The Gospel in Southeast Asia (part 2)

Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.

The public media here in Singapore have been enjoying a lively discussion on the relationship between morality and religion. It was prompted by a monograph written by two professors of the National University of Singapore in which they analyzed the responses of citizens in connection with the 1990 Census. People were asked questions about their religious practices. By comparing these answers with the ones of the census of 1980, the government learned what changes had taken place.

They learned that Christianity had made the greatest gains—45,000 new adherents, making up 12.5% of the population, or a total of 285,000 Christians. Since 88% of these new followers of Christianity are Chinese, the government observed that Christianity is taking on the more educated and wealthy of society. Buddhism still has the largest following, 31%. The religion had a 5% increase. The followers of Islam and Hinduism remained the same, and the Taoists declined in numbers.

What sparked the public debate was that 14.3% of the population profess to have no religion. This was the largest increase and raised the issue of whether a person needs religion to be a good citizen. Li Jin Cai wrote, "You don't need a religion to tell you to be moral. Beliefs come from knowing what is right and wrong. It doesn't have to be from God or what people tell you. It comes from the goodness of your heart from your common sense." Ten other people responded in much the same way. Jacob Yap said, "I believe in myself." Stephen Ho wrote a summary article, which was the last one allowed in the Straits Times. He said, "Even the various religious leaders interviewed have a common theme running thru all their statements. A person can still be a morally good person from a purely naturalistic humanistic point of view, without the aid of religion. Religion merely adds a spiritual dimension, helps give a clearer definition of morals, is a source of strength and helps give morality a sense of objectivity and consistency."

Underlying much of this public thinking on morality is the influence of Confucian philosophy. Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew is the greatest public advocate and spokesman of this thinking. He is a respected statesman throughout the world and has the greatest influence upon the thinking of Singaporeans. My understanding is that he is not a practitioner of any religion, but considers himself a free thinker. His favorite term is "Asian values," which are often played against "Western values." The subtlety of the use of such terms is great, and we Christians in Singapore must remain alert and realize that there is no greater moral superiority in either East or West. Fallen man is thoroughly depraved in sin, and apart from the God of Jesus Christ is lost in his sins forever. The sins of the West cry to God for judgment as well as the sins of the East. There is only one refuge and that is beneath the cross of Jesus.

Eastern religions tend to be legalistic and form a certain outward concept of the good life. People like to convince themselves that they are good and have a good society, yet inwardly they are beset with decay and unrest. If we have to generalize East and West regarding morality, which is always dangerous, the West lets it all hang out. All the rot is publicized, and everyone can gawk at it as long as he likes. The East covers up all the rot and wants everyone to think they are the best.

Young Christian converts are taken out of this kind of life and brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Many carry with them the hurt and scars of past experiences. Some of them have to deal with additional hardships the moment they let their Christian profession be known. These difficulties are not of the measure that a Christian suffers in a Muslim country. It is more subtle and can wear one down in the long run.

Kim Choo (not her real name) is a Christian sister who learned in her adulthood that her mother is not her mother. Rather, the person whom she calls "mother" is the third person who had something to do with raising her. She learned that a friend of her biological mother visited soon after her birth. This friend admired the baby; but the mother said, "So ugly, so chubby. You want her?" She said it jokingly, but the visitor took her seriously, and upon leaving asked if she could take the baby girl along. In order for the mother to save face, she couldn't go back on her word. She handed her the newborn. The woman took care of the baby for only a few years, and in turn gave it to another woman without even telling the original mother. These were the days before adoption laws were in place, and times were tough. After the young woman learned about her true mother, she felt resentment for this abandonment. Besides that, she did not receive as good an education as her siblings. The love of Christ ministers to this need.

Bee Lan (fictional name) comes from a home in which the father is a drunkard. Repeatedly the father would come home at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. and terrorize the family. There were times he would take the kitchen cleaver and hold it at their throats and threaten them if they didn't do what he wanted. Bee-Lan had learned piano, and more than once at 2 a.m. she had to get out of bed to play Chinese favorites for her father's drunken buddies. The very day her mother gave birth in the hospital to her brother, her father came home with another woman. To this day her mother "puts up with this man." 'Face saving is more important than accountability. So the charade of a reasonable marriage and home life continues while inwardly all this hurt and terror build up.

