Tag Archives: inequality

In-Vitro Gametogenesis

June 2018 Pulse

In its May 18, 2017 issue, The Straits Times reported that researchers in Japan have succeeded in creating viable eggs from the skin cells of adult female mice. Using a technique known as in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG), the team led by Professor Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyushu University in Fukouka was able to create eggs ‘outside the mouse’ for the first time.

IVG is used to generate sperm and egg cells in a petri dish from adult or pluripotent cells that are capable of becoming any cell type in the body. This includes embryonic stem cells (in this case, induced pluripotent stem cells or IPS cells) that are found in the blastocyst or zygote. Scientists believe that these cells may have therapeutic potentials, such as treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, scientists are able to derive sperm-like and egg-like cells from murine (mouse) embryonic stem cells (mESCs). It has been reported that a live offspring has been produced after fertilizing natural mouse eggs with sperm-like cells derived from mESCs.

Although progress in humans has been slow, scientists believe that not very far down the road, the success that they have had with mice can be replicated in humans. As Glenn Cohen, Eli Adashi and George Daley state in their paper on IVG: ‘These findings suggest that experimental refinements likely will permit derivation of functional eggs and sperm from [human stem cells] in the not too distant future’.

There are a number of foreseeable applications of IVG.

This technique would enable scientists to study human gametogenesis (that is, the formation of gametes) in vitro as well as diseases of the germline. The technique would also enable scientists to create a vast supply of gametes that can be used either for research or fertility treatment. Finally, it will enable scientists to genetically manipulate the human germline.

As Léa Suruge puts it, IVG has the potential to redefine ‘the notion of what is possible in reproductive and regenerative medicine, as it opens up the possibility of creating human sperm and eggs from induced pluripotent stem cells’.

For example, patients whose reproductive functions have been lost – for instance, because of chemotherapy – could possibly have a child through IVG. Furthermore, when used together with the rapidly advancing genome editing techniques, future scientists and physicians could root out inherited diseases even before fertilization.

However, despite these exciting prospects IVG does present scientists and ethicists with very grave ethical and social concerns. Even the seemingly positive application of IVG may prove deeply vexing for policy makers, ethicists and society.

Take the production of gametes, for instance. As Cohen, et al., have perceptively pointed out, ‘There’s something troubling about an inexhaustible supply of gametes that can be fertilised into an inexhaustible supply of embryos’.

With its potential of creating an almost unlimited supply of eggs or embryos, IVG may raise the sceptre of embryo farming and commercialisation on a scale that is hitherto unprecedented. From the standpoint of Christian ethics, this would result in the unconscionable devaluation of human life.

In addition, because of the ease with which embryos can be created by this method, parents (especially wealthy ones) could opt to generate scores of embryos from which to select the ‘best’ for implantation. ‘IVG could’, write Cohen et al., ‘depending on its ultimate financial cost, greatly increase the number of embryos from which to select, thus exacerbating concerns about parents selecting for their “ideal” future child’.

The ‘rejects’ would either be destroyed or used for research (which would result in their eventual destruction).

When IVG is seen within the framework of the so-called Principal of Procreative Beneficence (PB), the outcome is nothing less that a form of disguised eugenics.

According to Hannah Bourne, Thomas Douglas and Julian Savulescu, PB ‘holds that when a couple plans to have a child, they have significant moral reason to select, of the possible children they could have, the child who is most likely to experience the greatest wellbeing – that is, the most advantaged child, the child with the best chance at the best life’.

Among the ethical objections to PB (and there are many), arguably the most serious is that it creates a eugenics mindset – an ‘arms-race’ as parents iteratively seek to ensure that their child is not placed at a competitive disadvantage.

There are also other serious ethical and social concerns surrounding IVG that must not be ignored. For instance, it could change the meaning of parenting and the received and conventional structure of the family.

IVG could result in ‘single-parent babies’ (not to be confused with single parenting). The cells from a man or a woman could be used to create both sperm and egg that could result in a baby. Such a baby would have only one genetic parent.

Although with the current state of the technology it is unclear whether this will in fact be possible, but if it were possible serious ethical and social implications are not difficult to imagine. Furthermore, it is also not clear if such single-parent babies would have the same health issues that arise from having closely related parents.

IVG would also allow older women to become a parent. Many of these women chose to delay pregnancy in order to pursue their career or find the right partner. Once the technique is perfected, IVG would be a more convenient way to achieve this than social egg freezing, which require the painful and dangerous process of egg procurement.

But there are serious ethical and social implications for women who choose to be mothers in their 40s, 50s and 60s. These issues have to do with the ability of these older mothers to properly nurture their young children and also the burdens their children may be subjected to.

Finally, because IVG enables scientists to generate egg and sperm cells from cells obtained from shed skin flakes, it might be possible for people to become parents without even knowing it. Again this raises serious and profound ethical and social concerns that must not be ignored.

