16 September 2009

Plausible deniability; or, are you stupid enough to buy their excuse?

Being the first part in a series on the modus operandi and rhetorical strategies of Christians of a Fundamentalist Persuasion...

Barthes on Signs and wonders; or, How to mean more than what you say

... je suis chez le coiffeur, on me tend un numéro de Paris-Match. Sur la couverture, un jeune nègre vêtu d'un uniforme français fait le salut militaire, les yeux levés, fixés sans doute sur un pli du drapeau tricolore. Cela, c'est le sens de l'image. - Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1970, p.201)

The semiologist Roland Barthes is at his usual barber for his regular haircut. In his chair, Barthes is handed an issue of Paris-Match magazine while the barber attends to his task. On the cover that greets him, a photograph of a black soldier saluting the French tricolour. It is obvious, the myth and ideology, the PR line that this photo peddles. It is clear to any lay Frenchperson. But as a sociologist, Barthes proceeds methodically to explicate this intuitive, commonsensical reading of the photograph - and many others in the book:

The sign presented to us is that of a black soldier in a French army uniform saluting the flag. The wonder is its signification: French imperialism, French greatness, the idea that the French empire treats all its subjects equally, that there are no colonies but one all-embracing La Patrie. The image that forms the sign is carefully constructed and reconstituted as a beachhead so that it is co-opted into a secondary level of signification - one where myth and ideology is found. The denotation - what we see when we see the image - is that of a black person saluting the flag, but the connotation is that of French imperialism and greatness...

Semiotics: 101 ways to say what you mean and then deny you said it

The field of advertising may be seen as Practical Semiotics, where advertisers engineer innuendo and a surfeit of meaning to supplant the literal sign which is presented to their readers. And the joke goes that all advertising is about sex or selling the idea of attractiveness...

Take Zoe Tay's "I Swallow" ad, for example. In advertising, as it is with semiotics, there is always a fail-safe, a retreat position. Barthes calls this the alibi: "I wasn't being ideological, myth might innocently claim, I was somewhere else doing something innocent."

Accused of imperialism, the Paris-Match cover insists it is merely a photograph of a young man who happens to be black saluting a flag which happens to be a French flag. Accused of raunchiness, the beauty company insists it's just Zoe Tay saying "I swallow", nothing more. The halo of light about the head of George W Bush? An artifact of lighting in a photo, nothing more! The photographs of Obama in Kennedyesque poses? Just a mere coincidence...

When caught, the mythmaker says, "Remember, I didn't say it, I didn't imply it; you inferred it." The mythmaker denies, when caught red-handed, that objects and events always signify more than themselves; that they are always caught up in systems of representation and secondary meanings. The mythmaker appeals to our 'common sense' to take them for what they are, to say they only meant what they said and nothing more, to put on the outrage of someone who finds they are never taken for their word.

These denials are plausible enough inasmuch as they are take literally. Yet if understood within a methodical analysis of the conjunction of context, meanings and representations, signs and their significations are hardly ever unintended - and the denials lose all plausibility.

Plausible deniability; or, Fun with fundies

Singa Communications Limited, on 9 September 2009, unveiled its Singanews initiative at Kum Yan Methodist Church for an ATRIA "New Media Breakfast" event.

After the report was leaked online, the accusation floating around is that this news portal is a shill for Fundamentalist Christian (COOS) interests, despite claims by its directors that it is a secular organisation, that ostensibly, this has nothing to do with any Christian agenda.

Is this denial plausible? Have an entire faction of bloggers read too much into this un-launch?

Context is everything. Context is king. Context builds secondary-level meanings and significations above what is said.

The unveiling is not an official launch. It is not a soft launch either. This is a secret, closed door un-launch, given that this New Media Breakfast has gone unreported in the usual Christian blogs or even the Christian Post Singapore.

The New Media Breakfast is organised by ATRIA, which stands for "Apologetics through Rich Applications". Its modus operandi? "Evangelical apologetics focuses on presenting biblical realities evident in life is a reasoned explanation, and involves a researched defence of biblical truth. ATRIA widgets will invite an exploration of the foundations of faith that touch on areas as diverse as archaelogy, astronomy, biblical prophecy, spiritual experience and Christian lifestyle."

But maybe this image will give a fuller picture:


As a keynote speaker at an embargoed, explicitly Fundamentalist Christian conference organised by an organisation that nurtures fundamentalist apologetics, this news portal really wants to say we're reading too deeply - it's really secular.

In her keynote address, Thio seemed to have talked mostly about her experience with the media and the need for a more sympathetic media of their own and the need for Christians to speak out. You can read this as having nothing at all to do with the next keynote speaker's unveiling of a major secular news portal... but it will depend on how stupid you are.

All directors of Singanews, a secular portal, are Christians.
Matthew Yap (enough said?)
Basskaran Nair (identifies himself as a Christian and Christian philantropist)
Lee Chong Kai (Former All Saints Home CEO. Graduate of a "Rhema Bible Training Centre")
Victor Ho Kok Yin (director of Bright Arrows, 40% owned by COOS)

Singanews, a secular portal with a 100% Christian directorship, made the decision to have its unlaunch at a Christian media conference.

Singanews, a secular portal, chose to have its unlaunch at a church, to a group of Christians. As opposed to any other religious place of worship. As opposed to any other public area. As opposed to having a public launch.

You do the math.

18 August 2009

Minilee NDRS decoded: 2009 edition!

By now, it should be apparent that every Prime Minister has a different style of doing the NDRS and their major policy speeches: Lee Kuan Yew relished the details, seeking to win hearts and minds through logic and superior reasoning; Goh Chok Tong is fond of putting the issues on the table as questions and dilemmas - leading to observations and comments that these questions either present false dilemmas or are attempts in leading the question to very controlled and guided ends; Lee Hsien Loong is noted for painting in very broad brush strokes, leaving his ministers to fill in the details weeks and months after the NDRS.

In all instances, basic comprehension of the NDRS and subsequent analysis can only come about when one understands this rule instead of throwing a hissy fit and denouncing the speech as "strangely empty" or worse.

Here then is Minilee's NDRS decoded!

The economy

1. The economy is not expected to return to pre-crisis levels of health - Minilee did not use the word "boom" to describe the eventual recovery from this economic crisis. What the PAP promises, it delivers - and Minilee has not promised a boom, merely a recovery.

2. In fact for the short term, Minilee's economic team cannot foresee exactly what will happen beyond Q3 of this year. The situation is so murky that they'll only review just before the end of this year to figure out their plan for next year.

In other words: We have no green shoots. We are in a transitional period.

3. Singapore will be building 2 "National Continuing Education and Training Campuses" in Paya Lebar and Jurong.

In other words: The shrinking of Singapore's white collar jobs and subsequently its middle class will continue, no thanks to the economic crisis. Perhaps Minilee's team expect a permanent and protracted change in the type of jobs available in the emergent post-crisis economy. We cannot otherwise justify 2 *permanent* institutions for retraining otherwise.

In other words:

Structural employment of the former white collar class to continue.

Current crisis expected to affect Singapore as a financial hub - most white collar jobs lost here are in this sector, many other currently existing white collar jobs
are dependent on the financial sector.

Look forward to continued downsizing of the middle class, structural unemployment necessitating a trip to one of the two retraining centres, and a future of structural underemployment.

Religious and racial harmony

Yugoslavia was a model of religious and racial harmony. But when their economy went bad - as with other pieces of Eden in the world and in history - the racial and religious harmony evaporated, no thanks to the diminished authority of the state (imagine if all Singapore's government could offer you was retraining in a blue-collar job, or suggest you sue your kids for maintenance to pay your medical bills?).

With trust in the government plummeting and no solutions forthcoming, it is no wonder that Yugoslavians sought their answers in religion, or that unscrupulous and power-hungry actors sought to stoke racial and religious tensions and present themselves as leaders.

We suggest that Minilee's team, having seen the economic growth forecast for Singapore in the next 10 to 30 years, are worried that conditions are beginning to look ripe for radical leaders to radicalise susceptible segments of Singapore society. It is this economic base that will empower and embolden a culture war.

Looking to the future

Spending half an hour on a now-and-then photo slideshow?

In other words: It may be difficult to tell if Singapore has improved between the last 5 years and now, especially for the poor; but it's really easy to tell the difference between the last 50 years and now.

Of all the forecast improvements in Minilee's "future segment" of his slideshow, which ones hint at an improvement for the lot of the bottom 1/3 of Singapore's population?

11 August 2009

RDS: The remaining issues

Religious Diversity in Singapore is a collection of research papers originally presented in a series of workshops between 2004 and 2006 by the Institute of Policy Studies.

1. When is the line crossed? Cross-reading with recent comments on religious harmony
No restraining orders have been issued under the MRHA since it came into effect.

However, the Government came close to invoking it on a number of occasions to stop religious leaders from mixing politics with religion and putting down other faiths, Mr Wong Kan Seng, the Home Affairs Minister at the time, said in 2001.

