Roy Ngerng –

Pastor Kong Hee’s arrest and the arrest of four other from his same church puts to question a few issues. Firstly, how should we understand religion, if a few persons at the top whom the followers are to trust would set their trust back? Secondly, what is religion’s role in state affairs and vice versa and how does this influence the governance of religious organizations?

The role of religion

There is much research to explain the role of religion among individuals. To put it in the most basic sense, there are two ways we can look at religion: there is a spiritual perspective to religion, and then there’s the social perspective. For most people, the identification with their religion and the connection to their god, if you would, is a spiritual understanding of religion. And for some individuals who have an interest in understanding the social dynamics of religion – how religion, and religious institutions, operates within a society – this is the social perspective. As Diane Moore puts it, that “religion shapes and is shaped by the social/historical contexts out of which particular religious expressions and influences emerge.

These definitions presume that there is a difference between religion understood through the lens of personal devotional practice and the academic study of religion. One way to characterize this distinction is to recognize the difference between religious learning (or learning religion) through a devotional lens and learning about religion from an academic one. Both are legitimate enterprises that can serve complementary but distinctive ends. [1]” It is important that we understand this difference very clearly because the intent of this article is to understand the social operations of religion and religious institutions, and not to question the spiritual association that people have with, or through, their religion – this which is based on faith and belief, and which is personal, and I would put at this point, not something that we want to question, as everyone have different beliefs and strength of faith.

Religion has a powerful influence over the state and its people. A look at history will show up many cases of how religion plays a strong role in defining political decisions. Here, it is important to understand the difference between institutionalised religions where followers are expected to gather within the religious grounds as opposed to those who are not required to do so – how does this affect the strength of religion on its people and on the state? From a plainly social perspective, any organization which has the capability to influence its masses regularly over a period of time will be more effective in inculcating similar values and beliefs into its people and thus propagating specific messages which they want to perpetuate. And thus, it is for Christianity and Islam where there is regular meeting where there is more consistency in beliefs and fewer tendencies towards having different beliefs, that which would then be labeled a subversion of beliefs.

It can thus be explained that religions which focus more on individual learning would thus focus on individual introspection and an individual’s capacity to understand his/her own personal own journey and make sense of it. Note here that this is not a comparison between the strengths of the religion but about how the different format of how these religions are practiced will result in different learning behaviour – one more consistent in the sharing of knowledge, and one which is more inward-looking, on the most basic level. There isn’t any good and bad. They are simply different.

The organized religion

What complicates matters, however, is when we look beyond these religious organizations as religious organizations, but understand the organisational models and frameworks that they are based on. All organizational structures inadvertently have to follow an organizational model, where there is a leader, or group of leaders, where decision-making and a monopoly of knowledge usually is usually contained. The nature of humans is such that we are reliant towards being governed by a group of people, which explains that existence of political governance, governance within a corporate company and governance which exists in many different organizations. Similarly, religious organizations have on the top a leader and/or group of leaders. (Read more here on an article on religious organizational structures [2])

What, however, complicates matters is that not only do these leaders manage the flow of people and develop strategies of how the organization should be run on a day-to-day basis, it also have influence over people’s beliefs and value systems. It can be explained that all organizations or groups govern by beliefs and values. For example, for Singapore, some of our governing principles are on justice and equality, or meritocracy. However, the difference lies in this – how close are the beliefs and values tied to each individual and how they operate their lives, how the religion we choose to believe in, in guiding how we should live or think about their lives? The Singapore’s government’s principle of justice and equality can be argued to be broad social concepts in governing a country, because you need the people to buy into a set of beliefs which concerns treating one another with respect – therein lies the basic principles of political governance, that governance should observe not only the rights of individuals, but that of rights of all peoples within the country.

Religious organizations on the other hand, play a very different role. People believe in their religion or attend a religious organization for the very basic reason of how their relationship with the religion, or god, affects how they live their personal lives. It could have broader implications about how we treat other people, but on the very basic level, it is about me – whether my religion can save me (from undesirable circumstances), whether my religion can keep me from doing bad, whether my religion can help me achieve what I want. 

