The Singaporean Lies We Believe

The Singaporean Lies We Believe

Written by: Joseph Koh (Photo by: Zann Lee)

How local culture bleeds into our faith

I’ve always been fascinated with tattoos since young, and this interest developed further after I caught the first episode of Miami Ink — an American reality show that chronicles the events at a tattoo parlour. When I was 21, I asked my dad if I could get a tattoo. All I got was a rhetorical, “For what?!”

In Singapore, it is an artform that has been linked to secret societies and occult practices. Even though it is largely seen as a medium of self-expression today, a certain stigma remains. My parents, for example, still frown upon youths who adorn their body with ink.

My struggle with the permissibility of tattoos in the church took a new turn when I started seeing worship leaders from Australia and North America sheathed in tattoos. My immediate reaction was a visceral “why they can ah?” While it is perfectly normal to get inked in western countries, tattoos are still very much a taboo in the Singaporean church.

Culture influences our faith more than we think. Different cultural lenses would inevitably lead to slightly different Christian practices. Thus, if we are not conscious of how local culture has bled into our faith, blurring the lines between biblical truth and social norms, then we conform to it without even realising.

In order for us, Christians, to effectively engage culture today, we first need to think about the cultural lies that have seeped in our systems, deceitfully distancing us away from what God intends for our lives.

Having been born and bred on this sunny island, I’ve come to believe in certain Singaporean lies, which have at times influenced my decisions more than Christ himself:

Lie #1: You need to be good at everything.

As an adult, I am fully cognisant that I cannot excel at everything. But as a kid, raw and unformed, I didn’t know this. Under the good intentions of a holistic education, we are put through a school regime that demands us to be a model student, athlete, artist, and leader all at once. Growing up, I felt pressured on numerous fronts, and often took this concept of perfection to an extreme.

Today, even though I’ve come to know the parts of life where I can find success and the inverse, it still proves difficult to jump off this treadmill that expects us to continually strive towards the ideal. Like the voice of an exacting trainer, it tells us that we just have to try harder.

I’ve felt compelled on many occasions to be the perfect working professional, friend, son, and even Christian — adept at living up to societal expectations. Weakness has never been allowed in public. Perfectionism has also colonised how we perceive relationships, especially among Christians furiously searching for the ideal life partner.

But this mentality gets us nowhere, very much like the treadmill. Over time, I’ve learnt to see through this illusion of perfection and better master this truth: My value as a person cannot be measured by the number of balls I can juggle at any one time.

The only way we can alight from this exercise wheel is to understand that our worth is not determined by what we can offer to this world, but by what He offered in exchange for our redemption. Let us lean into our weaknesses and tap into abundant grace, choosing instead to take leisurely walks with Christ in the garden.

Lie #2: In life, we need to be realistic.

Whenever someone asks me about the defining trait of a Singaporean, I’ll never fail to tell him/her, “pragmatism.” Our entire metropolis was built on this principle: If you want to survive, you’ve got to do things prudently and sensibly.

However, this has also laced realism (or even cynicism) on the lips of every Singaporean adult. The ability to put bread on the table is taken very seriously. While this practicality can be good, I’ve met many youths whose dreams have been tampered with — their shallow eyes singed in normalcy.

I’ve come to realise that this very pragmatism keeps failure at the back of our heads, clipping any grandiose thought before it matures. Last year, when the SELAH team first broached the idea about organising a Worship Night at CHIJMES, failure kept me company throughout the meeting. I found myself caught in-between the vision of one united Body of Christ across diverse denominations and the risk of us hosting an empty hall. We only had three weeks to execute this event from scratch, so the odds were stacked against us. Looking back now, it would have been just foolish if I had abruptly deported this dream to the guillotine.

Too often, we grow content with living a comfortable, sedentary life in Singapore. I bear witness to the incredulous number of times where Jesus has urged me to forsake the fear of failure to join Him at the deep end. He beseeches us to lay ourselves open, in which we leave safety and security by the wayside and allow Him to use our lives as He pleases. When we bravely totter forward, inch by inch, we shall learn that in the event where we slip and fall, His steady hands will surely prop us back up.

Lie #3: Socio-economic success will make you happy.

No Christian will ever admit that financial and material success will make you happy, but I’ve bought into this lie time and time again. Having recently entered the workforce, it took me a few months before uncovering that my newfound financial independence as a young adult had enticed me to chase after things which I cannot keep for eternity.

At the workplace, there was a tacit pressure to dress up, check out the newest restaurants in town and keep abreast with the latest technologies and trends. Many colleagues possessed a certain currency, and my heart lusted to be one and the same. It only caused me to crave for bigger, shinier, and fancier things.

Through this mindless quest, I’ve figured out that pleasure will never lead to purpose. We have all been carefully crafted for greater pursuits than the trivialities of fleeting pleasure. Our hearts will never find sustained relief in possessions or even people — it’s inbuilt into our design.

In Isaiah 55:2, God cries out to His people, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” He tenderly invites them to incline their ear and seek Him (Isaiah 55:3).

This is the only way our wild goose chase will find rest, where our anxious hearts will find the meaning of life. We may have searched for happiness, instead He gives us deep, abiding joy.

Lie #4: We should keep our faith and work separate — faith is a private matter.

Have you ever spoken to a Muslim about your beliefs? I believe that most of us haven’t; souls shrivel and jaws are stitched tight at the mere mention of it.

Our secular state and multi-religious society has elbowed faith to the recesses of our private life. It is a topic banished from the dining table or the pantry. Religion has been designated for Sundays: the gospel kept air-tight within the four walls, safe and sealed.

Too many times have I weaselled out from sharing my faith with others. It’s as if God stands on my sternum, and I can no longer speak. I think twice, thrice, and soon enough the opportunity dissipates into thin air.

This clear demarcation between faith and work was never the case for Jesus Christ. His faith was consistently at work. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he never let the bell-jar of societal norms put a lid on the gospel. He was not only a rebel; He was keenly aware that heaven had ample room for everyone: “Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilised, slave, or free” (Colossians 3:11).

Set the lie free

Every single day, we are caught in the tension between the world’s clamour and His whisper. We are so used to the cacophony that our hearts have become desensitised. We need to fight to follow the one true voice.

If the church is ever to change culture, it has to start at these small, seemingly inconsequential decisions. When we expose these subtle cultural lies, the clarity of our faith shall burst into our field of vision in sharp relief.

As we articulate a different way of thinking and acting, we make new culture, propelling society into a different direction. With each unturned lie, day by day, Singaporean society will never be the same again.

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.


  1. deborah

    25 April

    super good read, well articulated and it spoke to my heart:’)

  2. JustTheJay

    1 May

    amen, very good article for me to read, agreed and encouraged. as for weather tattoos, it is a big debate but i believe it is more than just a cutural norms. to God be the glory :)

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