Category Archives: Religion

Sensational News on ‘Church Wall Defaced …’ / A Debate on Secular Liberalism and Religious Harmony

Netizens on Facebook have criticised a Straits Times report on graffiti outside a church building, entitled ‘Church Wall Defaced During Easter Weekend’ (Tuesday 10 April 2012), as being inaccurate and sensationalising.

In a status update circulated within Facebook, one wrote: “The graffiti had appeared some time ago. At least a week, if not two. It did not mysteriously appear over Easter weekend. I know because I walk past the cathedral almost every day. Trying to link it to Easter is disingenuous. Furthermore, it is not just the cathedral wall that was vandalised, but also the back of some of the bus schedules. Anyone who walks around that area would know.”

Another netizen posted on her Facebook wall on Tuesday night: “Just a while ago, I posted on Straits Times site that the headline for this particular article was [inaccurate] because I had seen and possibly even documented the graffiti some days before Easter Weekend, which might go towards proving that the Church was not, as it was rather strongly worded, ‘defaced during Easter weekend’. Now I see the message: ‘The site has blocked you from posting new comments.’ GREAT JOB AT JOURNALISM, STRAITS TIMES.”

Why the sensationalising?

While the case is still under investigation (anyone who has seen the graffiti earlier should inform the police), what seems unusual is the way the newspaper article highlights in the 3rd paragraph that the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd is a “national monument” and “the main church of the Singapore Catholic Archdiocese, and is also where the archbishop lives”.

Compare this with an ST report dated 8 September 2009 on ‘Widening cracks found in historic cathedral’ due to LTA construction work – it mentioned the church is a ‘national monument’ only towards the end in the 19th paragraph, and not a word on the ‘Archdiocese’ or the archbishop!

Surely some graffiti on a perimeter wall can easily be remedied by painting over it, and really negligible compared to cracks on the walls, columns and floors of the cathedral building? Is being a ‘national monument’ the real issue here?

Below are four paragraphs from the online ST report published on Tuesday:

“The wall surrounding the compound of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was defaced during the Easter weekend.

A single word – possibly ‘Grow!’ or ‘Growl’ – was spray-painted in black across the white wall near the front of the church facing Bras Basah Road.

The cathedral, a national monument, is the main church of the Singapore Catholic Archdiocese, and is also where the archbishop lives.

Cathedral staff said they discovered the graffiti last Saturday afternoon and filed a police report on the same day. A spokesman for the archdiocese said it did not want to speculate on why the church was defaced or what the word meant.”

(The original full article was published in the newspaper below another news article entitled ‘Taoist upset over priest’s robe worn at fashion show – Designers’ society reportedly says sorry for not knowing the outfit is for religious purposes’)

What was the problem with Chjimes?

The news on graffiti outside the cathedral came just a week after the Catholic community here denounced the Escape Chapel Party that was supposed to take place at Chijmes over the Easter weekend, that had been promoted using girls in nuns clothing modified to look provocative.

In an article entitled ‘Why call the police over everything?’, local blogger Belmont Lay last week criticised the approach of seeking police help in resolving the issue: “If religious people are unhappy with secular event organisers, they should sort it out among themselves privately like adults.

Such matters involving taste and values lie completely outside the purview of the men in blue or any state official, for that matter.”

But some consider it in bad taste to promote the event using words like “sacrilegious night of partying”. The problem also seems to be that conditions on the use of Chjimes have not been clear and people do not think much of it as the place has already become commercialised. One netizen commented on Facebook: “I think before the place was developed, when it was gazetted and all the debates going on, this (only certain activities) was one of the things many wanted and was I think agreed on (with nothing concrete on paper, I think), but over the years, it got worse and worse.”

With regards to the controversial Chjimes party, the way Escape Recordings chief executive David Griffiths has described it as “a pity” to cancel the event, as the company was “looking to expand into Singapore” , also may not go down well with netizens. One described the tone as a form of “arrogance”, and such indulgence in Singapore as “moral bankruptcy”.

Another said: “The Catholic Church and State conflict must go back to 1987 Operation Spectrum. Understand today’s state of affairs in that light.”

A Debate on Secular Liberalism and Religious Harmony (Do we need the police?)

Below is an extract of comments on a personal Facebook wall reacting to the reposted status update that expressed frustration on comments being censored on the online ST report ‘Church wall defaced…’.  Part of it is a debate with regards to secularism and regulation of religious harmony.  (comments below reflect immediate reactions and may lack certain sensitivity or may sometimes be out of place in making generalisations on religious practices):

A: Whoa! Blocked?!! Is this how our once-in-50-years MICA Minister’s plan to introduce self-regulation on the Internet – by blocking those deemed critical? … A pattern is emerging… and it isn’t good.

