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.

No comments: