Social Justice in Singapore

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Marvin Ng)

Interview with Ronald JJ Wong

The ascendency of Donald Trump as America’s 45th President has thrown the media into a frenzy about social justice. Fuelled with feelings of intolerance and entitlement, words like “racist,” “misogynist,” and “xenophobic” have been widely used by journalists and netizens to describe Trump. These latest developments in politics have caused me to think hard about social justice and the gospel. How should Christians respond? What would be the appropriate response (if any)?

Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to read Ronald JJ Wong’s book, The Justice Demand: Social Justice & The Singapore Church, in which he provides a lucid account of this subject matter. In an interview with SELAH, he shared about the need for a “grace-fuelled” form of justice and provides advice on how we can all take active steps to pursue social justice in our personal lives. He has inspired me on how we should all seek to reclaim biblical social justice and I hope it will be the same for you.

What is the greatest struggle you have as a Christian and lawyer?

I’ve struggled in constantly abiding in God in all aspects of my work. This includes which clients/matters to take on or pass on; how to relate to clients; how to assess their cases; what strategy or approach to take; what advice to give; and how to relate to other parties and their lawyers.

I once had a pro bono criminal case, where I represented a migrant worker who had been accused of molest by a female complainant. After having considered various facts and statements, I was inclined to question the veracity of my client’s instructions to me. I, therefore, struggled about whether to continue with the case by taking his instructions at face value or take a hard-line approach to ask him again whether he was telling me the truth. The latter approach is not necessarily required of lawyers; we proceed on the clients’ instructions without second-guessing them. The former approach was an easier route for me.

However, I decided to take the latter approach. He continued to deny his actions but eventually discharged us as his lawyers, so we didn’t conduct the trial. I was quite relieved, as I did not want to have to cross-examine the victim at trial on the basis of what I had suspected to be falsehood.

How do you integrate your faith into your profession as a lawyer?

The integration of my faith into my profession would mean being a good lawyer — a competent and honourable lawyer. It is difficult to be a good lawyer and this expectation could test one’s faith.

When was the first time God marked your heart for social justice?

When I was much younger, I’d take notice of people on the streets: people begging for money, people carrying their homes in their big plastic bags, people looking dirty and dishevelled. But I didn’t have the courage to talk to them. These impressions have left something in me.

You share in your book that we cannot take on a “universal, abstract, and non-contextual definition” of ‘Social Justice.’ Could you share more?

The term ‘social justice’ is a relatively modern term, although the essential concept is not. Ideas related to ‘social justice’ have been debated and tested since the time of the early Greek philosophers and Hebrew people of the Old Covenant. In more recent times, the ideas of John Rawls and Amartya Sen have become widely discussed and applied. These ideas are all approximating or aiming at some end, but that end is not definitively established with wide consensus.

My own views about social justice are shaped significantly by the Bible because my identity and worldview are intricately bound with it. Even then, I recognise that I apprehend the revealed word in a specific context, and that is how God has spoken to me.

As I learn more about different cultures and contexts — whether within Singapore or elsewhere; whether in our present time or in the past — I am more exposed to the varying expressions of the fundamental impulse of justice, of which I believe is a reflection of God’s character and desire for the world. I recognise that within the vast arc of God’s sovereign will in human history, there is one fundamental impulse but varying approximations of it across different contexts. How we define social justice is itself shaped by how we perceive this reality and the ultimate reality to come. Now we see in part, and perhaps many parts help us see more clearly, but we certainly do not see in full.

This book was written on the premise that social justice requires contextualisation, such as within the Southeast Asian context. What are the biggest differences between social justice within the Southeast Asian context and a western (or American) context?

I think a significant difference between the context for social justice in the US, Southeast Asia, and Singapore is the character and role of the government and civil society. When I was attending an international Christian conference, the participants were asked what the main justice issues of their countries were. Those from Southeast Asia and South Asia placed corruption and poverty at the top, whereas those from North America and Europe raised human trafficking and refugees (which were issues also highlighted by the Asians albeit not of the highest priority).

I spoke to an Australian participant about how the local Christians pursue social justice in her country. She raised examples about petitioning and lobbying the government on certain causes. Afterwards, I spoke to an Indian pastor. He talked about rescuing child slave labourers and finding foster families for them, and raising money to build a motorcycle workshop for some slum kids to pursue employment. This was to me an indication of the different ways people in different contexts understand and express social justice.

In North America, there’s a lot of focus on getting the government to fix things. However, there’s an increasingly counter-balance view that exhorts the Church to realise its role as the alternative polity — an alternative to the state-governed polity — in which social justice is to be pursued. In the Southeast Asian context, the government could itself be a cause for social justice problems, so people do not expect to turn to them to pursue justice. Instead, justice is pursued in and through the Church — by the people of God and not necessarily the institution.

Why do we all need to pursue a form of social justice that is “grace-fuelled”?

Seeking grace-fuelled justice is an outflow from an inflow of God’s grace lavishly poured out upon us. Anything else is to feed our own starving self — one that is starving of worth, recognition, love, and so on.

