Pentecostal Theology for the Twenty-First Century
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Pentecostal Theology for the Twenty-First Century

Engaging with Multi-Faith Singapore

May Ling Tan-Chow

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eBook - ePub

Pentecostal Theology for the Twenty-First Century

Engaging with Multi-Faith Singapore

May Ling Tan-Chow

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About This Book

In our post 9/11 world where there is a growing religious fundamentalism, and when both exclusion and easy tolerance are inadequate options, this book offers a creative alternative arguing that Pentecostalism has the potential to be a peaceful harbinger of plurality. The potential lies in its spirituality - a lively pneumatology and eschatology. The eschatological Spirit is seen as orientated towards the other, crossing boundaries in redemptive embrace, transcending exclusion and easy tolerance. This book's non-Western perspective and the empirical contextual study of Singapore's multicultural and multi-faith context are unique contributions to religion and society. This is a book for students, pastors, teachers, and theologians concerned for an approach to mission that is sensitive to their context, who want to learn from a creative theological voice from what has been perhaps the largest religious movement in history, and who see the immense potential in lively theology by Christians of the Chinese diaspora who can speak to the many millions of ethnic Chinese Christians. This book will also appeal to those outside Christianity who are interested in its attempts to engage with a complex multi-ethnic and multi-religious situation such as that in Singapore.

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PART I Descriptive

DOI: 10.4324/9781315599908-1

Chapter 1 A Hermeneutic of Singapore Culture

DOI: 10.4324/9781315599908-2


Singapore is unique in relation to its neighbours. It is a tiny island state situated at the southern tip of the peninsula of West Malaysia. The main island of Singapore is about 42 kilometres from east to west and 23 kilometres from north to south. The total land area (including that of the smaller islands) is 647.5 square kilometres. It has a population of 4,151,264 (July 2000 estimate). Though territorially small scale, it is a large-scale society “characterized by a high degree of internal diversity, complexity of culture and socio-economic organization and by a multiplicity of outside contacts and linkages.”1 Singapore is one of the most pluralistic nations in the world in terms of culture, ethnicity and religion. Given these factors, Singapore has done remarkably well in maintaining religious and racial harmony. The harmonious coexistence in a heterogeneous culture is due to the fact that Singapore is a highly controlled and structured nation. Singapore is the combination of a strong government and a business-oriented culture.

History: Singapore Past and Present

1 J. Clammer, Singapore: Ideology, Society and Culture (Singapore: Chopmen Publishers, 1985), p. 5.
Contemporary Singapore cannot be understood apart from its history. Modern Singapore is a primarily migrant society. In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to the island, it had only a tiny population consisting of approximately 120 Malays and 30 Chinese.2 Soon its population began to increase as immigrants arrived from the southern provinces of China, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and the surrounding Malay Archipelago. Gradually, the Chinese population outnumbered even the Malays and became the dominant ethnic group even to this day. The early immigrants were largely illiterate and semi-literate. Among the immigrants there are numerous sub-groups differentiated and separated by language, culture and religion. Illiteracy, linguistic and cultural differences made communication and understanding very difficult. Suspicion, misunderstanding and hostility were rife. In the early years, the British under Sir Stamford Raffles instituted segregation of ethnic groups to contain potential ethnic violence. This policy led eventually to the formation of ethnic and sub-ethnic enclaves. They were also segregated geographically and socially by differences in language, religion and trade.3 Many of the early immigrants came with a “sojourner” mentality and did not plan to make Singapore their permanent home. Their dream was to amass wealth and return to their motherlands. These factors contributed to a fragmented and non-cohesive society. Kwok commenting on the problem of cultural diversities writes, “the experience of pluralism was already a basic part of our early evolution as a country and as a people. As members of different linguistic and ethnic groups, they were rooted in traditional ways of life, which were tied to traditional worldviews, but they did not collectively share a single way of life and a single overarching worldview. What brought our forebears together was the experience of common living and economic interdependence in a city-state, and within the ‘rational’ framework of colonial law and administration.” 4
2 S.K. Chiew, ‘Nation-Building in Singapore: A Historical Perspective’, in Jon S.T. Quah (ed.), In Search of Singapore’s National Values (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1990), p. 6. 3 Ibid., pp. 6–7. See also B.H. Chua and K.W. Kwok, ‘Social Pluralism in Singapore’, in R.W. Hefner (ed.), The Politics of Multiculturalism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001). 4 K.W. Kwok, ‘The Problem of “Tradition” in Contemporary Singapore’, in Arun Mahizhnan (ed.), Heritage and Contemporary Values (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1993), p. 8.
Japanese occupied both Malaya and Singapore in 1942–45. Those times were rife with ethnic animosity instigated by the Japanese who were at war with China and India. At that time, the Communists who fought the Japanese in the Malayan jungles won the respect of the Chinese. In 1949, Mainland China became socialist while the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. That political development in China impacted the Chinese in Singapore, who became divided into pro-Beijing, pro-Taiwan (these two groups are primarily Chinese-educated), and those (especially the English-educated) who looked upon Singapore as their home. The government regarded Chinese education “as either China-oriented political radicalism or ethnic chauvinism, both politically undesirable in a developmentalist and multicultural state.”5 The lack of social cohesion had to do with the centrifugal forces of “outpost nationalism”. Fostering social cohesion as well as political allegiance to Singapore in order to sustain political stability became the top priority during the mid-1950s, a time of nation-building. Racial harmony is essential to nation-building in the context of multiracial Singapore.6 A commission was formed to study ways to create social cohesion and political allegiance to Singapore as “home”. In 1959, when Singapore gained self-government but not independent status, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government implemented most of the recommendations of this commission.7 One of the significant moves towards social cohesion in the process of nation-building in the decades following its independence in 1965 was the total revamping of the tools of education. Locally produced textbooks replaced those published in Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, Madras and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Chiew records: “Written in four official languages, the contents were Singaporeanized and pluralized … Now, whatever their ethnic backgrounds, they are taught the history and culture of the four major ethnic groups in Singapore as well as Singapore’s history and way of life. These changes may be described as Singaporeanized cultural integration.”8 In 1978, “the schools were brought under a unified ‘national system,’ with English as the medium of instruction and each student’s ‘mother tongue’ – Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil – relegated to the status of second language.”9
5 See Chua and Kwok, p. 108. Intra-cultural divide exists until this day between the Chinese-educated Chinese and the English-educated Chinese. However, Chua and Kwok note that there have been mutual efforts in recent years to bridge this intra-cultural divide (p. 109). 6 Jon S.T. Quah records on racial riots in Singapore, “Racial riots are the most serious threats to the survival of Singapore. Fortunately, there had only been a few racial riots – the Maria Hertogh riots of December 1950; the July and September 1964 racial riots; and the unpublicised racial riots as a result of the spillover effects of the 13 May 1969 racial riots in Kuala Lumpur.” See his chapter, ‘Government Policies and Nation-Building’ (1990), p. 58. 7 Chiew elaborates that the recommendations centred on the elimination of division by ethnicity, forging of mutual understanding, increased inter-ethnic interaction and elimination of discrimination against minorities. See pp. 12–13. 8 Ibid., p. 14. 9 Chua and Kwok, p. 90.
The aggressive drive towards cultural integration was regarded as necessary not only for national stability, but as a prerequisite to economic growth. It was felt that the key to combating competing loyalties and primordial ties was the promotion of economic growth. Thus, the PAP government was fully committed to modernisation and developmental goals. For decades following its independence, the government of Singapore has concentrated its energy in ensuring the viability and sustaining the success of Singapore. A great part of this concentration is an active attention to and promotion of economic-dictated values that have shaped the Singapore culture.
Under the hegemony of the PAP government, we witnessed a phenomenal transformation of Singapore into a modern success story. This transformation of Singapore is achieved “by the logic of the economic development.”10 Consequently, this practical rationality practised by the PAP government affected the development of traditional values of the ethnic cultures in the following decades of nation-building. Though these values were given constitutional recognition, they also suffered a conscious neglect. The political decision to discourage ethnic cultural identities was needed “to maintain a ‘neutral’, ‘belong to all but none in particular’ stance … necessary to persuade our citizens to become ‘more’ Singaporean and to direct their loyalty and identity towards the new nation rather than to China, India and the Malay world respectively.”11 Today the strongest social bond among Singaporeans is the economic success of the nation. Economic success has brought with it substantial self-definition and national pride, thereby contributing to the development of national culture and identity.12