As a ‘frontier biotechnology’, IVG would be accessible only to the wealthy in technologically advanced countries. This would exacerbate the already widening inequality in medicine and healthcare.

It is impossible to put a halt to this developing technology. The therapeutic potentials would spur scientists to pursue this technology to its very limits. Policy makers would be more inclined to introduce rigorous safeguards and protocols rather than imposing a ban or even a moratorium.

But, as experience has repeatedly taught us, international protocols and safeguards, important though they are, are unable to prevent transgressions and abuses that have serious social consequences.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

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.

Solidarity and Social Justice

April 2016 Pulse

In an article entitled, ‘Social Justice in Singapore: Some Personal Reflections’, Tommy Koh argues that Singapore is both a social just and a socially unjust society.

For Koh, Singapore is a socially just society because of the following reasons: basic human needs are met; women are not discriminated against; the rule of law is implemented with equity; the absence of racial and religious discrimination; every Singaporean has the right to education; and society is run according to the principle of meritocracy.

But these merits notwithstanding, Singapore, according to Koh, is also a socially unjust society for the following reasons: the widening inequality in income and wealth; the absence of a poverty line, resulting in some earning below a living wage; the absence of a minimum wage and the presence of poverty, especially poor and needy children in our society and schools.

Philosophers, social theorists, economists and politicians have long tried to envision and actualise a socially just world by promoting human rights (however these are conceived) and by pushing for economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation and other strategies to promote distributive justice.

For Christians, the idea of social justice is firmly rooted in the Bible. According to the Bible, the God who created the world and human beings is just (Deuteronomy 32:4). In addition, God has created human beings in his image and likeness (Gen 1:27), each of whom is equally valued by him.

God therefore clearly and repeatedly commands his people to show concern for the poor and the needy, the fatherless, the widow and the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17; 27:19). The teachings of the Church on social justice are profoundly inspired by and based upon the unequivocal witness of Scripture.

According to the Christian vision, social justice has to do with much more than the possibilities of a social market economy or certain strategies in social legislation, important though they are. In the Christian account, social justice is grounded in human solidarity, a concept that captures a complex of meanings.

At its most basic core, human solidarity has to do with the indisputable fact that people are interdependent, and not only in the sense that they evidently rely on one another for their biological and emotional needs. Every conceivable human achievement – language, art, culture, education, science – testify eloquently to this interdependence.

More significantly, in the Christian account, human solidarity is seen not only as a necessary fact, but also a positive value. This paradoxically means that while solidarity is a given, an indispensable fact of human life and society, it is also something that we must work towards and cherish.

Reflecting on the significance of solidarity, the Catholic moral theologian, Thomas Massaro, S.J., writes: ‘We cannot realize our full potential or appreciate the full meaning of our dignity unless we share our lives with others and cooperate in projects that hold promise of mutual benefit’.

The virtue of solidarity begins with an inner attitude that expresses itself in concrete acts that demonstrate one’s commitment to the wellbeing of others. In this way, the virtue of solidarity is an antidote to the egoism and the selfish individualism that motivate members of modern society to obsessively pursue their own narcissistic agendas and neglect their social responsibilities.

There can be no social justice without a deep sense of social responsibility.

It is only when the concept of human rights – which has become sacrosanct in modern society – is set within the context of solidarity and concern for the wellbeing of the larger community that it will not fall prey to a rampant individualism. The virtue of solidarity enables us to see that in many cases our obligations to our neighbour must take precedence over our rights.

The virtue of solidarity also disciplines the use of power. It prohibits the concentration of power in a single individual or a single group, thereby preventing its abuse.

In addition, some theologians argue that solidarity goes a long way in ensuring that the use of power is ‘rational’. As the Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring has perceptively put it: ‘Solidarity, expressed by consensus on basic human rights and duties and common concern for social justice and fair processes, strengthens the rationality of the use of power’.

True solidarity ensures that power is exercised according to the principles of justice, law and order.

And finally, solidarity, with its emphasis on the concern for the wellbeing of all – including the poor, the sick and the vulnerable – will not only promote the common good, but will also ensure that the language of common good will not be used to justify a utilitarian or a ‘majoritarian’ ethics (where ‘common good’ reads ‘the good of the majority’).

Social justice is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. While policies like minimum wages will certainly go a long way in making society more just, they are not enough.

A society is truly just only when there is real solidarity among its members.


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. 

 

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.

Religion, Public Policy and Human Flourishing

In recent years, academics here have been arguing that Singapore has to revise its social compact due to rapidly changing circumstances, both at home and globally.

Founded on strong fundamentals – individual responsibility and self-reliance, economic growth and jobs for all, and a social security system that is based on savings and home ownership – the current social compact has served the country well over the past forty years. It has enabled the Government to deliver high standards of healthcare, education, and housing without imposing an enormous burden of public spending.

