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.


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.


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.