No quick and easy sound bites emerge from the gamut of ideas discussed by the presenter, panellists and the audience at the “ETHOS Forum 2019: Religion in the Private and Public Spheres”, held at Trinity Theological College on 25 April 2019.
Dr Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore, presented a paper, which he co-authored, entitled “Religion in Singapore: The Private and Public Spheres”. 1 Based on a survey of 1,800 respondents in 2018, the paper assessed Singaporeans’ views on religion in relation to inter-religious harmony and politics, as well as their attitudes towards social and moral issues.
One of the study’s findings is that the majority of Singaporeans consider themselves somewhat religious (55%) and see religion as still relevant today (70%). Most of the respondents, especially those identifying themselves as Christians, Muslims and Hindus, tend to be more conservative, particularly in moral issues such as infidelity and homosexual sex.
However, differences between the position of the younger and the older generations are becoming more stark. The younger and more educated tend to be more liberal in their views on sexual matters. “Many more young people look at it in shades of grey,” explained Dr Mathews. “I think this is part of a broader millennial kind of understanding about accepting diversity, … [of] respecting other people who have their own way of doing things.”
Following Dr Mathews’ presentation, the audience had the opportunity to address questions to a panel comprising Dr Mathews, Bishop Emeritus (BE) Dr Robert Solomon and Dr Goh Wei-Leong (a general practitioner and founder of HealthServe, an NGO).
The panellists felt that the labels of “liberal” and “conservative” are no longer useful in this day and age, as there are those who are biblically conservative but socially liberal, and vice versa. “There are all kinds of combinations,” explained BE Dr Solomon. What is important, he said, is to be “tethered well to the Scripture in their explorations. […] I believe younger people have more sympathetic views [towards the LGBT community] because they have more friends in that community. Older folks don’t have friends like that.”
When asked about the increase in the number of online petitions recently calling for bans and shaping of legislation, BE Dr Solomon said, “Petitions are just a matter of who shouts the loudest. […] We want a society that is more harmonious and resolves issues in a more mature manner.”
In Dr Goh’s experience of working in a secular organisation such as HealthServe, it is unethical for doctors and volunteers to proselytise. He tries to create an environment where people will notice “an unseen, deep, powerful difference” in Christian doctors and volunteers, and then ask why. The Christian community, he says, must be “winsome” rather than pushing our beliefs onto others.
Given Singapore’s history of racial and religious volatility, Christians thus cannot be strident. BE Dr Solomon called for “the Christian position [to be] that of Christ-like humble confidence. […] We need to represent the Church, which has the beauty of Christ, in its conversations, relationships and attitudes, and in its stand on what God has already revealed about himself.”
1 Mathew Mathews, Leonard Lim and Shanthini Selvarahan, “Religion in Singapore: The Private and Public Spheres,” (working paper, Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore, March 2019), https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/ips-working-papers-33—religion-in-singapore-the-private-and-public-spheres.pdf.
Sheri Goh is the Editor of Methodist Message.