and violent action and reaction could have been caused by failure to listen to each other and to respect legitimate concerns of different groups of people. Samuel Huntington might be correct after all when he postulated the idea of the clash of civilizations now made more pronounced by the evangelistic zeal of liberal fundamentalists and not just radicalised religious fanatics.

The future may look bleak in a world less than 20 years into the new millennium. The temptation is for observers of social events and human relationships to resign to cynicism.

The cynical response would be an appealing route to take when we think of the relentless march to export Euro-North American individualistic values and rights through the tools of political intervention, legislation, threat of economic sanction, and cultural imperialism on one hand, and the almost inevitable militant reaction from those who refuse to embrace the values unabashedly propagated and pressurise by incessant neo-imperialistic campaign.

So calling for others to “get off the moral high ground” may seem an expedient ploy to divert attention from serious conversation. Portraying the atomistic liberal ideology as progressive and everything else is intolerant if not primitive, only invites backlash because of their neglect of tested traditions which might not have Euro-North American origin and because of the selective preference of how to apply tolerance.

Such attitudes may just end up with none the wiser and we wonder why the seeming spiralling of violence in a world gripped with fear, nihilism, and despair.

There is still an option to help us steer clear of a using a fatalistic lens to look at the world.

It requires humility to recognise that while we may hold dear to a certain well-considered perspective in life, there are still many spheres in life which people of different faiths and those with no recognised religion can still find in what the political philosopher John Rawls describes as over-lapping consensus.

The truth of the matter is that we are all members of over-lapping communities with shared spaces, shared values and shared vision for human well-being, and have to be humble enough to grant that possibility.

From first impression and a casual look, the world is clearly fractious and fragmented.

However, for those who are prepared to invest time for deeper reflection and fair engagement which can be robust and yet civil; and which allows for one to draw on resources from our own faith and philosophy and to recoup common humanity, there is always the possibility of reclaiming common grounds and common morality unless one is an anarchist in the Nietschean sense or one is swayed by a religious apocalyptic vision or a political messianic pretension that is bent on destroying the world as it is, through the use of arms or imposition of will and ideology.

In the realistic approach guided by humility and hope, it does not matter if the result does not meet the complete desire or demand of a particular group, for this is unlikely, so long as the steps taken, views exchanged, or alternative offered provides an acceptable proximation to what one has hoped for and can live with.

In such dialogic conversation, Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature as both free and finite may help us in our search for social well-being. To know our freedom is to appreciate our human potential to find common consensus primarily informed by love and justice. To bear in mind our finitude is to carry with us a warning of our human limitation and proclivity to sin which, if allowed to dominate human social intercourse, can derail our search for a fair and just outcome.

In our Singapore context, we need to be alert to the blatant and subtle infiltration of ideologies, religious and political, which seek to impose their values and self-serving dogmas on our multi-racial, multi-religious society.

It is less likely for any kind of destructive political or religious ideologies to take root and find wide support if the government and people of goodwill work to ensure that no group is disenfranchised because of poverty and neglect, and no group is held up for honourable mention when that group has run away with disproportionate benefits and privileges.

It is also less likely for a society to be irreparably fractured if we do not dismiss without deeper reflection and appreciation our time-tested communitarian vision nourished by our unique mix of ancient rich cultural histories and traditions to be usurped by atomistic individualism. Of course one needs to be careful not to let communitarian benefit become a collectivistic nightmare or communal dictatorship. But this has to be dealt with in a separate essay.

The world is fragmented. But it is not fatal.

There is possibility for people of goodwill which, to avoid being elitist and self-serving, must include people of faith and those with none; the well-educated and the common people; the experts and ordinary workers; to listen to each other, to work for and reclaim common morality and vision for the well-being of our own society.


rev-dr-daniel-koh_cambridgewesley


Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon, an ordained minister of the Methodist Church is a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel. He is interested in social ethical issues and how the Christian faith may contribute to enhancing community well-being. This interest is reflected in his occasional reflective essays and his active involvement in the social outreach ministry of the Methodist Welfare Services where he is currently serving as its Chairperson. He is also been a member of an Ethics Committee of a major restructured hospital, as well as a member of a Central Institutional Review Board.

Civilisation and Barbarism

November 2015 Pulse

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that “violence has been in decline for long stretches of time” and that “we may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence.”

Describing the 800-page tome as a “masterly achievement”, the Princeton ethicist Peter Singer declares that not only has Pinker convincingly demonstrated “that there has been a decline in violence”, he is also “persuasive about its causes”. The establishment media in the USA has also welcomed Better Angels, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

However, Pinker’s bold statements and his almost nonchalant narrative of progress have been subjected to sharp criticisms by social scientists and historians. Pinker’s assumptions about human nature and his philosophical commitments must also be subjected to rigorous theological evaluation.

Pinker argues that since 1945, the “great powers” that fought each other in the Second World War have not made war with each other. While this is basically correct, Pinker goes on to make the highly dubious claim that not only have the democracies avoided disputes with each other, they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board”.

Pinker appears to have ignored the numerous and devastating wars conducted by his own country since 1945: in North and South Korea (1950 – 1953), Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (1854 -1975), and more recently in Iraq (1990 till present) and Afghanistan (2001 till present). If we add to the list the numerous assassinations, sanctions, bombings and invasions conducted by the USA post-1945, the ludicrousness of Pinker’s assertion is magnified.

That Pinker’s discussion on violence in the book is skewed is clearly evidenced in his treatment of the Vietnam War. Ever the enemy of communism, Pinker lays the devastation and the carnage of Vietnam firmly on the shoulders of the communist regimes “that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents”.