Another sister, Mui Cheng (also not her real name), lives at home with her family while her brother is spoiled, lazy, and spends his funds on gambling. As is true with gambling throughout the world, her brother always loses more than he wins. When that happens, he borrows money from the "loan sharks," illegal money lenders who charge high interest. They are among the most cruel and fearsome people in Singapore. The family does not call the police. Again, they must preserve some sort of face. Rather, they try to appease the loan sharks by pooling their personal funds to pay these debts. The parents will do anything, even borrowing money from other family members. If they do not pay, the loan sharks will harass the family. They threaten members of the family, sometimes coming in the middle of the night and making a ruckus at the door, or even setting fire to the door. The family is literally held hostage to these loan sharks. Yet no one does anything to the son who is gambling. He is "protected." The sister lives in such a home situation, and has contributed her own funds as well. What should she do? Remember, in Singapore you don't just move out to be on your own. Housing is not available to you. If you leave, you have to live in with another family.

Not all families are of this character. Not all non-Christian families are this bad. There are those who "have the works of the law written in their hearts." They have an outward form of decency. Yet even in these homes, problems arise. Problems arise when young people first become Christians. It is very threatening when children of those who practice traditional Chinese religion become Christians. It is a major upset in the family. The parents feel threatened and often strike out in anger. If we feel sorrow when our children. may leave the church through marriage, try to imagine what these Chinese parents feel when they are afraid that after they die, their children will not feed them, pray to them, nurture their spirits. What terrible children! How can they act this way to parents who raised them and met all their needs? The young Christians, more than likely, have to pass through a time of persecution. They must submit, but in many ways not obey. For, God's sake they must bear the suffering, but still honor father and mother. The key is to take a stand in all areas where compromise is forbidden. They cannot eat the family meal which is offered to idols. They cannot bum joss sticks. They cannot worship ancestors. But they can be supportive children, polite and respectful to parents. They try doubly hard to spend time with parents and show their love. In the end, the most wonderful testimony of non- Christian parents is that their children became better children when they became Christians. This is the most effective means to gain them for Christ.

Secondly, problems arise when the Christian marries, and out of tradition or need must live in with the parents in the parental home. I have five couples in my pre-marriage class. Three of them plan to live with parents when they marry. All of the parents are non-Christian. We were just discussing this past Sunday how much money they must pay their parents when they live with them. Some parents are very insistent that upon marriage they have two incomes so they can pay more than when they were single. Paying parents is deeply rooted in tradition. Respect and appreciation is shown by children giving parents money whether they need it or not. Privacy is not much available in such a home, so the newlyweds have to begin their life of "cleaving" under the watchful eye of an austere father, and the young bride often makes do with a domineering mother-in-law. If they stay long enough for children to be born, a whole new set of problems arise. Almost all Christians complain of the interference by non- Christian grand-parents in the discipline of the children. Different values clash directly in this area. You can't just leave your children by Grandma. Grandma may try to influence them in the worship of ancestors and the burning of joss sticks.

Difficulties sometimes arise when young Christians have to deal with the superstitions of most of the locals. Superstition includes the practice of geomancy. Everything comes under forces of Ying and Yang, or whatever name they use. Things must be situated in just a right way for the forces to be advantageous. Large companies are formed which advise clients on the positioning of a building on the land, where to face it, how the furniture must be arranged inside, which lights must be left on 24 hours a day, and even where a bag of rice must be set. Couples tell us of the times when parents enter into the house of their children and immediately begin to rearrange the furniture because it is not auspicious. One of the church members works for an architectural firm and receives instructions from geomancers repeatedly for certain details.

Besides this kind of superstition is the spiritism of the temple mediums. It is not that members of the church struggle with the temptation to visit mediums, but rather their family does and it affects them that way. One sister's father died in unbelief. She witnessed to him repeatedly, but he would have nothing to do with Christianity, the reason being that he lost the sight in his right eye. His left eye was becoming dim, so he went to the temple medium for advice. The medium spoke harshly to him and berated him for neglecting his ancestor's graves and not feeding their spirits. He cursed him and said he would go blind unless he changed his ways. The man trembled, and he asked his daughter, how did the spirit know that I was neglectful. He immediately burnt joss sticks and put out food for the spirits of his family and would hear nothing about Christianity lest he make the spirit angry and go blind in his left eye. This causes pain in the hearts of young Christians.

There are times when the young Christians struggle with the extent of the knowledge of these spirits. Some have claimed to hear their dead father's voice when the mother consulted a medium. Other times the medium tells them to rearrange the furniture in the house and evil will end. They do it and the evil ends. How must such circumstances be explained?

Though we could continue with many stories and tell of other situations, yet we trust this will help you understand a little better what young Christians face. This is not to sound a note of defeat, for it is exactly the gospel which is God's power of salvation and transforms lives in just such situations. Yes, there are times of strength and weakness, but God is faithful. We praise His wonderful Name.