Political Ethos

10 Wei-Wei Mok, ‘In Search of a Visual Identity: Local Art Expressions and Their Value Systems’, in Mahizhnan (1993), p. 45. 11 Ibid. 12 Ibid., pp. 44–5. A desire for individualism and individuality in identity is a by-product of economic success. Ironically, it is this individualism that the government attempted to restrain in its formulation of the national ideology of “Shared Values” in 1991. Chua and Kwok, ‘Social Pluralism in Singapore’, p. 92.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled Singapore since its independence from Great Britain in 1959. It is politically conservative. Inglehart (1990: 259) defines political conservatism as based on materialistic values: economic growth, domestic, and military security.13 The central goal of this political leadership is development through central control. Singapore is well-known for its structured orderliness, cleanliness and efficiency. Underlying this structured existence is the fundamental ideology of control. Cherian George crystallises this ideology with the interesting metaphor of the air-conditioner. This metaphor is an apt description of Singapore’s multicultural, materialistic and highly controlled culture. Environmental comfort is regulated by central control. Central control is the hallmark of an Air-conditioned Nation.14 Everything from things to people falls within its neat and rigid classificatory system.
13 Cited by J.B. Tamney, ‘Conservative Government and Support for the Religious Institution in Singapore: An Uneasy Alliance’, Sociological Analysis, 53:2 (1992): 201. 14 C. George, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000), pp. 15–17.
This ideology of control stems from a keen awareness of the fragility and vulnerability of Singapore. This awareness perpetuates a permanent sense of “crisis”. Even after almost four decades of nation-building, the government has not quite relaxed its control. Clammer theorises that the “crisis mentality” is deliberate and forms an essential part of the ideological system of the government. It reflects again the essential concern for order.15 Perhaps this is also influenced by the Confucian ethic of harmony, which comprises a practical function of compromising opposition and solving conflict so that order rather than disorder should prevail. Xin-Zhong Yao explains, “the concept of harmony itself contains conflict and its resolution, and the Confucian Way of Harmony … works on solution and resolution of conflict and search for the effective methods to reconcile and resolve various kinds of conflict.”16
15 Clammer (1985), p. 28. However, I think it also has to do with a deep awareness by the government that the stability, success and wealth are fragile in Singapore, surrounded by real competition and hostility. Mismanagement and laxity can easily bring the downfall of Singapore overnight. Control is therefore crucial – regimentation is valued above personal “freedom”. Some consider this tight control dictatorial, but I think it is an overstatement. It is more like a sense of paternal responsibility – a very Chinese concep...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Table of Contents
  7. List of Abbreviations
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. Foreword
  10. Introduction
  11. Part I Descriptive
  12. Part II Constructive
  13. Conclusion
  14. Select Bibliography
  15. Index of Subjects
  16. Index of Authors
  17. Index of Biblical References