The religious leaders stopped their activities after they were summoned and warned by the police and Internal Security Department officers, he said.

Had they persisted, the law would have been used against them.
- "Religious harmony: 20 years of keeping the peace", in The Straits Times, 24 July 2009.

Some argue that because no restraining order has been issued under the MRHA, it has been only a showpiece. Others say it worked mainly as a deterrent. What is your response?

Showpiece? Well, when I spoke in Parliament during the third reading of the Bill on Nov 9, 1990, I did foresee 'the best case scenario is that no occasion arises where we need to invoke this Bill'. I also said then that we will exhaust all other remedies, like advising, counselling, etc. So the best scenario has happened: We have not had to issue a restraining order under the Act.

That does not mean that we have no problems but rather that we have been quick to defuse the problems through active management, mediation and, where necessary, admonition, sometimes working with religious leaders.

So non-invoking of the MRHA does not mean that it is a white elephant or showpiece. It is part of our suite of tools to maintain law and order and communal harmony.
- "Jaya: Don't take harmony for granted", in The Straits Times, 24 July 2009

The Minister may make a restraining order against any priest, monk, pastor, imam, elder, office-bearer or any other person who is in a position of authority in any religious group or institution or any member thereof for the purposes specified in subsection (2) where the Minister is satisfied that that person has committed or is attempting to commit any of the following acts:
...
(d) exciting disaffection against the President or the Government while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief.
- Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Chapter 167A, Part III (8)



Singapore has to be a "fun" city attractive to its own and open to the world, so they argue, albeit with moderation but evolution as time and tide of society norms change. In order to be globally attractive and competitive, society has to loosen up and be in tune and in line with the progressives, the so call (sic) "mature", so they say. In the midst of all these, for God's faithful people, Paul's sentinel call should be voiced and heard clearly once again: "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God, without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life..." (Phil 2.14-16; also 2 Time 4.1-4). But don't get Paul wrong! He is challenging us to build up extra robust capacity over the childish level of debate and controversy, and it could not be more timely and urgent.
- John Chew, "Shaping of Maturity", Disocesan Digest, September 2003.

The claim here is essentially that this generation has become "crooked and perverse" because the government initiated a "childish level of debate and controversy" in favour of the "progressives" but has excluded the views of the religious communities because of formal secularism. This jeremiad - one of several that were preached from pulpits and published in the press - can have the effect of summoning a level of conservativism that goes beyond what is normally held by well-meaning and "right-thinking" individuals...
- Kenneth Paul Tan, in "Relgious reasons in a secular public sphere", RDS.

2. Recross: When is the line crossed?

Compare the following:

I. Anglican Bishop (Saint Andrew's Cathdral) John Chew's statement on the government creating a crooked and perverse generation above

II. "It's not a crusade against the people but there’s a line that God has drawn for us, and we don’t want our nation crossing that line." - Derek Hong, Anglican Pastor, COOS

III. "How then should Christians, as faithful watchmen and committed citizens living in secular democracies, respond to a political agenda driven by a godless philosophy which has harmful social and spiritual consequences?"

"She examines how the spirit of the anti-Christ, the spirit of lawlessness, manifests in the philosophy, morality and politics that shape our laws, systems and mindsets." - The blurb to Thio Li Ann's new book, Mind the Gap

What similarities do these 3 sets of speeches and speech acts have in common? What are their common rhetorical and philosophical ground, if any? Why was only one of these speakers/actors be called to apologise and retract their statement?

3. The rise of religiosity

What does the increasing rise of religiosity mean for Singapore? Various RDS authors recite 'increasing religiosity' as a fact to be dealt with. Only one RDS author has cited an actual survey that wasn't a population census that showed "rising religiosity" in Singapore - and a Straits Times survey at that.

If Singapore's leadership had decided to incorporate various religious groups in selective consultative policy-making, the question needs to be asked:

Where in the survey of rising religiosity that the political leadership and RDS authors love to quote, does it say that increasingly religious Singaporeans want their religions and religious leaders to play a role in policy-making?

Where is the survey that shows Singaporeans expect and find this desirable?

Where is the survey that shows Singaporeans, increasingly religious, want public policy to be brought in line with their religions' or religious leaders' interpretation of a good society?

Discuss.

05 August 2009

MOE principal to present at Christian lobby seminar

I draw your attention to the forthcoming GCF-RZIM Seminar on "Called To Engage - Being Salt and Light in the Public Square", scheduled on 8 and 10 August 2009 on the National Day weekend.

Note that in the list of speakers is a Mrs Belinda Charles, who may be identified as the principal of Saint Andrew's Secondary School, a government-aided institution of learning under the purview of the Ministry of Education.

The purpose of this seminar, as described in its publicity, appears to provide a theological justification for faith-based discussion in the public of controversial social and political issues; identify a list of social and political issues to be targeted by Christian activists; and to compel Christians to engage in such behaviour in the public sphere as a religious obligation.

Its goal, as stated in the PR materials, is so that "those in the positions of power will hear and respond favourably", i.e. to exert influence to align public policy with what this group considers as Christianity-approved ideals.

In other words, this is a seminar conducted by the Christian lobby to provide the justification for its existence, its lobbying tactics, and its lobbying targets.

I note the recent statements on the need for religious harmony by SM Goh Chok Tong, SM Jayakumar, and Mr Wong Kan Seng. In particular, SM Goh's statement that religious sentiments should be kept private and the secular nature of our state and policy-making be respected.

In light of this, I would like to seek the Ministry's clarification on the role of Mrs Belinda Charles in this controversial seminar, whose topic and timing is a direct challenge to our leaders' stance on religious harmony and the secular state.

I wonder whether the Ministry is aware of this seminar.

I wonder whether the Ministry approved Mrs Belinda Charles's participation and presentation at this religious seminar.

I wonder whether the Ministry vetted the contents of Mrs Belinda Charles's presentation.

Does the stand of Mrs Belinda Charles at this conference represent the Ministry's official stand on religion and public policy?

I look forward to the Ministry's clarification on this matter. Concerned members of the public - and inquiring minds - want to know!

Inquiring minds:
Ovidia Yu: "The list of speakers includes the principal of St Andrews Secondary School, a premier government-aided institution. Is this with MOE approval?"

Addendum:

(7 Aug)
As Ovidia Yu notes, Ravi Zacharias and his RZIM organisation is dedicated to training people around the world to "present Christianity as the only reasonable option by which people should live".

I am shocked and surprised that such a religious activist was even allowed into Singapore by our Immigration Department for the purpose of preaching and teaching other people his exclusionary, exclusivist vision of religion - which clearly is inimical to Singapore's pluralistic, multireligious and secular society.

I am shocked and surprised that such an organisation - dedicated to promoting an exclusionary, exclusivist view of religion - would be co-hosting any seminar in Singapore - and that the permit for this seminar was approved by the relevant authorities.

I wonder whether the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Immigration Department would comment on why Ravi Zacharias was allowed here in Singapore, for this expressed purpose during our National Day weekend, and why this event was allowed to proceed.

(9 Aug)
We note that VCF-NUS has pulled out its notice of the GCF-RZIM seminar. The link now shows up blank. Also, the event has also been scrubbed from its events archive.

If you wish to read the original text of the seminar notice, refer to Ovidia Yu's post, or look here or see here

14 July 2009

Negotiating Christianity with other religions (RDS)

Religious Diversity in Singapore is a collection of research papers originally presented in a series of workshops between 2004 and 2006 by the Institute of Policy Studies.

Negotiating Christianity with other religions: The view of Christian clergymen in Singapore, by Mathew Mathews

Mathews's paper presents the results of a survey and a series of in-depth interviews conducted by the author. The year the survey and interviews were conducted are not stated in the paper, although Mathews mentions the surveys were sent out during the period of Father Joachim Kang's trial.

We will not present interesting quotes from Mathews's paper. While Mathews's paper was entertaining, we do not place much emphasis or authority on this than we would do for the other 2 papers from RDS featured here earlier, due to a list of very major flaws.

Representativeness of data

The survey was sent to a random list of Protestant clergymen on the NCCS church directory and the Roman Catholic parish priest listing on the Catholic Church website for Singapore.

1. Issue of denominations

While Mathews mentions some beliefs and statements made in the interviews as being related to Charismatic and evangelical branches, his sampling does not provide for representing various denominations - whereas he ought to know that beliefs and statements be allied across certain denominations. The data presented in the paper's tables only correlate attitudes of clegymen to either their Protestant or Roman Catholic allegiance.

While Mathews mentions that denomination was a variable in his study, it appears he presents no findings that would make denomination an issue. This is surprising given the fact that various quotes, reported attitudes in his paper are prevalent and strong in certain denominations of Protestantism while holding no cachet in other denominations. A representative sample would need to be constructed by taking into account the actual percentage of denominational strength...