B: I [am not on the side of] the Church here. Like it or not, rising religiosity in Singapore means there will be more clash between non-believers and believers. Instead of using the law to suppress non-believers, the law should be balanced [with regards to] believers as well.

A: I do sympathise with the Church, but I don’t think this is a religious desecration. The graffiti is on the outer wall. It could be the work of some prankster with no intent towards religious malice.

B: I don’t think religion deserves any special treatment at all. It should be treated equally as any other human construct. The word ‘holy’ should have no legal interpretation or significance.

C: It’s a perimeter wall…

A: I agree that the ST article is unnecessarily ALARMIST.

D: This is just a way to divert certain attention. Sad to say, our society is getting worse.

C: If there are genuine cases of blasphemy or racist remarks, there can be civil lawsuits. But it’s irresponsible to publish a report with such sensational headline if one cannot confirm…

B: If [anyone wants] to use civil suit for blasphemy, he won’t be on my good side. I think such an act may be constituted as a declaration of war between believers and non-believers.

C: But one would argue then that the person responsible for blasphemy is the one declaring war. Have to put it in context. There have been artworks considered blasphemous too.

A: Grow… Growl… anything religious or blasphemous about the graffiti?

B: As if preaching religion is not offensive to non-believers in the first place… (Ed: this may be referring to separate cases such as Campus Crusade for Christ in NUS)

C: Well preaching itself is ok, it only starts becoming offensive when one claims that non-believers would go to hell. Same like advertisement, you can boast your product is the best, but you can’t claim other brands are fake.

B: If believers are free to preach religions, then non-believers are equally free to preach the rejection of religion. There is no equality if promotion and rejection of religion cannot be treated equally.

C: I think there is argument against that. Believers who adhere to their religion are duty-bound to defend their religion. But atheists are not bound by any such duty, based on faith in any supreme being higher than man, to defend their belief.

B: Too bad for believers. They volunteered to be duty-bound. Actually, you can claim other brands are fake. Go look up at medical journal papers that investigate the effectiveness of expensive pharmaceutical drugs against placebos.

C: Medical products are related to science and hence can be falsified. Religions are not falsifiable. Well one can choose to be a free man without treating others as inferiors.

B: The problem happens when believers attempt to regulate non-believers.

C: Well the issue then, whoever appears to be regulating who, is whether one’s sentiments and dignity get hurt. Everyone has the right to choose what he or she believes to be the truth, whether it’s a personal truth, or truth belonging to a community. To insist only science can be a source of truth is the same as insisting only one religion is the truth. Scientific theories can become obsolete anyway.

B: Yeah… That’s why science never claims to be truth. Science is a process that refines and rejects the understanding of natural phenomena over time.

B: Offence is taken, not given. If any, the ‘hurt’ is self-inflicted by choosing to take offence.

C: If one knows that certain things are taboo to a community, why would one deliberately try to provoke? It comes down to whether one is aware of the general sentiments of a religious community in a certain country or region, and whether one chooses to respect.

C: Interpretations of religious scriptures can also be revised over time.

B: But such revision doesn’t add legitimacy, unlike the process of scientific inquiry.

C: Scientific inquiry doesn’t add legitimacy either, the best theory is just what serves one’s practical application best. Whereas religion is institutionalised belief, there are religious authorities to refer to.

B: [Haven’t seen secular-vs-religion debate] for a long time in the local blogosphere.

C: When was the last time?

B: The last time was when Thio Li-Ann almost went to NYU.

C: I remember she talked about secularism and Christianity. Can’t remember the rest …

C: Any Catholic/Christian out there would like to comment?

E: I would love to, but I’m afraid my comments won’t contribute to a very satisfying discussion. My religious faith is based on personal experiences, I believe it ought to be based on personal experiences (“encounters”) and though I love a good debate as much as the next man/woman, I think Christians who engage in such discussions are trying to use reasoning to substitute for these experiences.

C: I think that’s a useful perspective actually. Instead of making judgments based on generalisations, one can also reserve judgment to prevent sentiments of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Encounters always differ from one person to another.

Further comments on discussions above? (Do we all have our own blindspots?)

