Changing Times, Unchanging Vision

by Dr Bobby E.K. Sng

Fifty years ago, on 25th June, 26 graduates met in the home of Dr. and Mrs Benjamin Chew. There, they made a decision that has left its mark on the Singapore church scene.

Singapore then was in the midst of change. She was still recovering from the devastation of the Pacific War. The population was expanding rapidly; education, housing and jobs had to be provided for the people. On the political front, discussions were taking place to transform the island from a British colony to a self-governing state.

Amidst these challenges, the question was raised: what role could Christian graduates play? What kinds of contribution could they make? It did not take long before that small group of graduates agreed that God had brought them together precisely for such a time as this. They all shared a common vision and decided to form the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship.

It was a simple and imaginative vision which set the direction for the Fellowship over the next 50 years. Tonight, I want to share with you my understanding of that vision. We, also, want to ask ourselves: what does that vision mean for us today?

Vision expressed in five areas:

1. It was a vision of maintaining faithful witness in professional life

In a way, there was nothing new about this. 600 years before the coming of Christ, a Jewish boy had been taken away as captive from Jerusalem to Babylon where he was educated and later enrolled into government service. Maintaining faith in a foreign land whose value system differed radically from his own was not easy. But Daniel was a God-fearing graduate. During the next 60 years, he not only kept his faith, but also provided exceptional service in professional life (Daniel 6:3-5). Over the years, the story of Daniel as God’s faithful witness has inspired countless generations of graduates.

It is because of this vision that the Fellowship encouraged the formation of various professional sectional groups, eg medical, lawyers, teachers, care-givers, etc. Through annual dedication services, forums, seminars and conferences, attention is focused on what it means to be a Christian in the respective professions. Like Daniel, our concern is how can we maintain faithful witness in professional life and to give excellent service.

In recent times, much has been said about Singapore’s rise from being a third world country to a first world nation. I would like to believe that Christian professionals, given their significant numbers in the various professions and administrative services, played a noteworthy part in that development.

2. It was a vision of serving God’s people through the churches

From the beginning, the founding members of GCF were themselves active church members. You have the examples of people like Benjamin Chew, Phoon Wai-On, Khoo Oon Teik, James Wong and many others. They were concerned not only with serving their own churches, but also had a vision of the larger body of believers in Singapore.

For instance, in 1970, the Fellowship held a three-day Church Strategy Conference. Major changes were taking place in the island-state: young people were turning to the Lord in large numbers, there was a lack of premises to house new congregations, expatriate pastors were being replaced by Asian leadership, but there was a lack of trained local personnel. What role could GCF play? That conference recognized the challenges that we faced and made a number of recommendations. A follow-up Church Growth Study Group was set up and it called for greater use of house churches. Working in cooperation with Discipleship Training Centre, GCF formed the Lay Institute of Theology. Over the next eight years, 18 courses were conducted and some 500 persons registered in the various courses. At the same time, the Fellowship of Evangelical Students was encouraged to start the Frontier’s Group which sought to draw the attention of students to ministry opportunities in churches. Within ten years, scores of students went for further theological studies. GCF set up a theological education fund. Today, many of our former students are serving as church pastors, parachurch workers, lecturers in Bible colleges and overseas missionaries.

Because the Fellowship had a macro-vision of the church, its members also played key roles in other Christian organizations, such as Scripture Union, FES, Navigators, Campus Crusade, Youth for Christ, Bible Society, CBMC, etc. In 1978, the GCF undertook a major effort in writing up the history of the church in Singapore. From the beginning, it was obvious that such a project which required extensive research and interviews, would need the cooperation and goodwill of many churches and organizations. That the book In His Good Time could be completed and is today in its third edition was made possible because it was a project under the sponsorship of the GCF.

3. It was a vision of meeting needs in society

In the Parable of the Wise Steward, Jesus emphasized the need to be faithful in whatever the Lord has entrusted to us. Concluding, he said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). The Lord has entrusted much to us as graduates and he expects much from us.

