I see the contrast in two Straits Times reports yesterday. One report is entitled “A quiet Christmas in Brunei” and the other reads “Gathering place for the Karen.”
While the Bruneians are having their muted Christmas celebration because “the government has banned open displays of Christmas trees and Santa Claus figures since last year,” the Karen Baptist Church (KBC) – the only Church in Singapore formed by Karen Christians – are celebrating their “Karen New Year” openly and it has an attendance of 1500. Last year, 5000 of all religious persuasions came.
KBC began with 30 in 1997 and today, their weekly services conducted in Karen language has about 500. In Myanmar, the Karen people are still facing persecution and the refugee problem is heartbreaking.
Pastor Saw, who came to Singapore in 1995 and worked as an electrician for 15 years before “swopping his screwdrivers for sermon notes,” said, “My motivations are not political. I just want to help our community here, especially the lower-wage workers.”
In addition to the Church service, once a month, KBC members "make their way to the farms in the Lim Chu Kang area with food and necessities for Karen workers at the chicken farm.” At the roadside, lit by the streetlamp, Pastor Saw held “mini services, using the back of lorries as a makeshift stage.”
While one of the rationale for banning public Christmas celebration and disallowing Muslims from joining such celebration was explained by a cleric from Brunei’s Religious Affairs Ministry’s Propagation division as this, “If Muslims offer wishes of Merry Christmas, it means they give recognition to that religion and consider it to be acceptable to Allah. But that cannot be, as our religion says there is only one God, not many Gods,” Pastor Saw of KBC however has this to say about the mini-farm services held at the back of lorries, “some of the farm workers who come are not believers. But we welcome all; I will not turn them away because they are not Christians.”
Lesson? I have three.
1) Shared values.
In 1991, our government came up with the shared value white paper. GCT then wanted “to facilitate the formation of a coherent Singaporean identity.” He proposed five shared values and the sixth about “belief in God” was rejected because Singapore was to remain a secular state.
Now, secularism doesn’t mean hostility to religion and religious harmony has always been one of the cornerstones of our society. This is in fact the last and fifth value in the white paper. The other values has to do with “community and society above self” but this is balanced out by “regard and community support for the individual.” The other shared values are “family as the basic unit of society” and “consensus instead of contention” to accommodate different views.
More importantly, Singapore takes an open-minded and open-ended perspective on religious pluralism and not a closed and narrow one. It takes the good of religion and blends it with its national purpose of peaceful co-existence, and at the same time, is cautious about its excesses and possible political subversive tendencies when left to its own devices.
Personally, I am glad our government took the pre-emptive step/measure to set afoot and apace the firm and reassuring direction of our nation.
When the Maintenance of Religious Harmony white paper and Act were produced, there was a concern that Christian evangelism was getting too aggressive and the movement might be perceived as insensitive to the other religion. So, the government again took pre-emptive steps. GCT said in parliament that the Act was introduced “more in sorrow than with joy.”
Now, our government is not perfect, but I am glad they did some things right with vision and foresight. If you read the history of great empires, you will see a common thread that runs through them just before they begin to fall. Intolerance is one of the signs.
A great civilization always starts with enlightened tolerance or “intolerant with intolerance” where all are invited to build the community together. Then comes a regressive attitude I call “tolerant of intolerance.” This is where one powerful section of the community starts to break away and assume a form of racial, language or religious exceptionalism.
The fallout comes when this attitude sours into what I call “Intolerant with tolerance.” This is where the nation becomes demarcated, divided, and divisive. Our government therefore forestalled that eventuality with the passing of the religious harmony Act and the enunciation of the shared values.
Essentially, our government has made it clear that they are “anti-theocratic” but not “anti-religious” and “secular but not atheistic”. You can say that ours is a secular leadership with an agnostic soul.
I want to end here with the humbling work of Pastor Saw of KBC. His all-embracing, non-discriminating attitude towards Christians and non-Christians alike is especially encouraging, uplifting, even refreshing.
His Church sets the example as Christ had set it when he invited all to come to his table of mercy, love and communal joy. At Calvary, the love of God is offered to all without exception, and it is offered free, unconditionally.
When Jesus was hung there, he had criminals for company. At his final moments, he offered them salvation regardless, and it matters not to him whether they are Jews or gentiles, penitent or not.
Jesus knew he did not come to save an ideology, a language, a government, a form of patriotism, or to preserve and perpetuate a race. He came to save us – a broken humanity and a common soul.
At Calvary, for that defining moment, Jesus had placed himself below humanity so that none of us can ever claim to be above it. And this is why we celebrate this season so openly. Because our joy for such a Savior cannot be contained. Merry Christmas to all! Cheerz.