The danger of the latter is that we are bound to be disappointed and frustrated, and thus self-destruct, cause harm, and possibly do things which dishonour God and ourselves. Henri Nouwen wrote (paraphrased) that these are the very things that cause the brokenness and injustice we fight against. We can become part of the problem.

Pursuing justice as an outflow of grace, on the other hand, should result in us having a posture of humility, gratitude, and dependency on God. This means that even when we are disappointed or hindered, we will persevere in steadfastness and love.

With the current political upheaval in the world, the Middle East conflict and war, and different social issues that are still prevalent in the world, how can we not feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the world’s problems and needs? What should our appropriate response be?

I certainly feel overwhelmed quite a bit. But I’m reminded that God is God and I am not. Even when we only see darkness, He is sustaining and fanning even the smallest flame. A lot of this won’t get reported in the media we consume, but we hear these stories from Christians living in those places. I have heard stories from Christians living in Syria, Iraq, and Iran: stories of persecution and suffering, but also stories of faith, hope, and love.

I think that our response should be to look to God. We pray, trusting Him to fulfil His gracious sovereign will. We pray, asking Him to lead us to the assignment He has for us, and this could take us to places in Singapore, places of severe conflict (like the Middle East), or to places of more surreptitious forms of injustice and unrighteousness. We pray, pleading for grace to be faithful to that assignment. Such faithfulness will be — in the grand tapestry of human history weaved together by the One who holds all things together — enough.

In a survey — among 117 Christians in Singapore — presented in the book, our local congregations do not seem to understand social justice. Could you care to explain why?

I suspect biblical social justice is not preached about enough. I suspect that our preaching on certain matters is often not proportional to the Bible’s coverage of these matters.

There is some history to this. In the early to middle 20th Century, ‘social justice’ was perceived to be related to liberation theology and the social gospel, both of which were seen as unorthodox to western evangelicalism and had its roots in liberal theology.

In Singapore church history during the 1940s-1950s, the likes of John Sung came and denounced liberal theology, which was seen to be growing in the Singapore Church. Many of our present church leaders grew up during this time period. Unfortunately, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. American and British evangelicalism had already by the latter half of the 20th Century rebalanced their view on social justice.

One key movement was the Lausanne Movement, at which John Stott stood firmly in support of an evangelicalism that embraced social justice. The Singapore Church seems to be lagging far behind on these developments and the Singapore Church seems to be taken by other pressing issues.

There is little time or resources (including mental resources) to take a strategic and long-term view to the importance of biblical social justice in the Church’s gospel, mission, and witness. If you were to speak with pastors on what they have to deal with on a regular basis, you feel overwhelmed for them: conflict among members or the leadership; dealing with difficult members; tending to needy and broken members; preparing for sermons, classes, teaching; and so on. I can understand why things tend to remain at status quo. It’s typically because they’re pre-occupied with fighting fires and keeping things functioning. If anything, the onus is on church members to ask themselves how they can assist the pastors. The church leadership should also be humbly open to sincere and thoughtful proposals by members, whether they be related to social justice or not.

You believe that individuals should be empowered to pursue justice rather than for the local church to undertake justice programmes as an organisation. How did you end up with such a conviction?

I think there’s a place for the local church to undertake justice programmes, but the emphasis should be to disciple and empower individuals to embrace a holistic, just lifestyle. That means living justly whether at home or in church or in the workplace — in the quotidian as much as the extraordinary.

If individuals are convicted to pursue justice programmes and acts in and through the local church or at the para-church level, then they should be enabled. My conviction was borne out of an anecdotal observation: when local churches adopt a top-down approach, organise activities, and then ask their members to go along; more often than not, members do so not from a place of deep discipleship, conviction, and engagement. Further, when it’s top-down, we tend to put the cart before the horse and adopt a narrow view on the matter — whether it’s social justice, missions, or witness — because of how the church leadership had conceived the matter for that particular programme, and not necessarily because the church leadership doesn’t fully understand the matter.

What is one advice you’d give millennials who are contemplating on taking the next step in pursuing social justice?

I’d say explore wide and deep: dive deep in God’s word, talk to various Christians engaged in justice, discover the work of different ministries and organisations.

What do you hope to see change in Singapore in five years’ time?

I hope Singapore will be humbler, truth-seeking, and compassionate. The world is becoming more truth-averse, polemical, and insular. We need to be humble to learn and have respectful dialogue in good faith, trusting to move forward as a team and not as opponents tearing the fabric apart in a thousand, different directions. As a nation, we can also afford to be more compassionate and merciful, whilst being thoughtful and wise, in our society and to people of other nations.

You can purchase Ronald’s book, The Justice Demand, here.

JOSEPH thinks that Nasi Lemak ought to be Singapore's national dish. He is passionate in discovering how faith can collide beautifully with urban culture, and believes in mentoring the next generation. He also wishes that a singular Singaporean accent will emerge in his lifetime. Follow him @firesandtimbers.


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