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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).