There is nothing in the appendix on the raw data collected that would allow us to reconstruct other tables based on denominations, or to see if his sample had overrepresented certain far-right denominations in Singapore, such as the Anglicans and the Methodists.

2. Construction of interview population: major caveats

A total of 57 in-depth interviews were conducted. It is unclear to us what Mathews was striving for here: clergy from mainline Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic priests were "at times... furnished by their respective denominations, though some denominations allowed the random selection of clergymen." On the other hand, "a snowballing technique was used to speak to a variety of... independent church ministers".

There is just a few ways you can conduct interviews and then claim that these represent the average view of the population at large. You can conduct a random sample. You could select a randomised sample - oversampling for variables like denomination and so on. You cannot construct a sample out of three or more different ways and then still claim the sample to be representative.

You could even attempt, like Mathews did, to "obtain clergymen who represented different age cohorts and had differing theological positions", but this method like snowballing, does not lead to a representative sample, it only gives you a sample from which to construct various communities of similar viewpoints and beliefs.

This point is important, especially when Mathews seems to have a penchant for slipping up and talking about "the majority of responses" from his in-depth interviews.

This point is most important, especially when Mathews makes claims about the overwhelming theological conservativism of Protestant clergy. We need only remember that snowball sampling means this: you introduce yourself to 1 or 2 key interview subjects who introduce a few more to you after their interviews, who in turn introduce yet a few more to you. It is quite odd to see Mathews talk about representativeness in the same breath as snowballing.

This point is most ultimately important, especially for those who attempt to correlate the tables provided by Mathews, to study how the 'moderate'-looking bell curves in the tables can translate to the deluge of overwhelmingly far-right, ultra-conservative quotes from his army of unnamed pastors whom he claims to represent viewpoints of the rest of the interview correspondents.

In this case, we cannot even say that the survey responses will be representative of the population, while his reported interview responses definitely cannot not be regarded as representative of the population of Protestant and RC clergy at large.

3. What were the interviews about?

In the appendix to his paper, Mathews provides the questionnaire and the scoring and computation method for his survey portion of the study. There is no mention of what questions or what general interview topic strategy was used for the in-depth interview portion of his survey.

4. Sloppy labelling

Mathhews calls "theological orthodoxy" in his footnotes as "agreement to the inerrancy of the Bible, the authority of the Bible in all aspects of life, the veracity of the miracles in the Bible and the belief that the Pentateuch was written by Moses and not by a later author". Yet in his appendix, these same items are called "Conservative theological beliefs (also known as a fundamentalist Christian position)". We are not sure how fundamentalism has now become an orthodox theological stand, but for this not to have gone unchallenged and corrected by Mathews's correspondents, does show the type of biased sample population he ended up constructing.

Questions:

Where are clergy trained in Singapore that makes them, as Mathews claims (but I do not believe), creates an overwhelmingly conservative environment for Protestantism? From a production of culture point of view, environments do not spontaneously come into being: they are nurtured by institutions - say theological colleges; groups of censors - say the opinion leaders and drivers of various denominations; gatekeepers - qualified clergymen still need to be appointed to parishes by higher boards in mainline denominations...

Which denominations did the more conservative, exclusivist, far right clergy come from?

Out of his sample size of 57 in-depth interviewees - ignoring the quotes that were obviously cherrypicked for the paper - objectively and statistically speaking what were the proportion of positive statements against negative statements on inter-religious efforts?

07 July 2009

The Inter-religious Organisation of Singapore (RDS)

Religious Diversity in Singapore is a collection of research papers originally presented in a series of workshops between 2004 and 2006 by the Institute of Policy Studies.

The Inter-religious organisation of Singapore, by Lai Ah Eng

Lai's paper presents a historical overview of the IRO's founding in 1948, its activities from that period to the present, with focus on its role in state-sanctioned nation-building, and the internal politics and divisions within the organisation.

Lai's quotes are taken from interviews she conducted with several IRO council and ordinary members between 2003-2006.

We present interesting excerpts from Lai's paper and comment when necessary. Names of key organisations, clergy and events as in bold, although like many papers presenting in Religious Diversity in Singapore, such details are often missing.

1. Interfaith and faith organisations and the Malayan Emergency
Set up officially on 18 March 1949 at the time of imminent independence from British colonial rule, the IRO claims to be one of the oldest interfaith organisations in the world... Its founding and early years had the support of several religious leaders and religious organisations, political leaders, public figures and the British colonial administration.
Like the founding of the NCCS a year earlier in 1948, the circumstances of the IRO's birth has been more than whitewashed in contemporary accounts. In order to understand the historical and social context, we need to look towards the Malayan Emergency. The British colonial administration encouraged and stage-managed the founding of faith and interfaith groups like these two, as a bulwark against the godless Communists of the MCP.

The second link we need to observe is the decolonialisation process: the prime movers and most active members in both the IRO and NCCS were largely colonials. The expat community in Singapore had, shortly before the course of the war and especially during their incarceration at Changi, experienced a common bonding and refuge in religion, which they saw as the universal answer to the world's problems.

It is hence understandable that shortly after its establishment, the IRO took on several social issues, often partaking actively in the nation-building effort, in a way that recalls a much stronger version of the wayang model of religious consultation, and like the NCCS of today, the IRO committed several instances of imperial overreach that may have contributed to its occasional periods of dormancy and disrepair:
Throughout the 1950s, it promoted religious education in schools, working with the MOE. In 1957, IRO members sat on a MOE Committee on religion and ethics in schools and subsequently contributed passages for reading at school assemblies. In the wake of a larger push towards making religious education compulsory in the late 1970s.. the IRO sent a circular on "the vital need for moral and religious instruction in our schools" to the MOE...

In its early years, the IRO occasionally took up issues related to morality and moral behaviour... For example in 1958, it sent a letter to the Chief Minister seeking stricter government control of crime films and literature as well as "obscene magazines" to "forestall growth of youth delinquency". In 1963, it issued a memorandum on the effects of films, television, radio and literature on youth's morals, particularly against "foreign patterns of love-making" and "sexy" songs, and called for the censure of love scenes and for moderate and decent entertainment.

Also watchful of media portrayals of religions during its early years, the IRO called for the censoring or banning of films considered offensive to religions (such as The Twin Swords (1965), The Great Buddha (1967), and Shaolin Temple (1982). In 1982 it even undertook the stand that all films with religious themes should first be vetted by the IRO...
The creation of moral panics, the whipping up of moral crises, the enthusiastic overextension of powers: in each case (the removal of RK by the government in 1989, the derision that followed its statements on censorship of the media), the organisation's seeming strength and activity quickly faded and its public profile beating a retreat whenever the 'crisis' resolved itself, was ignored or laughed off. Lai notes the IRO's current activity comes in the wake of 9/11, as well as the government's creation of Interreligious circles in 2002 (again the wayang model of consultation!).

Christians in the IRO: a model of good neighbours?

Although founded and then headed by leaders from the Methodist and Anglican churches in its early years, Protestant Christians have not been good neighbours at all, or particularly sincere in the interfaith effort.
Over the years however, Anglicans and Methodists have gradually distanced and disassociated themselves from the organisation and their churches' leaders have stayed away from it. As early as 1968, a letter was received by the IRO from the Anglican Church's Bishop of Singapore and Malaya clarifying that Anglican members of the IRO did not officially represent Anglican interests and that the government should not consider the IRO as the paramount representative despite its name...

One Anglican leader commented in private in 2005 that his Church should not be seen to be represented alongside the Taoist priest with "all his costumes and rituals" during joint prayers or even be involved in joint prayers...

Although the IRO's first president was the then Methodist Bishop of Malaya, the Methodist Church has not been active in the IRO and indeed has disassociated itself from the organisation...

As pointed out by one former council member of the IRO and a Protestant Christian leader, these Christian churches have increasingly grown away from their more liberal traditions, and become more conservative and evangelical and are therefore generally wary of inter-religious dialogue and interaction.
One has to wonder about the wisdom of allowing Protestant Christian leaders a place on the national pulpit, a voice in the media, and representation through stalking horses in Parliament. Why should we listen to Christian leaders and apologists who stress on the need for the freedom to religious speech, opinions, and involvement in public policy when they so clearly do not believe in sincere interfaith efforts and participation? Why should we take into consideration their representations of being oppressed by "militant secularists", if they have never put an honest effort into interfaith organisations? Questions, questions...

In contrast,
Catholics on the other hand have been increasingly involved in the IRO's activities although they came on board on a slow and delayed start... It was only after Vatican Council II in 1963, when the Catholic Church declared itself open to interfaith dialogue... that it became increasingly engaged in the IRO...

