As the seven singers, band and choir begin their opening number, the huge screen behind them lights up with real-time close-ups of their instruments and rapturous faces. The cameras, hanging by jib cranes, drift over the heads of congregants, searching for additional highlights—bodies swaying to music, eyes closed in supplication and hands upturned in celebration. Essentially, those in overt ecstasy.
Welcome to Sunday service at the 5,000-capacity Star Performing Arts Centre, home to one of Singapore’s well-known megachurches, New Creation Church. On non-service days, this space doubles as a venue for commercials shows. From the outside, the auditorium, encased in a glassy exterior at the top of the capacious Star Vista mall, looks like the command centre of a spaceship. On any day of the week, you can visit the various brand restaurants and indulge in a spot of shopping at retail outlets. New Creation Church, which co-invested in the mall with developer CapitaLand and serves 30,000 followers, conspicuously embodies evangelicalism’s growing presence and ease with consumption and modernity.
At the beginning of 2018, The Economist reported that evangelicals—among whom are many Pentecostals—made up 8% of Singaporeans in 2015, four times the figure from 1970. Seeming to signify this rising bloc of Christians, the Alliance of Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches of Singapore launched in April this year. After The Straits Timesreported that the “alliance’s churches want their voices to be represented on current and international affairs”, readerssentinlettersdebating the place of churches in secular Singapore. The alliance, in its own letter, clarified that it does “not exist to influence local politics or pursue any political agenda”.
The culture war
This exchange is part of a “longstanding tension between religious voices and secular voices”, says sociologist Terence Chong, noting that this is “normal” in the “struggle to influence public morality”. The researcher from think-tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute adds that the kind of culture war seen in the United States between conservative evangelical Christians and the non-religious is happening in the tiny city-state, too.
This culture war more often than not features LGBT acceptance and equality as a battleground. Well-publicised flashpoints include the 2014 petitions for and against the Health Promotion Board (HPB)’s webpage addressing questions on sexuality that included references to homosexuality. That same year, the National Library Board decided to pulp two children’s books that included LGBT themes, only to compromise after public outcry and shift And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Expressfrom the children’s section to shelves for adults. On 10 September, Singapore’s communications minister S Iswaran said in Parliament that, since 2014, eight children’s books have been moved to the adult section at the National Library following complaints about “homosexual content”.
Going further back, in 2009, hardline Christian conservatives staged a surprise takeover of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), alleging that the gender equality organisation was promoting homosexuality within its sex education programmes. While the original members were able to wrest their group back from the usurpers, they were dropped as vendors for sex education by the Ministry of Education.
Churches can sometimes end up in the line of fire themselves. In 2013, New Creation Church, which has generally refrained from public advocacy, found itself in a fracas when it was reported that the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) received a complaint about gay singer Adam Lambert’s performance at The Star Performing Arts Centre. The church had to clarify that the arts venue was a commercial entity owned by its business arm Rock Productions, which operates independently. Without specific reference to Lambert, New Creation Church, which is a member of the NCCS, said, “Any event or concert presented at The Star PAC should not be misconstrued or misunderstood as having NCC approving of its artistic presentation or endorsing the lifestyle of the performer.”
If one goes by the amount of media attention, the protagonist of the evangelical faction in the culture war appears to be Lawrence Khong, the leader of the 10,000-strong Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC). He’s also the chairman of LoveSingapore, a network of evangelical churches that organises intercessions on national issues and the government. Claiming to stand for the “conservative majority”, Khong’s consistently spoken against the normalisation of homosexuality.
Khong blasted the “homosexual act” as the “greatest blasphemy against the name of God”
In 2014, against the advice of the NCCS to “always act with grace and restraint” when engaging with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, Khong mobilised his congregants to join their conservative Muslim allies in declaring that families must be made up of “one man as father, one woman as mother and children” by dressing in white in opposition to the gay pride event Pink Dot’s dress code.
“I want to pray that we will continue to wear white as long as there is pink, and we will wear white until the pink is gone, and even if the pink is gone we will continue to wear white,” Khong wasreportedas saying in 2015. The same report said he had blasted the “homosexual act” as the “greatest blasphemy against the name of God”.
In September this year, following the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377—a colonial-era law criminalising consensual sex between men that also exists in Singapore as Section 377A—Khong said he was “concerned” and “perhaps even disappointed” that veteran diplomat Tommy Koh called for the gay community to challenge the penal code statute here. A few months before this, in a video rallying Christians to attend the mass prayer event PraySingapore, Khong, in typical bellicose fashion, claimed, “Natural marriage is under attack. This will undermine the very fibre of our society. It will destroy the next generation.”
When contacted for details on LoveSingapore, the Faith Community Baptist Church declined to comment.
Evangelical methods vary
Like New Creation Church, Faith Community Baptist Church uses pop music and rock concert theatrics to attract followers. Khong’s evangelical modus operandi, though, draws a stark contrast from that of Joseph Prince, the leader of New Creation Church.
National University of Singapore sociologist Daniel Goh, in a comparative study of the two leaders and their churches in the book Pentecostal Megachurches in Southeast Asia, writes that Prince, unlike Khong, has “eschewed public affairs and divisive political issues”.
Their methods of organisation differ, too. The Faith Community Baptist Church has adopted a vision propounded by a megachurch leader in Colombia, where church cell groups are only allowed to contain a maximum of 12 members before splitting to form new groups. The cell groups, according to Goh, are “deployed like army units for training”, with new believers undergoing intense spiritual lessons before they are deemed ready to form their own cells.