So, already you can see that, our religion plays a very personal role in our lives, this we understand. However, what most people might not understand is also that because our religion is not as simple as our personal faiths and beliefs, but that our religion is tied into a larger institution that we are part of, these faiths and beliefs that we have do not exist on their own, from a social sense, but are part of a larger mass of beliefs, where everyone tries to make sense of one another’s beliefs, with the aim to find a common belief.

The nature of religion and belief

The basic question is this – if your belief can be different from mine, then how real is my belief? If my belief might not real, what does that mean? Will I go to a heaven like what I believe in? Will I be reincarnated? So, which goes? Do we insist on the strength of our beliefs, because we need to ground ourselves in beliefs, or do we allow ourselves to have a more flexible understanding of our beliefs, whilst we understand further before we make a decision? It is quite obvious which path most people have chosen – we need to find a belief that is fixed in its ways and that will not change. It cannot be changed because that is the basis of how we lead our lives! (Read more here on an article of belief [3]) If it changes, it will upset how we live our lives, so we think and are led to think. And this is why people of different religions might try to prove the ‘authenticity’ of their religion over another, or even among peoples of the same religion.

How does this complicate religion, and the governance of religion further? When religious leaders govern, they do not simply look at the operational structures and simply managing it. Beliefs and values are a very strong language to which to govern the people by. Ask any corporate leaders and they will tell you that – and that is why each corporate organizations spends a significant amount of money defining their values, because this is what consumers of their products will also align with, and buy into their products – and eventually increase sales. For religious organizations, this is much easier because these values and beliefs already exist in scriptures, or the basis of which these religions lie, and are already tied very closely to the people’s hearts. You don’t have to redefine the values and beliefs; you simply have to make use of it to further your cause.

Next, for religious leaders, you do not want people to question their beliefs or to realize that their beliefs can be flexible. You want people to believe that they need to come to a regular meeting – this is where the income for operations comes from. You need people to continue to believe that whatever is said by the religious leaders are the one and only truth, so that the religious leaders get to define the values and beliefs of people, and be able to use this as a control mechanism. You need people to not know that their beliefs need not be fixed, because if they do, why should they come to church, or attend mosque? They can spend their time in introspection, and finding that relationship with god, for example.

So, values and beliefs are very important tools which religious leaders can use as a control technique, so as to amass a pool of people, which in the long term, has financial benefits and/or benefits of influence. This is how religions have been able to exert their influence on the state/ country, and how they have the financial resources to threaten the state.

The relevance to the City Harvest arrests

Why does this matter in this current spate of arrests? It matters, because when we put our religious leaders in power – and as some have shared online, that it does not matter that their religious leaders might have done wrong, because it is god’s will, and that they will forgive their god – then, when wrongdoings, from a social sense occurs, we are more likely to ignore it. Why? Because of the complexities of our values and beliefs. The belief we have in our religious leaders is tied to our belief in our religion and god, because of how our religious leaders have defined themselves in relation to god, or as direct servants of god. If we are to question our religious leaders, then we would, we think, question our faiths, question our god, and it will then challenge our beliefs of what we belief in, and how we operate our lives. What then do we believe in to guide us in our lives? 

Thus the religious leaders have created such a strong network that they have made used of people’s faiths and beliefs in their religion to tie their allegiance back to the leaders. It is a complex relationship that has been used to great benefit, for which religious institutions thrive on. Again, note that my argument is purely from a sociological perspective. I agree that there could be other spiritual perspectives which are not discussed, but this is not what this article had set out to do.

If we know how our values and beliefs are being manipulated by religious leaders to keep us into submission, and to make use of us to perpetuate their leadership, then we will understand how we should react and respond to the current situation of arrests. For example, if you look on the other side of the planet, the Catholic pope has reprimanded the nuns in America for being too concerned about poverty and economic justice, while not speaking up on abortion and same-sex marriages [4]. Why? Because the nuns had disagreed with the bishops on proposed healthcare reforms in America, and this has angered the pope and bishops. Who gets to define power? Who gets to say what is ‘right’? If these nuns get to think differently, it threatens the power that the pope and bishops have so carefully built up over the centuries, one that can be used to manipulate its masses. And if the nuns can question what should be ‘right’, it opens the door to allow many people to question the church as well. When that happens, the church’s hold on power is weakened and the church’s existence is threatened, and so the religious leaders within the church think. But is this so? Religion has existed for centuries, regardless.