Under Sister Seow's presidency which came in the immediate post-September 11 years, several major interfaith events were organised to demonstrate the need for and to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding...
Failing the Dan Brown test

The Anglican and Methodist churches in Singapore: more conservative and intolerant than the Catholic Church.
... there are those whose theological orientation and interpretation are such that they would feel they are "dealing with the devil" if they engaged in dialogue and would not even step into the house of worship of another religion. Thus, in the case of some Protestant Christian churches, they have withdrawn from participation in the IRO and resisted attempts to be drawn into interfaith dialogue or interfaith activity.
The Anglican and Methodist churches in Singapore are to the Right of the Catholic Church on interfaith dialogue. Ordinarily, one would not associate "dealing with the devil" as a response coming from Methodist or Anglican clergy. But we're uniquely Singapore.
When the September 11 attacks took place, the IRO invited all religious leaders to a common prayer event it organised for the deceased and for peace but some Protestant Christian leaders declined. However upon being asked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they attended a similar state event at the National Stadium during which the IRO conducted joint prayer rites...
Need I repeat this? Why do we give Christian leaders a national space to hoist their views on homosexuality, gambling, sex education, takeovers of NGOs - when they clearly do not want to share that space with any other religious group?

05 July 2009

Global Christian Culture and the Antioch of Asia (RDS)

Religious Diversity in Singapore is a collection of research papers originally presented in a series of workshops between 2004 and 2006 by the Institute of Policy Studies.

Global Christian Culture and the Antioch of Asia, by Jean DeBernadi

DeBernadi's paper, resulting from a series of interviews with key Christian leaders in Singapore in 2004 and research conducted between 1995-2005, presents a factual account of the growth of evangelical churches from the colonial period onwards. In addition, it delves into the tenets and modus operandi of "spiritual warfare", apparently a popular practice in American-style charismatic and evangelical churches in Singapore.

We present interesting excerpts from DeBernadi's paper and comment when necessary. Names of organisations, key clergy and events are in bold.

1. Which lineage of Joel's Army groups are Singapore's religious right planted, affiliated, nurtured by?
In the post-independence period, new waves of revival originating primarily in North America had enormous impact on English-educated Christians in Singapore. Many recall the staging of two major mass events in Singapore: the Billy Graham Crusade of 1978, which ensured the prestige and influence of American-style evangelical Christianity, and a national Bible Rally organised in 1982 by the Full Gospel Christian Businessmen's Fellowship. The latter cooperated with 100 churches to organise and sponsor the event, inviting Korea's Paul Yonggi Cho as the main speaker.

Because the FGCBF worked outside the parameters of regular Christian denominations, the group was highly successful in introducing to English-educated Singaporean Christians many practices associated with an emergent charismatic movement, including speaking in tongues and prophecy. But when participants attempted to introduce these practices into their churches, divisions arose, leading members to depart, often to join new independent church movements.
Contrary to DogEmperor's claim that Singapore's religious right is associated with Peter Wagner's NAR, we find that the seeds of Singapore's Christian Right and their subsequent 'declarations of independence' from mainstream denominations were planted by Paul Yonggi Cho and the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship, aka DogEmperor's "second branch" - and not by Wagner.

2. There is no non-evangelical Christianity in Singapore?
In North America, denominations that scholars typically categorise as mainline Protestant like Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians are internally diverse, with evangelical and non-evangelical wings. But Singaporean Christian leaders unanimously observe that in Singapore the non-evangelical wing of mainline Protestantism is virtually non-existent.
DeBernadi sadly does not detail which Singaporean Christian leaders she spoke to. Note that their unanimous observation does not quite gel with the historical account in point 1, where major splits occurred in Singaporean presumably mainline churches when few pastors sought to introduce new evangelical practices into congregational worship. However:
... The Anglican Church in Singapore has incorporated charismatic forms of Christian practices and engages in evangelical outreach... Meanwhile, Methodist Bishop Dr Robert Solomon recently provided leadership in the work of the Methodist Missions Society in five countries in the region, and was a leading participant in the Singapore Centre for Evangelism and Missions (SCEM) 2005 GoForth Missions Conference.
We can only speculate that DeBernadi seems to have momentarily confused evangelical Christianity, as defined by other scholars as a coherent faction within the political economy of Christianity, with what she defines in her paper, and the nominal meaning of evangelism in these two paragraphs, which run consecutively of each other.

3. Similarity of practices does not necessarily mean external control or a global conspiracy
Most of the innovative Christian teachings and practices that have passed around the world in the last decades of the twentieth century have passed through Singapore, including the spiritual warfare movement, the Health and Weath gospel, and the Alpha course... Singapore's Christian leaders are keenly aware that they may utilise innovative practices and teachings to mobilise interest and participation, and many make selective use of elements drawn from competing ideologies now in circulation.
4. Prayer evangelism: Good Christians pray for others?
During research visits to Singapore in 1997 and 1999, I found spiritual warfare to be one of the most discussed forms of prayer evangelism, and that many books and pamphlets on this and related topics were widely available in Singapore's Christian bookstores...

In one of his earliest publications on spiritual warfare, Wagner proposed that unconverted regions of the world were under the control of territorial spirits. Citing Biblical precedents, he proposed a constellation of practices to help Christians in their battle to overcome these territorial spirits.

George Otis' popular 1995 book, Strongholds of the 10/40 Window: Intercessors Guide to the World's Least Evangelised Nations, provides specific guidelines to identifying spiritual strongholds... There is no entry for Singapore but the entry for Malaysia proposes that intercessors pray over specific "Spiritual Power Points" like the Shah Alam Mosque near KL and Penang's Snake Temple and during spiritual events like the Hindu festival Thaipusam and the Islamic Ramadan.

Many Singaporean Christians interviewed in 1997 and 1999 were familiar with and favourably disposed towards the constellation of practices associated with the AD2000 and Beyond movement, including spiritual warfare, spiritual mapping and praying through the 10/40 window.

In response to these proposals, for example,
a small interdenominational group of high-level Christian leaders, including charismatic Christians and Anglicans, conducted spiritual mapping of the island.

The date 9 August was the day of a coordinated event - Citywalk, whose organisers gave participants a set of six maps marked with walking tours of downtown Singapore that identified prayer points, including Parliament House, banks and financial houses, shopping malls and entertainment centres, as well as Sir Stamford Raffles' landing site and statue. The event ended with 'Citylight', a programme of coordinated prayer whose beginning was timed to coincide with the strike of the national anthem during Singapore's National Day Parade.
Who are these high-level Christian leaders? We must find them and charge them with SEDITION.

5. Exorcising the spirit of freemasonry and martial arts!
Practitioners of prayer evangelism and spiritual warfare vividly imagine the deities of non-Christian religious practice as demonic opponents whom Christians should seek to overcome in a war waged against dark principalities. Indeed, some charismatic Christians deem a wide range of Chinese cultural practices to be demonic, from martial arts and deity worship to traditional Chinese medicine, qigong and acupuncture.

At a recent ritual performed in Singapore, the ecclesiastically high-ranking participants exorcised the spirits of snakes, martial arts, freemasonry and colonialism...
Charismatic churches have no ranks, being denominationally non-denominational and lacking a rank structure. Sadly, the anthropologist DeBernadi does not provide denominations, names, and IC numbers of these seditious clowns.

Conclusion

DeBernadi's paper is a remarkable treasure trove, a detailed historical account of the development of the beliefs and practices of the evangelical and charismatic movements in Singapore. Just note that she does not seem to differentiate between the two movements, and alternatively speak of them as ideological forms and as nominatively evangelising-oriented movements - and may end up confusing the issue at times.

Eye on Christianity

Groundwork to Rethinking Secularism II

What does it mean to talk about the radicalisation and self-radicalisation of Christians in Singapore?

If we are to examine if the impression holds true, what sort of data should we be looking at? Who or what do we need to focus on?

Radicalisation and Self-radicalisation: a production of culture approach

The two terms were used in the immediate post-911 years to explain the rise of homegrown, DIY terror cells in Southeast Asia. University educated, white collar adults with rational, scientific training and professions became more religious and adopted fundamentalist or extremist strains of their nominal religion - becoming religious radicals. Allegedly, they took their initial leaps into radicalisation not through peer influence, but from their own research on the internet.

Yet the website does not exist in and of itself. Where does its credibility come from but trusted intermediaries (like art critics appraising and promoting an exhibition or artist) who confer credibility, trust and legitimacy to the website and its message. The trusted intermediaries do not exist in and of themselves, but exist in relation to a framework of interrelated complementary and competing groupings: a discursive universe with real life funding, institutional backing and even state backing. Tthe spread of Wahhabi Islam in Southeast Asia is instrumental to understanding this point of view.

The self-radicalisation thesis is charming and captures imaginations easily. It is also a piece of pop psychology, an easily sensationalised, dumbed-down interpretation of complex processes documented elsewhere, i.e. not true.

For one thing, the thesis relies on a foundation of the discredited Secularisation Theory of 'societal development' - it assumes wrongly that modernity and spirituality are exclusive modes of human existence, and on an inevitability, an irreversible arrow of time: where modernity gains, religion and spirituality must decline.