F: “I don’t know. I find it all feeds into the anger in Singaporeans. No one knows that the Catholic Church here is struggling to get the social teachings of the Church back on its feet after it was knocked down badly during Operation Spectrum. People seem to be angry with the Institution at large because of the paedophilia etc…I understand that but there seems to be no other position with more information from the inside so it does frustrate me. Everyone is so fucking quick to judge. There is so much smugness. Smugness that comes from anger but not accountability.

Singaporeans are blaming anything and everything these days. It’s ridiculous that they don’t at all implicate themselves or put themselves in the picture. I’m so weary of this attitude at the moment. It’s not going to get us anywhere. It’s true. There are times it’s necessary to point out the faults. But after a while, don’t you want to move on? Why do we harp and harp on it? It’s an ailment.”

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(3) Protecting Our Shared Cultural Heritage is Singapore’s Psychological Defence

If ‘heritage’ is composed of nothing but memories, Singaporeans can now deposit any random old photos and childhood anecdotes in the Singapore Memory online portal, and then pat themselves on the back for accumulating ‘virtual heritage’. But that’s not even collecting history. If we all decide to collect oral history from our parents or grandparents, we should collect not only sound bites of them speaking in their authentic language or dialect, but also their perspectives on social changes through the decades, we need to ask them how things were like and how things could have been. If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.

Standards for Heritage Protection

And in case anyone comes away with a wrong impression after the recent parliamentary debate (the speech “Celebrating and Co-Creating a Rooted Community” by Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin dated 5 March specifically), let us be clear: Heritage protection is not about us indulging in personal nostalgia, for that would mean any place in our country from Toa Payoh to Sengkang can be equally valuable and equally dispensable too, for there are no criteria then. Heritage protection involves scientific and technical studies in order to assess the historical, aesthetic, spiritual and other values of a site, and to counteract any threat against the physical site.

Perhaps Singapore just does not believe in any global standard or any international convention. Never mind the 2003 Intangible Heritage Convention. Singapore has not even ratified the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, for which Bukit Brown might qualify as a cultural landscape (and of course Kampong Glam and Little India must also be protected to complete the Singapore story, like how Melaka and George Town are now world heritage sites in Malaysia).

Singapore has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, but when it submitted its 2010 national report, it failed to mention Bukit Brown, which is not only important in its vegetation for the City Biodiversity Index, but also home to a quarter of bird species in Singapore, including 13 threatened species as the Nature Society has pointed out. Perhaps guarding a legacy of Mother Nature is just not as prestigious as building some man-made Gardens by the Bay next to a casino resort for its well-heeled visitors.

I wonder if I’m the only one feeling this way last week, as I read the news of our minister for national development insisting that a highway through the heart of Bukit Brown is necessary, and that such plans for road-building or housing cannot be shared with the public beforehand due to ‘market sensitivity’, or as I read that another building in Geylang Serai will be making way for a condo. I was thinking, at some point in time, people will just have to build condos in Johore instead, or those people who can no longer afford to live in Singapore may soon have to retire there. And I was asking myself, after all that NS, if ever war breaks out in Singapore, what should the soldiers of our country be defending? Vaults of gold in the IR?

Heritage and Harmony

There are people who may ask: Why this sudden interest in Bukit Brown? Why not, say, Bidadari Cemetery which was cleared away the last decade? Indeed, I ask myself: Why didn’t we have better heritage awareness back then at least? Why didn’t have something like Facebook to connect like-minded individuals as a heritage community? And surely a common respect for cultural heritage should bind us as Singaporeans, not segregate us?

I am sorry to say but I think people who describe cemeteries as nothing but ‘eerie’ in the newspaper are plain ignorant or just intolerant of whatever they do not identify with. I grew up living near Bidadari by the way, and till now, I consider that as one of the biggest blessings in my life. The word ‘Bidadari’ means ‘fairy’, for those who do not know; and for people who maintain that Singapore’s history did not begin with Stamford Raffles, they would be glad to know there was actually a school named after Sang Nila Utama, along that serene Upper Aljunied Road. And I remember seeing Gurkha soldiers jogging in the vicinity – tanned, stout and stoic-looking men who were supposed to protect us Singaporeans as a young nation, I was told as a boy.