But a number of developments such as globalisation, a more volatile economy and an aging population, have necessitated a revision of the current social compact.

However, not all the troubles of society are due to circumstances beyond our control. In fact, scholars have shown that some of the policies of the Government have in fact worsened the inequalities that already prevail in our society.

One example is the excessively liberal foreign worker and immigration policies that have resulted in inequality and wage stagnation. Another is the Government’s quest to transform Singapore into a ‘global city’ that has caused the income of those at the higher end of the labour market to be raised artificially, thereby widening the income gap.

The Government is well aware that its policies have not always been helpful in addressing the pressing concerns of society. In his keynote address at the Singapore Perspectives 2012 conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, quite candidly, that ‘Our policies are not sacrosanct. But let’s keep a sense of perspective as we discuss how we should evolve and improve them’.

To construct a new social compact in the wake of these new challenges requires nothing less than an imaginative leap. The British philosopher Roger Scruton has quite brilliantly defined imagination as ‘a going beyond the given’.

Imagination plays an important role in almost every aspect of human life. It is needed whenever we make judgements about values. Imagination is indispensable in planning and decision-making, as alternatives are entertained and as possible ‘worlds’ that are better than the status quo are explored.

Imagination is therefore requisite for ordering society for human flourishing. In order to improve the lives of Singaporeans, the Government must ‘go beyond the given’.

How is this new compact being re-imagined by our leaders? How must social policies be recalibrated in order to promote the wellbeing of all Singaporeans?

High on the agenda is the problem of inequality, which must receive urgent attention. The Government is well aware of the fact that inequality negatively affects the wellbeing of society.

In their 2009 study, R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett noted that high inequality in society is detrimental to all its members, not just the poor. Their study also showed that inequality in society could not only cause stress, anxiety, and depression, but might even encourage behaviours such as drug use and criminality.

In his address DPM Shanmugaratnam states unequivocally that ‘we cannot resign ourselves to widening inequality … We have to try to contain inequality, and ameliorate its effects on our society’. The Government is thus determined to address this issue, not just superficially by minor tweaks in certain policies, but through a comprehensive and holistic reassessment of Singapore’s economic and social policies.

But the Government also acknowledges that for society to flourish, the poor, the sick, the disabled and elderly must never be forgotten. In his address at the opening of the new session of Parliament on 16 May, President Tony Tan Keng Yam placed special emphasis on the vulnerable and the elderly in our society.

‘We will strengthen safety nets to help the vulnerable and elderly cope with the vicissitudes of life’, he pledges. Further in the speech, he reiterates this commitment: ‘We will pay particular attention to vulnerable Singaporeans, including low-wage workers and our elderly’. The President then delineated a series of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of Singaporeans.

Christians here of every stripe can and must wholeheartedly endorse these goals because they resonate so profoundly with the teachings of Scripture and the Christian tradition. In fact, with its rich theological heritage and profound moral vision, the Christian community has much to contribute to public discourse on the wellbeing of society.

Against the many agent-oriented versions of the pursuit of wellbeing (eudaimonisms) – ancient and modern – the Bible presents a radically different vision of social flourishing, based on the second love command of Jesus (Mark 12:31). Moral responsibility towards one another, implied in Jesus’ command, is an integral aspect of the Christian concept of justice. In addition, for the Christian tradition, justice must be wedded to mercy and compassion.

It was the great fifth-century theologian, Augustine, who insisted that vulnerability and compassion must be included in our conception of human flourishing. In City of God Augustine writes: ‘But … what is compassion but a kind of fellow feeling in our hearts of the misery of another which compels us to help him if we can? This impulse is the servant of right reason when compassion is displayed in such a way as to preserve righteousness, as when alms are distributed to the needy or forgiveness extended to the penitent’.

The wellbeing of society is dependent on how its members regard and treat each other. This means that society’s flourishing requires its members to be concerned for one another’s wellbeing, not merely their own.

In his magisterial work, Secular Age, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes perceptively that the history of Christianity reveals a profound tension between flourishing and renunciation. According to the Christian understanding, writes Taylor, ‘the believer … is called on to make a profound inner break with the goals of flourishing … they are called on, that is, to detach themselves from their own flourishing … to that renunciation of human fulfilment to serve God in the other’.

In concluding his May address, President Tan looks to the future with optimism as he prepares the nation to celebrate its Golden Jubilee: ‘Our best years lie ahead. We have not overcome all our challenges, but we are determined to do so, and we will. Singapore remains a home that brings out the best in us … As we approach our 50th anniversary of independence, let us pledge ourselves anew to build a better, brighter Singapore’.

The wellbeing of society is the responsibility of all its members, not just that of the Government. The Christian community must work with the Government and other faith communities to build a just and compassionate society so that all may flourish. Only in this way can Singapore truly become a home that endears.


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 published in the Trumpet (TTC).