“If FCBC’s key metaphor for its members is ‘soldier’, then the key metaphor for New Creation’s is ‘client’”
During an event in August, Khong outlined a goal of having such a prayer group in every high-rise residential dwelling in the country. “There are poor people, people of different races, persuasions and religions within each block,” he told the congregation. “We begin to know them, pray for them—and believe God for a revival of our block.”
On the other hand, New Creation’s own brand of church involvement includes “care groups”, but these “are not so much callings as are social opportunities that are meant to be enjoyed and bring personal satisfaction”, Goh writes.
“New Creation Church is organised on a very different footing from FCBC. If FCBC’s key metaphor for its members is ‘soldier’, then the key metaphor for New Creation’s is ‘client’.”
In this culture war between religious and non-religious voices, the government has consistently presented itself as a neutral arbitrator. While Singapore identifies itself as a secular state, it’s not an atheistic one.
But law academic Jaclyn Neo points out that the state isn’t strictly neutral. While religious freedom is recognised, it’s a qualified right and regulated by laws concerning public security and peaceful coexistence, among which is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) that was passed in 1990 to ensure that religion is not exploited for political or subversive purposes. While the MRHA has never been formally invoked, Neo writes that “its impact lies in its legal potential rather than its actual use”.
Under the MRHA, the government can issue an order restraining a religious leader for up to two years from addressing a particular topic seen to be political, subversive or exciting disaffection against the government. While religious groups aren’t barred from all forms of public expression, in accordance with the non-binding but normative Declaration of Religious Harmony, they are urged to always “recognise the secular nature of our State” and “ensure that religion will not be abused to create conflict and disharmony in Singapore”.
“In government or in the ruling party you may have Members of Parliament and ministers who are themselves Christians. The question is whether they can differentiate and separate their personal brands of morality from public policies or public interest”
Regular interfaith meetings and mediation during disputes are part of the government-led ecosystem promoting coexistence between different interest groups. In April, Pastor Yang Tuck Yoong met with Muslim leaders to offer his apologies after an American preacher insulted Islam at a conference organised by Cornerstone Community Church. In 2013, Law Minister K Shanmugam met lesbian group Sayoni and, later, Khong, when the pastor sent a letter requesting to meet him to discuss the government’s stand on homosexuality.
However, while the state makes it clear that it “wants to set itself up as a neutral arbitrator”, this is “just on a theoretical level”, says Chong. “The reality is more complex. In government or in the ruling party you may have [Members of Parliament] and ministers who are themselves Christians. The question is whether they can differentiate and separate their personal brands of morality from public policies or public interest.”
During the aforementioned 2014 debacle over HPB’s FAQ on sexuality, Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan said, “I cannot agree that ‘A same-sex relationship is not too different from a heterosexual relationship’. The two relationships are different and they go against the Government’s policy of promoting heterosexual married couples to have healthy relationships and to build stable nuclear and extended family units.”
He has since sounded a more cautious note on the issue of homosexuality. In September, when asked to comment on Section 377A after decriminalisation in India, he said, “I’m not convinced that [reviewing 377A] would be the right move at this point in time—it would just divide society. But maybe in the future, as people’s values develop and change, we may find a better time to do so.” Lim, according to the website for Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church, is the chairperson of its Local Church Executive Committee.
While the government does not enforce the discriminatory 377A law, its censorship regime is unfavourable towards LGBT depictions. Earlier this year, for instance, the Info-communications Media Development Authority gave the gay teen romantic comedy Love, Simon an R21 rating (restricted to audiences 21 and older), despite the absence of sexual intercourse or violence. The IMDAstates in its classification guidelines: “Films that depict a homosexual lifestyle should be sensitive to community values. They should not promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle.”
Moralities and needs
Scholars have traced the rise of Christians expressing their own brand of morality to talking points like then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong admitting in 2003 that LGBT individuals worked in the civil service, the 2005 entry of cabaret show “Crazy Horse” and the decision that same year to build integrated resorts that would introduce casino gambling.
But for evangelicals, at least, one church seems to have cast a pall over their moral standing—particularly over megachurches and their amalgamation of spirituality and materialism. In 2017, leaders of City Harvest Church, including its founder Kong Hee, began serving sentences for misappropriating SGD24 million (USD17.4 million) in building funds through sham bond investments, before misusing a further SGD26 million (USD18.9 million) to cover up the initial crime. Attendance figures, which once numbered more than 20,000, have fallen steadily, according to various reports.
“There’s a personal touch… and there’s a calling to keep attending every Sunday”
Chong says it’s easy to “demonise” all evangelicals and stigmatise them as “narrow-minded” and a “brainless flock of sheep”. However, he says that these are only a minority of followers, and one can begin to understand their attachment when one witnesses how churches are “interwoven” in the lives of congregants. These churches “serve as pillars of support for Christians in times of personal need”, he says, and cater to “their social and emotional requirements, and it is only natural that they are devoted to these churches”.
If you were to visit the websites of the churches mentioned in this article, you’ll find a suite of services, from pastoral care to counselling, for the needy and the underprivileged. Faith Community Baptist Church’s TOUCH Community Services, for instance, aids the elderly and other socially marginalised people in public housing.
Ryna Lim started attending New Creation Church about five years ago, after her brother brought her to a Christmas service. She says the church has “been very open” in letting members know what charities it’s funding.
As for her reasons for continuing to attend church, the 27-year-old says that, instead of dictating what people should or should not do, the sermons focus on the love God has for his flock. They have also, in part, inspired her to apply for volunteer work in prisons.
“There’s a personal touch” to New Creation Church, she says. “And there’s a calling to keep attending every Sunday.”
Simon Vincent is a journalist and the author of The Naysayer's Book Club: 26 Singaporeans You Need to Know. His work has appeared in OZY, Yahoo! News, The Middle Ground and other media.