But Pinker offers no critique of the violence and aggression of the invaders. Nor does he reflect on how one of the “great democracies” can so seriously violate the laws of war by waging a war on a distant land that claimed the lives of more than 800,000 civilians. Also absent from Pinker’s account is the unconscionable use of chemical warfare by the U.S. (1961-1970) and the three million Vietnamese, including 500,000 children, that suffered from the toxic effects of the chemicals as a result.

Some commentators have rightly discerned that Better Angels is a patriotic re-writing of history and the use of sources that would aid this re- writing. An evidence of this is Pinker’s use of statistics. For example, he prefers to rely on the report published by the Iraq Body Count (IBC) which suggests that 53,373 Iraqis died from violence between March 2003 and July 2006, instead of the more authoritative study by Johns Hopkins which reported a death toll that is eleven times higher at 601,000.

But his patriotism aside, Pinker’s revisionism is chiefly inspired by
two important ideologies that have shaped his entire intellectual outlook: liberal humanism and Darwinian evolutionism.

Pinker argues that it was the “coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment” that put an end to the influence of “violent institutions”. Among the many patron saints of the Enlightenment, Pinker names Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and John Stuart Mill.

The broad brush with which Pinker paints obscures the fact that apart from some broadly shared assumptions, we cannot say that these disparate thinkers have engendered anything like a “coherent philosophy”.

And we most definitely cannot insist, as Pinker does, that these Enlightenment rationalists and their followers categorically rejected the use of violence for social transformation. Think of the Jacobins and their Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, who were responsible for innumerable beheadings and other acts of violence.

Pinker’s commitment to evolutionary theory has led him to entertain the possibility that “in recent history Homo Sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a change in our genome.” Evolution has caused “the better angels of our nature” to emerge (an expression which Pinker borrowed from Abraham Lincoln).

These assumptions must be challenged from the standpoint of Christian anthropology, especially its doctrine of sin, which presents a more realistic assessment of the human condition. According to the Christian tradition, although fallen human beings continue to be bearers of the divine image, that image is distorted and defaced because of sin.

The idea of progress promoted by liberal humanism is a myth. Human beings will always be seriously flawed, and even the most civilised society is capable of barbarism.


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 originally published in the June 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

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.

The Limits of Freedom

October 2015 Pulse

On a chilly January morning this year, two heavily-armed Islamic terrorists barged into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris and fired 50 shots, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar” (“God is the greatest”) in an attack that was a violent retaliation to the weekly’s denigrating cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Charlie Hebdo incident has sparked one of the most ferocious debates in recent memory on the most sacrosanct of all human rights in Western societies, namely, the freedom of speech – and its corollary, the freedom of the press.

In response to the horrific massacre, French President François Hollande reportedly said: “An act of exceptional barbarism has just been committed here in Paris against a newspaper – a newspaper, i.e. the expression of freedom – and against journalists who had always wanted to show that in France they could always work to uphold their ideas and to enjoy the very freedom the Republic protects.”

While it is inconceivable that anyone would endorse the unconscionable and murderous brutality of the terrorists, Hollande’s defence of an unbridled exercise of freedom must be subjected to interrogation and criticism.

At the heart of the debate on freedom, especially freedom of speech, is whether there are or should be limits. Are there certain things that cannot be said, or circumstances in which things cannot be said?

Without doubt, the clearest articulation of freedom of expression as a basic human right is found in Article 19 of the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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.”

In Western societies, freedom of expression and that of the press are deemed indispensable for the ‘three Ds’: Development, Democracy and Dialogue. Once freedom is constrained, these ‘three Ds’ – so important to progress and human flourishing – would also be greatly hampered.

However, to champion the freedom of expression is surely not to suggest that its exercise is unlimited. There is something incredibly naïve – even vulgar – about the insistence on the right to exercise unbridled freedom that has reverberated in the heated rhetoric surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The fundamental issue in the Charlie Hebdo incident concerning freedom of speech, then, is that a distortion has been inadvertently created because the importance of this basic right has been exaggerated.

Such exaggerations are not just the predilection of the French. It is given voice by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who in his Declaration of Independence wrote that “the freedom of speech is the greatest good in a free democratic society and prevails over the other constitutional rights”.

But freedom can never be the only or the greatest virtue, and its protection cannot mean that other equally important virtues without which society cannot hold – like truth, justice and respect – must be set aside.

Respecting the right of individuals to express their views does not mean that society should no longer be concerned for the truth, for what is right and wrong. Without a moral compass, the diversity of opinions and viewpoints expressed in freedom will become nothing but ‘noise’. And the very truth that the freedom of speech is supposed to help society arrive at will be obfuscated by such ‘noise’.

Similarly, the emphasis on the basic human right to free speech must be placed alongside the equally important imperative that we respect the beliefs of others. Respect for freedom of expression and respect for the religious beliefs and symbols of others are not in conflict but work together for the common good.

Thus, Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) states that
“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Put differently, there are limits to the exercise of freedom. And it is only in recognising that boundaries are intrinsic elements to freedom, and that human relationships must also be shaped by other virtues, that society can truly flourish.

Charlie Hebdo has clearly transgressed those limits.

Perhaps our understanding of the meaning of freedom would deepen and mature when we appeal to not just the language of rights but also the language of responsibility. When this happens, freedom is not seen only as our basic right to do as we please or say what we want.

When the language of responsibility is commandeered, our understanding of freedom becomes other-oriented instead of self-centred: we are freed from our own self- absorption, and we begin to learn to love, respect and serve our neighbour with our freedom.

This basic Christian understanding of freedom – as freedom from sin and freedom for service – will surely add depth to the sometimes superficial secular accounts of liberty inspired by an atomised individualism.


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 originally published in the May 2015 issue of the Methodist Message.

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.