To me personally, that was the most beautiful road one could ever find in Singapore, and it was not just about the green canopy of rain trees providing shade to whoever travelled up the road. What left an indelible mark on my mind was the fact that the area was meant to be a final resting place for people of different cultural and religious backgrounds – there was a Muslim section on one side, and a Christian section on the other, not to mention a Chinese columbarium with a towering pagoda on a far end, as well as a crematorium for people of any faith. It was a perfect place for one to learn respect for life before and after death. Every time one passed by, one could feel a mystic and radiant sense of wonder, what with rays of sunlight shining through and the soft whispers of time amidst the quiet tombstones and the greenery, and it left me with the conviction that there is only one heaven, where all souls will go as long as they are at peace.

Heritage and Sustainable Development

All that is now gone. The tombs have been exhumed, leaving an empty land, and there are hardly signs of housing construction after several years, which goes to show there was no urgency in the first place. Maybe it is just awaiting property development at a good price, but apparently the public is not entitled to know anything, due to ‘market sensitivity’. So, are we left with any logic in our society other than that of money? One felt similar pain as one learnt of how the shrine of Siti Maryam in Kallang was removed in 2010, when one could only find remembrance of the sacred space through the temporary exhibition of “The Sufi and the Bearded Man” at NUS Museum.

Now with Bukit Brown, heritage activists are being dismissed by the same rationality of ‘development’ again. The same old quote referring to exhumation in Tiong Bahru eons again is being resurrected: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” Well that argument might have been valid decades ago when the government was telling people to stop at two in family planning, but not today when it is the government insisting that the population must grow for the sake of economy. Today the question may well be: “Do we want the government to look after the heritage of our forefathers and our pioneers, or do we want them to look after the grandchildren of the projected incoming population of new immigrants?” We need to ask whether such unbridled development is sustainable.

When BG Tan Chuan-Jin was using words like ‘our spirit’ and ‘our soul’ in relation to the Singaporean identity, I supposed the word he was looking for should just be ‘resilience’. It is not helpful to use those words so freely when the actual spiritual values of our heritage sites are clearly not even admitted into the equations of our cold reasoning. So let’s consider the ‘resilience’ of our nation then, in terms of ‘psychological defence’, since our ministers are mostly military men.

Non-racialised Heritage as Psychological Defence

Let’s consider how cultural heritage has sometimes been the unfortunate targets of war in the ugliest chapters of history. Towards the end of World War II, the beautiful German city of Dresden built in baroque and rococo style was bombarded senselessly by British and American air forces and destroyed along with the lives of 25,000 to 40,000 people. The beautiful Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) crumbled and fell. There was no justification for all this, the strategic railway facilities were far away, it was just a display of military might and an attempt to break the spirit or morale of the people. Now surely a nation’s cultural heritage is something to be respected and protected by all, and last of all to be destroyed by the nation itself, or what message would that be sending? Anyway, a church made of stones like Frauenkirche can still be reconstructed decades later, but not a cultural landscape like Bukit Brown.

Perhaps heritage activists in Singapore already know they have lost half the battle here, when it is down to a minister of national development instead of the minister of arts and culture in leading an attempt to document the heritage of Bukit Brown, and when URA, LTA and NLB come before efforts of NHB. But hopefully Singaporeans do not mislead themselves into thinking that heritage is a racialised matter, as if no one should care about a Chinese heritage site unless one is Chinese, and one would also need a Malay minister to protect the oldest Malay cemetery in Singapore, the royal cemetery in Kampong Glam which has also been marked by URA for development. If the Malay minister has no time to deal with it, then other ministers do not need to care either?

As a nation, we need monuments and sites to be protected by law and by reason of historical significance as well as cultural rights, and not just depending on exceptions made by politicians. As a nation, it does not augur well when the Lim Bo Seng Memorial was gazetted as a national monument only in 2010, after so many years of holding him up as a war hero in our National Education, and his tomb is still not protected, which suggests there is little precedence for any burial ground or shrine to be protected. Is there nothing sacred in Singapore, other than our national reserves? No wonder then, that we see the camouflage uniform compared to a clown outfit in a commercial on total defence. A lot of us see no pride as we watch those recent ads, we only feel the pain: Every soldier is a leader? “Sure or not?”

Conclusion

Virtual heritage is a poor ersatz for the historical, aesthetic and spiritual values of a heritage site. Many Singaporeans may choose to be the silent majority as our heritage is being destroyed, because they do not feel any personal affinity, they do not understand the historical significance, or they just feel powerless. But we must walk out of the shadows of a ‘divide and rule’ colonial past, and not walk into a new dark era, where Singaporeans see one another as alien cultures in a mutant world of neo-colonialism, where we are no longer a country, but a place of transit in a network of endless highways.

(Facebook note on 11 March 2012)

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