Radicalisation, taken as a set of attitudes, beliefs, worldviews that induce a propensity towards certain actions and speech, is a form of culture that not so much arises willy-nilly from a tabula rasa slate of mind (read: a secular mind within a modern society), but a form of culture that is produced. There necessarily has to be organisations, institutions, intermediaries, activists and theorists that create, define, promote and police their brand of radical culture.

Eye on Singapore Christianity: gathering evidence for a radicalisation thesis

The government and media of Singapore have been loathe to describe, in the aftermath of the Aware takeover, Christianity and Christians in Singapore as becoming radical and self-radicalised, despite the unprecedented and outrageous actions taken by the crew lead by Feminist Mentor Thio Su-mien and the Anglican Archbishop's support of their actions, the blatant case of Chick tractarian 'evangelism', a screening of a pseudo-scientific anti-Darwin, anti-evolution 'documentary' at the Anglican Saint Andrew's Cathedral, and so on.

But if we are to talk credibly about radicalisation, we need to collate an repository of undisputed facts of not just the recent past but going back a few decades, of Christian clergy and congregations, inter-denominational and pan-denominational organisations, theological colleges, their links with the wider global movement, and their actions, activities, and speeches.

The repository will comprise:
First-hand material reporting on these (publications, pamphlets, articles)
Second-hand reports
Other analyses on Christianity in Singapore

This is the Eye on Christianity project.

08 June 2009

Rethinking secularism I

Secularism 1.0: The beta version Papalee would rather forget

Believe it or not, Singapore's wayang model of religious consultation isn't the first time the State had enlisted the religious communities in the nation-building process. This isn't the first time the State had its good intentions blow up in its face either. And guess what, the last time it happened, it involved teaching in schools too.

As they say, all this has happened before; all this will happen again.

I speak of the Religious Knowledge curriculum in secondary schools in Singapore, introduced as a compulsory examinable O-Level subject in 1982 and abolished in 1989. As with Goh Chok Tong's model of religious consultation, the Religious Knowledge was largely a wayang show.

The purpose of RK was peddled to the populace not as religious education, not even as moral education, but mainly as a "cultural ballast" to the bad influences of a rapidly Westernising society and what Lee Kuan-Yew perceived as deculturalisation and loss of traditional values (Straits Times, 15 March 1979). Of course, religious experts and philosophers were activated or enrolled by the state to produce multiple studies and panels to form a curriculum.

On a far more practical level, RK was seen by Singapore's leaders as a piece in their arsenal of tools to promote their vision of a communitarian society, to reinforce their ideology of society over self.

In particular, Confucian Ethics was hoped to be the default choice of Chinese students, unifying the various dialect groups through the 'grand tradition' of Confucianism, then touted by Lee Kuan Yew as the secret of Singapore's economic success.

Needless to say, things didn't work out that way. Confucian Ethics was one of the least popular subjects. Most Chinese students took Buddhist Studies. Bible Studies claimed more than 21.4% of students - and during the 1980s Christians numbered less than 10% of Singapore's population.

Most unfortunately for Lee Kuan Yew, the civil servants, and the panels of religious experts involved in forming the RK curriculum and training the teachers to deliver that curriculum, the failure was more severe than that. A study named "Religion and religious revivalism in Singapore" by sociologists Eddie Kuo, Jon Quah and Tong Chee Kiong directly implicated the Religious Knowledge courses in creating intense religious fervour and religious differences amongst students, and warned of the very real possibility of inter-religious conflicts in the long term.

And this is them being polite about it. And within 1 year of the study's publication, Religious Knowledge was phased out.

Unofficially though, let's just say that members of a certain religious affiliation in Singapore took the state sanction of "Religious Knowledge" to promote their strong-arm evangelising activities, which of course produced very vocal, outspoken, and strident students who put their classmates ill at ease.

To be completely impolite about it: Religious Knowledge was scrapped in schools because of the radicalisation and self-radicalisation of Christian students or students taking Bible Studies.

29 May 2009

A modest proposal for GRC reform

1. Decouple the political and administrative dimensions of Group Representative Constituencies

While efficiencies of scale were never put forward as a justification for the GRC scheme, it is clear that these efficiencies do exist, enabling town councils in GRCs to lower costs and build up million-dollar rainy day funds.

Thus, we propose that GRCs be kept.

We also propose that GRCs be capped at a size of 4, and for all SMCs to be scrapped entirely.

(Minilee's proposal to increase the number of SMCs and to cap GRCs to a maximum of 5 seats when the average size of GRCs is 5.4 would mean that the absolute number of minority representation in Parliament may yet again decrease)

We note that these efficiencies of scale exist independently of the political dimension of GRCs. This is a purely administrative side-effect of GRCs that will continue to exist regardless of party control.

2. Ditch the block ticket system for GRCs

Mathematically, as our GRCs stand: in a constituency of n available seats, the block ticket system ensures x(n) number of candidates where x is the number of parties contesting, but only x unique solutions, because the 'team' either wins all, or loses all.

The block ticket system of GRC voting ensures that the entire party slate wins, regardless of the unpopularity or perceived incompetence, actual gaffes and weaknesses of certain nominees. It creates a disturbingly high rate of walkovers, unelected representatives, ruling party MPs who have never faced a real contest - a situation that increasingly delegitimises the government of Singapore and its ruling party. In a country where voting is compulsory, less than half its population voted the last general elections due to walkovers. A semi-permanent swathe of citizens have never voted in their lives - a situation that increasingly delegitimises the idea of Singapore-style democracy.

As noted earlier, the sole constitutional justification for the GRC scheme is to ensure a healthy minority representation in Parliament. Nothing in the constitutional justification of GRCs says that the candidates contesting for a GRC must be bundled together.

Reforming GRCs

We propose the following set of changes that will restore the outcome of GRCs as intended by the constitution, as well as remedy the glaring weaknesses and unintended consequences of the "team wins/loses all" implementation:

For a n-seat GRC (where n is equal to or less than 4), there will be n unique winners, regardless of x parties contesting.

Each political party is free to nominate any number of candidates to the GRC.

For a n-seat GRC, each voter gets to cast their ballot for n-2 candidates on their voting forms. They are to choose exactly n-2, not more, and not less.

The winners are chosen thusly:
Top n-1 candidates with the most votes are elected, following which
From the pool of remaining candidates, elect the minority candidate with the most votes if there are none in the top n-1 candidates. Otherwise, elect the candidate with the most votes.

Implications of proposed GRC reforms:

There will be no bundling of candidates on the party ticket.

Each candidate will be judged on their own merit, preventing weak and untested candidates from riding on the coattails of Ministers. Each candidate will have to WORK FOR THEIR SEAT and prove they deserve to be elected. This is the trial of fire sorely lacking in Singapore's political system since its implementation of GRCs.

All parties are still free to present their candidates as a team; all voters are still free to vote straight-ticket ballots.

This proposal does not contradict the stated and constitutional purpose of the GRC system, i.e. ensuring minority representation in Parliament.

If the GRC system was to ensure minorities have a voice in Parliament, then the block ticket system should not be a sacred cow.

Other GRC reform proposals on the net:
Kent Ridge Common: Contesting GRCs the SMC way

Minilee's reformasi decoded

The PAP is not out to have a clean sweep. What we are trying to offer is certainty of good government and good people in charge. So my message is this: Have your desire for opposition fulfilled, but never to the extent of changing the government.
- Goh Chok Tong, 3 May 2006

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

From Minilee's proposed changes, we may tease out a probable set of dictums guiding his co-option of political reformation. We're not so shocked that they're virtually unchanged from Goh's formulations and implied dicta 2 years ago.

1. The PAP does not have the calibre to govern in an open democracy.

2. In Singapore, the PAP decides how many opposition MPs Singaporeans are allowed. Now Minilee allows you to have up to 9 opposition NCMPs and 10 MPs with full voting rights. Be thankful!

3. The PAP will do what it can to prevent Singaporeans from electing opposition MPs to constituencies.

4. The PAP will never allow voters to change ruling parties.

After all, what sort of reforms would guarantee that ensure that "the government which is elected has a clear mandate to govern in the interest of Singapore"?

One that guarantees the winning party is a parliamentary supermajority?

How on earth does this "serve Singapore well now and into the future"? Minilee's reforms will only guarantee that if there is a change in government, it will definitely be the worst case scenario "shock result" that his father and party leaders have always been afraid of.

By creating a reformed system where any ruling party has a clear mandate, where ruling coalitions are unnecessary, where oppositions are never strong enough to hold the crucial 1/3 of Parliament seats, Minilee and the PAP are ensuring that any new ruling party has zero experience in essential democracy and parliamentary governance. Minilee's proposed reforms guarantee that any change in ruling party will be disastrous to Singapore.

25 May 2009

An issue of statements III

This article continues our ongoing analysis of the recent statements by faith groups on the Aware issue.

Slightly more than 8 days after the conclusion of the Aware EGM and 10 days since his first statement as NCCS President, Bishop John Chew released a pastoral letter reflecting on the Aware issue. Where his first statement as NCCS president clearly needed clarity in terms of what he really meant to say, this pastoral letter attempts to redress its predecessor's shortcomings - but not without creating even more confusion.