People will always need beliefs, and beliefs will always exist in the form of religions, at least in the foreseeable future. What are these religious leaders afraid of? They are afraid of the erosion of their own power, not that of the religion. They have strived to make a living out from being influential figures, by taking advantage of their religious roles. And they have developed their financial resources through it. To allow ‘subversion’ or questions will put their personal influence and financial resources at risk. They cannot allow that.

Government and religion

As for the current situation, will people be upset? Certainly. And that’s why Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has stated that the arrests are not due to the religion, but due to the people managing the religion [5]. The government does not want to upset the religion, or to put the religion’s credibility into question. The government is purely looking at this matter as one of corruption, which involves individuals and the inappropriate use of financial resources, and not as a question on religion.

And this brings us to the next question – it is not in the government’s interest to upset religion or cause religion to lose its influence. Religion is the means by which the government controls the people. If you look at some of the organizations, based on ethnic groups, in Singapore (this is by no means an exhaustive list), you will see that government representatives sit on each of them. Mr Lim Swee Say (Chairman), Mr Baey Yam Keng, Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien, Mr Gan Kim Yong and Mr Ong Ye Kung sits on the board of the Chinese Development Assistance Council [6]. Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (Chariman) and Mr Masagos Zulkifli Masagos Mohamad sit on the board of Mendaki [7]. Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Ms Indranee Rajah are the Chairman and President, respectively, of Sinda, with PM Lee as the patron [8].

But these are not religious organizations. These are organizations formed based on the ethnic communities. However, as we know, ethnic groups and their religions are very closely linked. It is assumed that most Malays are Muslims, most Tamils are Hindus and most Chinese are Buddhists, or Christians. But before I go on, even the religious council of MUIS, all the members are appointed by the President of Singapore [9]. So, at least for the Malay Muslim community in Singapore, you can see strong government intervention for them.

I have not looked into the all religious organizations yet, so I cannot make a generalized statement. But at least for the broad ethnic organizations, the government has a hand in managing them. As a government, you would want to have broad influence over these groups, and to be able to define the thoughts and beliefs of these groups as well. By the link that the ethnic groups have with the religion (and how the Malay Muslim community is both strongly influenced), it helps the government keep a strong grip of things.

My question is this – why now? The government has to know this (corruption) is ongoing for a while now. Separately, the government also has government-linked leaders sitting on the boards of previously government-linked companies. These companies are also making a lot of money. Singaporeans have also been questioning how Temasek and GIC are using Singaporeans’ money for investments, which have gone unanswered. There are a lot of questions on how the government’s appropriate our money. Why are we looking at the misappropriation of money of the people of a few organizations (NKF, Ren Ci and City Harvest) – why only specifically them? Could it be because they are independently represented? Could it be to manage their influence? What is it? I do not know, but I do not think that things are as simple as it meets the eye.

For the case of Pastor Kong Hee. I do not want to belittle the arrest, for it is of consequence. However, I do question the timing of the arrest as well as the intention of the government.

I would like to also put in a separate argument here: If religious leaders are making use of religion and the masses to perpetuate their ideologies so as to perpetuate the personal agendas, then it is in the state’s interest to protect the its citizens and to limit the influence that these religious leaders have – the state has to protect the rights of its people (Read more about judicial intervention in religious matters [10]). However, as explained, most states would use the influence that religion has to also keep themselves in power and to control its people, so the question then is, how should the state balance its want to control religion, so as to control people, and how do they limit the influence religious leaders have, so as to protect the rights of the people, and at times, to limit the influence of the religious leaders, to influence the people to go against the government.

Finally, to reiterate, my purpose of this article is not to understand religion from a spiritual perspective. I am not trained to question religion from that angle. However, I had tried to understand the social aspect of religion, to explain how values and beliefs can be used to maximum effect by religious leaders, to perpetuate the control and power that some individuals have, and in certain cases, to amass their individual wealth. I had also hoped to show a snapshot as to how the Singapore government is able to perpetuate its control and influence by having an acute understanding of how religion plays a very convincing role in people’s lives and how by having a stake in it, will allow the government to have effective control over people’s hearts and minds.

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