Tag Archives: governance

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.

Is democracy the best system of government, according to the Christian view?

IT IS IMPORTANT to state at the outset that the Christian faith neither provides an ethos for, nor does it have a stake in any form of political ideology or order, including democracy. Christianity is fundamentally concerned with justice and would support any political system that could ensure it. Indeed, the Church has survived and functioned in almost every conceivable political environment in its long history.

The Neros, Hitlers and Stalins of history have not succeeded in obliterating the Church or in putting out the flames of the Gospel. Even the Cultural Revolution did not succeed in wiping out the Church. Once the smoke cleared, the Christians who were driven underground began to emerge in large numbers. Not only has the Church survived these regimes, it has also, in some cases, succeeded in humanising even the worst political conditions.

Although the Church cannot be said to have a stake in democracy, it would broadly endorse the ideals and values it symbolises and promotes. This does not mean that Christianity requires a democracy, as some Christian thinkers like Michael Novak have argued. Neither does it imply that, as a political system, democracy is flawless or infallible. The Church could endorse the values espoused by democracy simply because they are not inimical to the Church’s understanding of human beings, and its broad vision of the State and human society.

For instance, the Christian concept of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is best understood in light of the command God gave to the first humans to take care of creation (Gen 1:28). This implies that human beings are God’s chosen deputies in the governance of the world. In political culture, this understanding further implies that human beings are always both subjects and citizens, and that no human being should be treated only as a subject.

Christians of every stripe and theological persuasion must therefore endorse the statement promulgated by the World Council of Churches in 1948 that human beings “must never be made a mere means for political or economic ends”. “Any tendencies in State and society depriving man of the possibility of acting responsibly”, it continues, “are a denial of God’s intention for man and his work of salvation.”

Democracy is a system of government that, as least in principle, assures opportunity for citizens to assume part of the responsibility for the future of their common lives in society. A democratic government makes it possible for citizens to change the course of the State when there is a collective sense that it is on the wrong track, or help to keep it on the right track.

Of course, Christians have, in the course of history, exercised this responsibility and succeeded in bringing about changes even in non-democratic political systems. But the point to be made here is that democracy provides the most direct opportunity for citizen participation – it is a system that makes it possible for everyone to contribute. Democracy is perhaps the best system of government currently available for human beings to discharge their duties in response to the divine mandate in Genesis.

The positive Christian appraisal of democracy must, however, be qualified by a healthy dose of theological realism. The Christian doctrine of human finitude implies that no human creation is perfect and flawless. In addition, the Christian doctrine of sin insists that no human enterprise or ideology is incorruptible. This simply means that in its recognition that democracy is the best available system of government, the Church must be careful never to make it into an ultimate. In evaluating the merits of democracy, Christians must take heed of Philip Wogaman’s terse but wise assertion: “It [democracy] is a human thing; it is not God.”

It is pertinent to note that democracy does not always guarantee justice. Democracy in essence is the rule of the majority, although in theory the rights of the minority are respected. This means that when the decisive majority of the populace is dominated by greed or mean-spiritedness, democracy will not always ensure that justice or even fairness will prevail. This further implies that the democratic process does not really ensure that policies are directed at the common good, since the definition of the latter is left to the ruling majority.

A realistic assessment of democracy must be cognisant of the sobering fact that in the history of human civilisation, benevolent monarchs and aristocrats have sometimes served their people better than the representatives elected by the people.

ALSO SOBERING IS THE FACT that democracy has sometimes facilitated evil. Historical examples like McCarthyism in the United States and the Nazi period in Germany, where multitudes are mindlessly swept up in tides of hysteria, are stark reminders of the profound flaws inherent in democracy. Democracy and its institutions have not always succeeded in addressing unhealthy competition that destroys the very fabric of society. Neither have they always succeeded in fostering solidarity and cooperation.

It is therefore naïve to think that democracy and its institutions alone are able to ensure justice and the common good. Democracy as a system of government may be superior to other approaches, but it requires a certain kind of society to provide it with the necessary moral ballast. As Richard John Neuhaus has put it so well, “Politics is in largest part the function of culture, and at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”

A democratic system that truly serves the common good by acknowledging, respecting and protecting the dignity of every citizen requires the moral compass provided by the great religious traditions, especially Christianity. Secularism on its own cannot provide such support simply because it lacks the multifaceted wisdom and rich moral resources that the great religious traditions can offer.

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 Methodist Message.