We will leave aside the specifics of John Chew's pastoral letter for the moment, for they are the least of John Chew's problems.

For whom does John Chew speak?

This refrain is starting to feel like a recurring punchline in a stand-up comedy routine by now. We have earlier resolved that John Chew has no legal and theological basis to claim authority or right to represent, advocate, or doctrinally define the stand of Protestants in Singapore.

Note this: An imperfectly written statement released by the NCCS President is "clarified" by the Anglican Diocesean Bishop. John Chew had previously aspired to speak and dictate policy for the Protestant community of Singapore. He released a statement giving the impression as such on the Aware issue, as NCCS President. And yet his follow-up and clarification (much needed, he claims in this letter, to allay confusion and breakdown in both the "Christian Church" and the Anglican Church) is made as a Diocesan Bishop and not as NCCS President.

This is of course highly irregular and improper procedure, the equivalent of political leaders wearing too many hats and putting on different hats at different times to participate in a single issue. Yet more practical problems and questions arise from John Chew's mystifying pastoral letter:

For whom does John Chew speak to and speak for in his pastoral letter?
Why does John Chew not take the opportunity to share his "clarification" on the matter as NCCS President, to all Protestants in Singapore?

Pulpits vs pastoral letters

"We do not condone churches getting involved in this matter; neither do we condone pulpits being used for this purpose": while this statement does not imply orders were actually given to ban preaching on the Aware issue from the pulpit, reports from our church-going readers and friends indicate that clergy in Protestant churches generally refrained from even commenting on the Aware issue on the Sundays before and after the Aware EGM in respect to John Chew's NCCS statement.

John Chew now appears to say: preaching about Aware from pulpit cannot, but pastoral letter can!

Are pastoral letters equivalent to preaching from the pulpit? What status does a pastoral letter from the Anglican Dioscean Bishop have? Was the Diocesan Bishop writing in his capacity as the head of the Singapore Diocese, or the pastor of the Saint Andrew's Cathedral parish?

A pastoral letter from the Bishop of Rome you will ignore at the peril of your Catholic soul.

A pastoral letter from the pastor or even moderator of a Presbyterian Church is merely the opinion of its writer, and not necessarily that of the writer's church, presbytery or synod unless indicated otherwise.

Most certainly a pastoral letter in the Anglican Communion resides somewhere in the middle - we urge Bishop John Chew to clarify the capacity in which he wrote the letter, the theological status of the pastoral letter, as well as explain why a lengthy explanation - implying that his original NCCS statement was poorly crafted and inadequate in communication - was released not as NCCS President but as just Anglican Diocesan Bishop. Why change hats halfway?

Clearly though, the state again felt the need to activate the faith spokesgroups, but this time, using the heads of the Lutheran, Methodist, and Islamic churches - none of whom bothered to agree with John Chew or reference his pastoral letter. Curious, no?

Taking clear sides now can, or: to hell with the secular-religious divide!

We note several instances in Chew's pastoral letter where he clearly takes a stand in the Aware issue, chooses his sides, and makes pronouncements on the Aware CSE programme to the extent of sanctioning Thio Su-mien's allegations:

We are grateful to God for MOE's swift suspension of external sexuality education programmes pending careful review...

If pastors around Singapore had refrained from even commenting about Aware and its sex education programme for weeks just because of John Chew's NCCS statement, they'd be kicking themselves in the foot now. Not only is Chew commenting on Aware, he's now tying Aware and homosexuality together. Not from the pulpit, but using a pastoral letter. SMART!

Our Christian social responsibility is to "seek the welfare of the city" (Jer 29:7). This includes the social and ethical considerations we bring to civil life and public discussion of fundamental social issues based on the beliefs and values of our faith.

How is this statement different from saying Christians must stop the nation from crossing lines God has drawn? I suspect John Chew will never illustrate this unless public pressure is exerted for him to explicitly clarify his position on the church-state divide, or even comment on Pastor Derek Hong's interesting theological formulation.

Similarly, as a man who chooses which reality to belong to, John Chew needs to be questioned loudly on whether he condones Hong's formulations of homosexuals and their supporters as the tools of Satan, as well as the status of Thio Su-mien as a prophetess, and whether he agrees with her reported view that abortion led to God's punishment of Singapore during the SARS breakout.

As unfolding revelations have shown, the group’s concern for a direction that AWARE was taking in terms of its agenda for redefining mainstream sexual ethics and social norms was not misplaced.

Almost a clear and unambiguous statement that Aware had a homosexual agenda, and Thio Su-mien was right all along, no? In what capacity does John Chew make this statement?

However one views the perceived involvement and the manner of their engagement of some courageous Christians in the recent AWARE saga, their costly effort has undoubtedly done our society a crucial service...

Bishop John Chew hearts Thio Su-mien. Well, the means may not have been ideal but John Chew clearly approves of the ends! And again, Chew hails from a reality where "means" and "ends" are not talked about, where improper conduct is only ethically difficult and challenging. What this says about him as a man of God and a leader of his church is interesting, to say the least.

21 May 2009

An issue of statements II

This article expands on ideas developed in these posts:
Singapore's wayang model of religious consultation
Imperial overreach: NCCS edition


A statement is much more than just a missive from a single source on a given topic. A statement does not exist in a vacuum; its meaning circumscribes and is circumscribed by other related statements in a field bounded by their common subject of inquiry, interrogative strategy, or discursive environment.

Bourdieuan discourse analysis treats statements as deliberate speech-acts stake out ideological positions, signal an investment of reputation and attention, by both participants and interested spectators.

Having first established Singapore's wayang model of religious consultation and confirming that this model and the "election" of the NCCS as official spokesbody is an unnatural state of affairs for Protestant churches, we now turn to the first wave of statements released for the Aware affair.

Statements of issue, statements of omission

First, the 30 April statement by Bishop John Chew, President of the NCCS.

While "we do not condone churches getting involved in this matter; neither do we condone pulpits being used for this purpose", it does not imply however that standing orders were actually given to ban preaching on the Aware issue from the pulpit.

Instead, Bishop Chew merely elaborates that the heads of NCCS member churches had merely "reiterated to their clergy the standing instruction on the proper use of the pulpit". What that standing instruction is on the proper use of the pulpit is unknown and unknowable. As the NCCS constitution helpfully points out, it is merely "an association of co-operating members, each of which determines its own policy and action." It is probable that the standing instruction may have made some reference to constrict clergy from discussing or promoting the Aware saga from their pulpit; it is likely that the standing instruction varies from church to church.

This continues in a mysterious claim that "our member churches are not involved in the present saga". What Bishop Chew denies in his statement is the existence of leaked emails as clear evidence of COOS involvement and the role of its pastoral staff in orchestrating the takeover, which had been floating around for days and were actually confirmed by Derek Hong before the statement went out. What he hopes we forget is Derek Hong's infamous pulpit speech about nations crossing lines set by God. Bishop Chew is appears to be someone with a high capacity for Jedi mind tricks, or very selective about acknowledging and dealing with historical facts.

Yet this isn't the end of the NCCS statement. Strangely enough, it continues in a defense of individual Christians and Christian churches to engage in public policy and social discussions, and ends with a call for "all [to] step back and give AWARE space to settle its own matters". Again, note John Chew's attempt to slide away from the main issue - that a certain faction of Christians had taken over Aware, and claimed to be acting individually. Either John Chew is speaking completely off tangent, or he has given Thio's faction a plausible excuse for their Aware takeover and future operations.

We point out John Chew's use of "public square", which exists mainly as a dog-whistle code from US religious politics. The only other politician who has gone on record as mentioning the "public square" in Parliament would be NMP Thio Li-Ann. Interestingly, Janadas Devan had already called out on Thio Li-Ann's dog-whistling there and then. Dr Bishop Chew's use of the dog-whistle code is unfortunate if he didn't intend to whip the radical fundamentalist Christian faction into a frenzy.

The reconstituting power of statements

John Chew's NCCS statement - timed way too late into the development of the Aware saga - was apparently so clear and unambiguous that the entire machinery of the state and its wayang apparatus had to be mobilised.

Archbishop Nicholas Chia, Archbishop of Archdiocese of Singapore: 'I agree with Dr John Chew... Secular organisations should remain secular. These organisations are secular and are not within our ambit."

Ustaz Palman Supangat, Chairman, Al-Iman Mosque: "i fully agree with Dr John Chew's statement. Religious and secular issues and organisations should not mix."

Ven. Kwang Sheng, President, Singapore Buddhist Federation: "I support the vfiews of Dr John Chew in the statement issued by the NCCS. Religious groups as institutions should not get involved in civil society organisations, and the pulpit should not be used in furtherance of such socio-political causes... We feel that organisations which are meant to be secular in nature... should always be kept secular, while other organisations with non-secular or religious stances are free to propagate them to their own members.

