Speak Up or Be Spoken For!

Gwee Li Sui

Neo can't speak: can you? (Source: The Matrix, 1999)

One year ago, about an hour after the riveting AWARE extraordinary general meeting had concluded, I received a phone call from a producer of Channel NewsAsia’s Talking Point. I was invited to join a panel of guests on the forum show to discuss the evening’s outcome and its implications, and this episode would be filmed the next morning and aired hours later. The panel, as is known by now, included two key figures tied to the affair: then newly elected AWARE president, Dana Lam, and former Nominated Member of Parliament and former AWARE president, Braema Mathi. There was also Eugene Tan, a law lecturer from SMU, to provide the obligatory academic commentary.

I gave this invitation some minutes of thought and then turned it down politely. It was not just because I felt that my role was secondary, having only written a few Facebook notes in my capacity less as an academic than as a concerned Christian. My sole aim then was to help fellow believers see the dispute for what it really was and not be dragged by identity politics to support the misconduct of others. The broad responses to my notes – written when the government expressed its disinterest over who led AWARE and before churches were prepared to disinvolve themselves – showed how much the public had needed a conciliatory message. The notes went viral on the web and were acknowledged in mainstream press, encouraging even more Christians to make clear their disapproval.

Given this context, my counter-proposal to the TV producer was a very specific one. I asked that, if the offending party was unavailable for comments, the show should invite not me but a notable Christian leader who possessed some standing. Such a figure was necessary in order to help heal the rift that was already opening up between ordinary Christians and practically everyone else in Singapore. He or she would be best placed to reassure the public, to restore confidence in the faith’s traditional commitment to social peace, and to address lingering questions. In any case, a future for post-AWARE constructive discussion ought not to begin with four speakers sharing views that barely had any useful degree of differentiation.

How that suggestion went down may be observed in the episode that was eventually shown on TV. Whether the programme was unable to find a spokesperson in time or every leader it approached had declined, I do not know. The missing religious angle was nonetheless the start of a year of pathological silence whenever spiritual leadership was desperately needed in the secular realm. We see this again when, with the Ministry of Education’s announcement of an overhaul of sexuality education in schools, the beaten camp started to brandish the decision as its own vindication. That this outcome precisely showed the whole AWARE fiasco to be unnecessary – since concerned individuals could have just approached the right authorities – was a point many Christians bore in silence.

Then, still discontented, a Christian law professor from NUS went on to use her status as Nominated Minister of Parliament to rail wildly against some spectral “militant secularism”. The matter received no religious cross-examination of the kind that could ascertain whether the charge was true or arose from a defective or insular perspective. A nervous public was left once again to formulate its own excuses for such an outburst in the absence of clarifications Christians themselves were reluctant to provide. But this tolerance for silence increasingly fed an impression that believers were not so much apathetic as complicit with the divisive ideas that had grounded a number of scandals. These scandals included messages against other faiths, unprovoked hostility towards gay people, attempts to influence and control public discourse, ecclesiastical faux pas, and some churches’ controversial financial excursions.

It would be a serious mistake to assume here that, just because a culture of responsible public clarification had not taken root, nothing was said within the various Christian communities themselves. All the above-mentioned events met with adequate coverage in religious newsletters and bulletins and were mentioned in the context of Sunday sermons on topics such as social harmony. Also, to be fair, a significant number raised a range of crucial issues for their readers and hearers to mull over although some were indeed more bent on pushing a particular line. For example, with regard to the AWARE saga, the widely read Christian Post interviewed a seminary professor of ethics who went on record to call it “extremely mischievous” to speak of a “coup” or “takeover” since the Christians “took office legitimately”. It was ironic that proper ethical questions that might be instructive – such as whether an act could be legal and still unethical – were not entertained.

In fact, the use of a voice of influence not so much to encourage reflection as to provide an uncritical rallying point is a recent development of some concern. A religious authority must know that, given his or her special place in a pluralistic society, he or she is not just the guide, teacher, and protector of a community but also the public face of charity, freedom of belief, and good sense. When the earlier-mentioned law lecturer proceeded to publish a book that subtly expanded her radical ideas of “militant secularism”, one lingering concern has been the lack of any serious attempt to counter it to date. More worryingly, the book itself opens with a long string of endorsements from some very familiar religious figures, leading a warier reader to wonder if these have understood the full implications of what they are lending their names to. It is vital to wonder further whether a reader is likely to treat these leaders’ reviews as personal opinions, not the stance of whole institutions, and be willing to disagree with what may not sit well with his or her own conscience.

For this reason, my suspicion was piqued when Cabinet minister Vivian Balakrishnan made a rather bold plea some weeks back that religious leaders speak up against strayers within their own communities. The call was, to be sure, commendable and had good intentions: Balakrishnan rightly noted that many leaders were uncomfortable with having to criticise someone who was close to them or came from a similar spiritual household. That disinclination out of some sense of good will or “face-saving” has nonetheless tended to embolden others to be reckless in their words and actions and to test public tolerance even further. Balakrishnan thus stressed: “If each religious leader takes it upon himself to do good housekeeping, to rebut and explain that those are not the views of the mainstream of that religion, I think other religions, other people listening, will feel more reassured.”

But Balakrishnan’s huge assumption here lies in his idea of a “mainstream”, which does not seem to factor in the changing leadership and social trends within a faith. While deviation from mainstream views can sometimes be construed as a problem, it is ultimately still a theological issue rather than a social one. What can conversely become social is too much internal control, which may result in a suppression of diverse voices, elements that are needed for a culture of checks and balances. Is a scenario that unimaginable where reining in precisely ends up enhancing rather than stopping what it is assumed to prevent, a faith’s aggressive push in the common secular space? Speaking up from inside a religious establishment can thus realistically only happen when its bureaucracy is able and willing to free its own representatives enough to speak their minds. Who within an institution now dares to mention worrying developments and risk scandalising it or its associates, jeopardising his or her professional future, and being excluded by peers?

Until internal provisions for such freedom are in place, it is left to ground-level or grassroot believers to listen to their own conscience, recognise their highest obedience to belong to God, and muster enough courage to respond when it matters. One year after the AWARE saga, I dare say that – in light of repeated failures and lingering tensions – the mental conditions for some religious folks have changed somewhat. There are now more ordinary Christians who, having experienced first-hand the cost of sudden hurt and distrust, feel unafraid to express their disagreements with ideas that threaten a common space of citizenry. I am heartened to hear the occasional reassurance from fellow believers that, should another unchristianly act be mounted in the future, they can be counted on to protect the rights of others swiftly. One year on, the message is ringing increasingly clear: Christians, when your conscience cries out, never fear your own kind especially when you care about them. Speak up or what you hold dear will end up being spoken for!