Rev. Master Lee Zhiwang, President, Taoist Mission (Singapore): "I concur with the views of Dr John Chew, NCCS, that the pulpit should not be used in issues like the leadership of Aware, which is a secular organisation. Religious groups should not be involved in this matter."

Note that each religious organisation leader clearly thought Dr John Chew had made a statement reaffirming the secular-religious divide. Some leaders who issued statements agreed with John Chew that religious organisations should play no part in socio-political causes. Most leaders indirectly commented on the importance of Aware being kept secular, even though Josie Lau and Thio Su-mien had insisted that their religious affiliations were incidental to their takeover operation.

Curious, no? Applying the wayang model to the first cycle of statements, we suggest that:

1. The State, eschewing direct intervention into the Aware affair, had hoped to solve it through the church-state consultation model promulgated by then-PM Goh Chok Tong.

2. Dr John Chew and the NCCS were tapped and nudged into action.

3. The statement by Dr John Chew was unsatisfactory and subtly defiant.

4. As a result, other faith leaders had to be brought into play, their statements cascading into the world's fastest attempt at historical revisionism, rewriting the intent and tenor of Dr John Chew's actual message, and guiding audiences to read it "correctly".

5. Secular society, secularism, the church-state divide: all omitted in Dr John Chew's NCCS statement, all reaffirmed in the other faith leaders' statements.

18 May 2009

Imperial overreach: NCCS edition

NCCS - nothing like MUIS

Certainly, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) has benefited from the uniquely consultative style of the Singapore government in recent years, rising to occasion as a convenient spokesbody, representative, and leader for Protestants here.

Founded in 1948 by a group of British clerics and friends who served as POWs at Changi Prison, the Malayan Christian Council promptly faded into obscurity given the fact that these clerics left the region shortly after, and that there were a whole host of other ecumenical initiatives in Malaya. And not to mention, The Emergency.

To put it bluntly, the NCCS has a temporarily high profile today thanks to the opportunism of its exco members. Their actions have catapulted it to the public eye, above and beyond its natural capacity -

Signing the declaration of religious harmony
Issuing a statement on homosexuality
Issuing a statement on the casino issue
Issuing a statement to back the banning of the Mohammed cartoons
Issuing a private and secret letter to the MDA on The Da Vinci Code

Extra-legal powers and authority?

But who does the NCCS speak for? What manner of doctrine or public position can it enforce on Protestants in Singapore?

The NCCS was never intended to be a Protestant fatwah-issuing religious council. The President of the NCCS was never intended to be the leader of Protestants in Singapore. Yet these two misconceptions were held by many commentators on the Aware issue, regardless of which faction they supported.

We refer to the Constitution of the NCCS:

Article 3(iv): [the Council is founded] as an association of co-operating members, each of which determines its own policy and action.

Article 4(vi): [The objectives of the Council are] to provide an agency through which the Government of the Republic of Singapore may consult the Council on matters of common concern to its members.

Articles 4(v) to (vi) are amendments to the original constitution of the NCCS, giving credence to the Wayang theory of state-church consultation. (As an aside, we note that 4(vi) is a copy-paste-adaptation of Section 3, 2(a) of the 1968 AMLA act.) These amendments can be reasonably dated to the aftermath of the 1969 race riots in Malaya, whereupon the governments on both sides of the Straits instituted various faith councils to take part in the wayang process, and empowered the successors of the Malayan Christian Council as 'official' spokesbodies.

In Singapore at least, there was very little follow-up consultation thereafter, until the Goh administration reinstituted the wayang process with the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 1991 and to seek 'religious approval' of the human stem cell research through 'religious representation and consultation' in the Bioethics Advisory Committee, in 2001.

Our main concern is with 3(iv) of the NCCS constitution, which appears to explicitly contradict the organisation's spokesbody role. The same clause also appears to contradict the organisation's carefully cultivated impression having the unquestionable authority to advise Protestant Christians on theological or secular matters.

In reality, the President of the NCCS has no power to issue commands to the Protestant Christian population, set church policy, or to speak on behalf of NCCS member churches.

Don't believe me?

Ask the Methodists.

The General Conference, "which meets every 4 years, is the highest decision-making body of the MCS, led by the elected Bishop and an equal number of elected representatives (both clergy and laity) from each of the three Annual Conference..."
The People Called Methodist, 37

The General Conference is the only body that speaks officially for the church. "No person, no paper, no organisation has the authority to speak officially for The Methodist Church, this right having been reserved exclusively to the General Conference under the Constitution"
Discipline¶210

Ask the Presbyterians.

According to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, the Synod is its highest decision-making body, with unique powers to license and recognise preachers (18)(i) for its denomination, to represent the Presbyterian Church in external relations (48)(i) and make doctrinal decisions (48)(ii). It is the Synod who represents the Presbyterian Church externally, not any Moderator, and most certainly not the President of the NCCS.

In light of this, we question the placement of Rt Rev Tan Cheng Huat as NCCS Vice President and presumably its representative for the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.

Under the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore, the Moderator of the Synod is purely that: an administrative role in the 3rd level of the church bureaucracy. He calls meetings to order, is responsible for accounts, but when the Synod votes, the Moderator is an ordinary voting member; his vote is not a veto and not a deciding vote.

Under what right does a Moderator have to represent and speak for the Synod in the NCCS?

As far as we know: There is no "Moderator of the Presbyterian Church". The Moderator of the 35th & 36th Session Synod of the Presbyterian Church, 2009-2011, is Rev Phua Chee Seng. The Moderator of the 16th Session English Presbytery, 2009-2011, is Rev Keith Lai. The Moderator of the 17th Session Chinese Presbytery, 2009-2011, is Rev Leow Khee Fatt. We are unclear if NCCS meant the moderator of the synod, the moderator of a presbytery, or the moderator of a church known as "Presbyterian Church".

Will the "Moderator of the Presbyterian Church" please stand up and explain your strange, unusual, probably fictitious post - and just what you're playing in this organisation, and who is authorising you to play in the NCCS?

15 May 2009

Singapore's wayang model of religious consultation

Imperial overreach redux, or: haven't we been here before?

In the light of a second cycle of official statements coming from various churches and religious groups on the long aftermath of the Aware issue, it is clear that the matter is not closed, and will not be closed for some time. Despite their authority and positions, statements issued by various quarters more than a week ago lack the finality that was expected of them - hence forcing another wave of clarifications.

The church-state wayang

As a modus operandi, faith organisations have never played an active role in political and public commentary in the years of the Republic; one may cite certain remarks a political leader issued shortly after Operation Spectrum, or the general consensus on the church-state divide already existing in the entire region after 1960.

It is then highly out of the ordinary that faith organisations in Singapore have been issuing on a regular basis, official statements on all matters of public policy and social discourse in the recent years. We trace this torrent of statements to their zero point: a decision in 2001 by the Goh Chok Tong government to obtain the consent from various faith leaders before embarking on its life sciences and stem cell research industry.

Out of this need to have religious leaders to speak for their faith communities as part of a "look, I asked them, they didn't object strongly enough" consultation process, certain questionable innovations have arisen, erroneous impressions cultivated, and ambitions stoked.

Like a good old wayang, a series of legal and social fictions (in the sense that corporate personhood is a fiction) must be maintained in this 'consultative' mode of government.

1. Religions have a major say in public consultation (when the government decides they should be consulted, or be made to speak up on certain issues)

2. Religions must receive special legal protection against certain speech (to the point where observers have the impression that religious organisations have a veto over public discourse and public policy)

3. Religious leaders have authority to speak for and dictate the beliefs and attitudes of their faith communities

These fictions, especially the final one, don't seem to be immediately illogical; we expect Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (aka MUIS) to issue religious rulings that orthodox Muslims in Singapore would consider binding.

But does the President of NCCS have the authority to speak for, dictate the doctrinal stand, and issue commands to Christians in Singapore?

And moving further away from the religions of the book... do the statements from the President of a Buddhist Federation or a Taoist Society have any doctrinal, legal, or even institutional authority on self-professed Buddhists and Taoists in Singapore? To what extent do the Presidents of these societies receive the acknowledged leadership and authority from the members of their faith, which they fictionally 'speak for' and 'represent' in Singapore's wayang system of church-state relations?

The Aware saga has shown that certain consultative bodies may not be content with their mere consultative role, and aren't afraid of being seen by the larger polity as muscling their way into public policy and setting the terms of public discourse either publicly, through their 'individual' proxies, or through inaction to control these proxies.

Go to part 2 of this post

14 May 2009

The gay agenda

Yesterday, Aware. Today: the United Nations! Dun dun dunnnnn!

Full story here

Kampala - Ugandan Ethics Minister James Nsaba Buturo alleged on Friday that some United Nations member states were engaged in a covert campaign to spread homosexuality around the world.

"At the United Nations there are attempts by some nations to impose homosexuality on the rest of us," he told reporters. "We have learned that they want to smuggle in provisions on homosexuality."

He said he was particularly concerned about an ongoing UN conference on population.

"We got to learn from our sources that there are interests that want to use that conference to bring in issues that will protect homosexuals," he said.

Buturo spoke on Thursday to Uganda's UN ambassador and reminded him of the country's position that homosexuality is "unnatural, abnormal, illegal, dangerous, and dirty".


Disclaimer: This blog post is not meant as a commentary on Thio Su Mien, her takeover attempt of Aware through her G9, or the rhetoric the Thio camp has employed throughout the Aware affair.

Ladies and gentlemen, the homophobic playbook:

1. When members of an organisation plan to introduce provisions on homosexuality that do not outright condemn it as a sin, an abomination, or a practice out of line with the majority: There is a covert agenda to spread homosexuality.

2. An organisation planning to introduce provisions for non-discrimination on homosexuality = an organisation planning to protect homosexuals.

3. An organisation planning to comment, not unfavourably, on homosexuality/homosexuals: clearly acting under the influence of external interests.

10 May 2009

Defending the right of Christians to discuss

Do Christians have the right to engage in public discussion and national policy-making?

In what manner, under what circumstances and rules of conduct should Christians engage in public discussion and national policy-making?

Discuss.


The following comes from the bulletin board of a church that shall not be named. Please note this denomination is considered to be socially liberal and theologically quiet in relation to the rest of the mainline denominations in Singapore.

In recent years, there have been many developments in our social landscape that have affected our lives as Singapore citizens and more importantly, as Christian Singaporeans. Jesus calls us to live by kingdom values and to be the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), as His witnesses, influencing and impacting our society for good, to the glory of God. This mandate, however, is very often privatized, confining to personal religious piety. As a result, many Singaporean Christians are shying away from engaging themselves in the discussion and decision-making process on social issues in the public arena. The recent controversy on sexuality education in our public schools has highlighted the apathy Christians share with the rest of society.

The Leadership Team believes that our call to Christian discipleship goes beyond engagement with Sunday worship and ministry activities. We believe that we need to connect our Sunday proclamation of faith with our practice of faith in the marketplace and public arena.

Therefore, we hereby invite all like-minded Christians, who have a burden or are burdened by the developments in our public policies and social landscape, to come and join us for an informal dialogue session for this purpose.

Update: No, the church from which this bulletin originated is not COOS. It is not a megachurch either. It's not a fundamentalist church either.

09 May 2009

The 8th Germinal of Thio Su Mien

Much of the revelations in the "On Aware's changing slant towards homosexuality and comprehensive sexual education in recent years" (now pulled off Aware's website after Feminist Mentor's G9 were deposed) centres on Aware's activities from 2005 to 2008.

For the first time, the Aware Mother's Day celebration included presentations of mothers with lesbian daughters, alongside normal and single-parent units.

For the first time, Aware chose a movie with a lesbian theme as its charity fundraiser.

For the first time, Aware invited a gay activist, Alex Au, to give talks to women on HIV.

And for the first time, Constance Singam herself participated in Indignation, Singapore's gay pride month, in a dialogue session with the lesbian community.

In the hardened hearts and blinded eyes of Thio Su Mien and COOS Pastor Derek Hong, this constituted a capitulation to the homosexual agenda.

Yet Constance Singam herself refused to bow to the demands of the gay and lesbian community. At Indignation's "Queer women within feminist Singapore", Singam refused to concede to the popular demand that Aware explicitly support the lesbian community, refused to have lesbian-specific programmes. Singam refused to acknowledge that lesbian rights were special and needed emphasis beyond Aware's general pro-women, irrespective of race, age, class stance.

If Singam were intent on allowing the gay conspiracy to hijack Aware, subvert it against family values, she ended up burning bridges with a large part of the lesbian community last August.

This alone tells us how much reality-based the concerns of Thio Su Mien and Pastor Derek Hong are.

It is difficult to believe that these two members of a mainstream Christian denomination looked at Aware's list of firsts without considering Constance Singam intended for 2008 to be Aware's outreach year for the lesbian community.

It is a community that has traditionally distanced itself from mainstream feminism and fallen outside its purview, despite the fact that all its members are women who ought to be accounted and administered to by feminist projects and help.

Christ-centred churches do outreach programmes as a matter of principle and religious calling. Yet I have never heard of churches being hijacked or having their purposes subverted by their outreach communities. Just as Constance Singam refused to compromise on her vision of feminism in the face of the lesbian community it outreched to last August, no church would compromise on its Christian values because of its outreach community.

This alone tells us the lack of Christ in the hearts of Thio Su Mien and Derek Hong, for them not to see what the list of firsts was really about.

This also tell us Constance Singam failed to communicate her outreach programme openly in Aware's literature and newsletters and to the public at large. Aware's record low membership and even lower number of active members in 2007-8 had simplified the organisation to the extent where Singam's decisions did not really need to be put forward for open discussion and explanation; in any case, Aware's undeclared outreach programme does not constitute good organisational governance and has now even engendered distrust in parts of society outside of COOS.

The road forward for Aware is very simple. All Constance Singam and Dana Lim need to do is to reaffirm their vision of a neutral feminism that cannot be held hostage to the gay and lesbian lobby while continuing their outreach to the lesbian community, to start an outreach to the Christian community without being held hostage to the Christian lobby. Eyes on all sides of the debate will be watching closely.

05 May 2009

Inquiring minds want to know: Caine Teo and Ape Communications

As we celebrate our victory over the forces of Feminist Mentor, we urge people to review their memories of that hard-fought battle. It was a difficult battle despite the one-sided result.

Over the past few days, we have received reports from people who attended the EGM at Suntec. As we review their accounts with the reports from twitter by articulate bloggers, the Wayang Party and The Online Citizen, it appears the battleground was stacked against their favour.

We draw attention to the events management company behind the EGM: Ape Communications, and its boss Caine Teo.

We direct the following questions to Ape Communications and Caine Teo, and encourage interested parties to send these in writing to Ape Communications, 32 Eng Hoon Street, Singapore 169780 or ask@ape.sg:

1. The original venue for the EGM was to have been Expo, right next to an evangelical rally.

As the event manager of Aware, was this venue choice your decision, or was it a decision on the part of the Aware exco?

2. At the EGM at Suntec, it appears that supporters of the Aware exco, clad in red t-shirts, had volunteered to set up and man the venue as early as 9am.

Was it your decision as event manager to allow only redshirt supporters to volunteer for the venue preparation?

Was it your decision as event manager to reject and eject the Old Guard and their supporters as volunteers for the venue preparation?

3. When the seating began, a huge group of redshirts were made to go into the hall first, as a collective. After which, the queue was operated in a first-come-first served manner.

As event manager, could you explain the rationale for the decision to let the redshirts enter the hall first?

4. When the EGM started, and for almost the entire duration of the EGM, microphones at the back and middle of the hall were turned off completely.

As event manager, could you explain why this was so? As events manager, could you justify this decision, as anyone who has attended corporate AGMs and EGMs will tell you it's bad form to turn off any microphone in a hall?

5. During the EGM, the microphones were constantly switched off in the middle of questions by speakers who interrogated the new exco’s policies and attitudes toward homosexuality.

Was control of the microphones under your purview as events manager? Could you explain why the microphones seemed to work in the interests of the exco, and not the members of the organisation?

6. We note the presence of AETOS Security Management Pte Ltd auxiliary police for the event. It is unfortunate that the overwhelming impression was that the AETOS personnel functioned more as the private bodyguards and enforcers of the will of the Aware exco, instead of keeping the peace and security on both ends.

Was control of the auxiliary police under your purview as events manager?
Could you explain why the AETOS personnel appeared to work under the orders of the exco, and not as security personnel?
Could you clarify the role under which AETOS personnel were engaged for the event?

7. At 9.10 pm, Josie Lau goes on stage with the statement "We have decided to graciously step down. We wish Aware all the best. I declare the meeting closed." And the microphones in the hall were all shut down following this statement.

As event manager, were you in charge of the microphones? If you weren't, who was?
As event manager, were you aware that as of her statement to step down, Josie Lau no longer had the power to declare the meeting closed?

8. On your girlfriend's blog (screencap here), she mentioned being privvy to "new and unpublished insights" about the Aware situation because of your involvement. She clarifies on her blog that you shared with her your worries and how your day went.

As event manager, did you discuss break client confidentiality in discussing the Aware issue with your girlfriend?

As event manager, were you provided information by the Aware exco that were in excess to what you needed to know? How much information did you pass on to your girlfriend?

9. As event manager, would you say that you have provided a fair, neutral, and unbiased event management for a highly polarised EGM?

For all readers who attended the EGM on Saturday: Do feel free to leave your impressions and additional questions of the event management on the blog, or email me through the usual channels. I will, with permission, reproduce them here, with names withheld upon request.

Updates:
6 May 2009: NMP Siew Kum Hong reports on his personal experience of the deliberately tilted playing field of the EGM and its wide variance from the law and practice of meetings.