Two years ago, I was invited by the NCCS to compile the book Many Faces, One Faith. Its objective was twofold: to show how the church had grown alongside the nation and to show how the church had contributed towards meetings the needs of society. In the course of researching, I was not surprised to discover a number of graduates who made significant contributions to the community over the years. There was Song Ong Siang (b. 1871), brilliant scholar and lawyer and who was also an Elder and preacher at the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church. Together with others, he produced the Straits Chinese Magazine to which he contributed regular articles discussing the many challenges the community faced. He also helped to found the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. His monumental work, One Hundred Years of the Chinese in Singapore, remains as an important work of reference. There was also Chen Su Lan (b. 1885), a Methodist Christian who hailed from Fuzhou and who was in the first batch of doctors to graduate from the KE Vll Medical College in Singapore. After graduation, Dr Chen was not only an active preacher and lay leader of his church, but was also much involved in community work. He campaigned against the open sale of opium and the widespread practice of prostitution. He took a lead role in setting up the Chinese YMCA and, together with others, helped to establish the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association. His Chen Su Lan Trust benefited scores of charitable organizations. Then you have Khoo Oon Teik (b. 1921), medical doctor, Methodist churchman, pioneer member of GCF and Scripture Union work. In the mid-60s, at a time when Singapore was undergoing rapid and profound changes, and many people required special counseling help, Dr Khoo and others helped to set up the Churches’ Counselling Service. From this humble beginning have emerged the Samaritans of Singapore and the Counselling and Care Centre today. A nephrologists, Dr Khoo also helped to set up the National Kidney Foundation which, today, is the world’s single largest charitable organization to provide dialysis care. All these graduates took the exhortation of Jesus seriously. The Lord had entrusted them with much, and much was expected of them.

Individually, many of us have also sought to find ways to meet the needs in society. In recent times, the Fellowship came together and helped to found St Luke’s Hospital. This was a major undertaking. GCF provided the glue that brought together eight different churches and organizations. Today, the 200-bed Hospital is accepted by the community as providing good medical care. It is also a recognized centre for the training of post-graduates doctors doing Family Medicine.

4. It was a vision of addressing issues that shape society

At our recent annual general meeting, Dr Tan Tee Khoon, FES General Secretary, reminded our members of how we ought to be the “salt” and “light” of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). I have often suspected that when Jesus spoke those words, he had graduates in mind. We must always be concerned for the kind of society we live in. Furthermore, given the roles that we can play, we often exercise an influence that far exceeds our actual numbers.

Over the years, the Fellowship has sought to do just that by making representations to the Government on matters that affect the shape of society, eg formation of Malaysia (1962), Constitutional Commission (1966), Women’s Charter Amendment (1979), Abortion Laws (1985), National Agenda (1987), Detention of Christian Books (1988), Religious Harmony Bill (1990), Censorship Review (1991) and Advance Medical Directives (1996). We have reasons to believe that these representations, together with those from other Christian bodies, were not made in vain.

In recent years, new issues have surfaced which challenge the Christian conscience. They include the casino debate, researches into the life sciences and the introduction of alternative lifestyles in Singapore. As a Fellowship, we need to be constantly on the alert and to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be “salt” and “light” in times like these?

5. It was a vision of supporting student work

The founding members of GCF were themselves students not so long ago. Not surprisingly, their feel for student work remained strong. They even worked into the GCF Constitution in Aim 2(d) the following statement “To encourage and support evangelical student work”. In the early years, most of the speakers on campus came from graduates. The Fellowship set up a library of books for students and published a magazine called Student Clarion. An Education Trust Fund was set up for needy students. The FES, which brought together student witness in the various campuses, was set up with the support of graduates.

Graduates have always recognized the strategic nature of student ministry. It is from our institutions of higher learning that will emerge administrators, academicians, researchers and policy-makers who will shape the nation. That great churchman and student worker, John R. Mott (b. 1865), realized this when he noted in an address: “Without question, in many respects the most important field which the Church of Christ has entered is the field of students, because that field furnishes a vastly disproportionate number of leaders in the various realms of thought and action. It is therefore high strategy, high statesmanship, and high churchmanship to lay hold upon these centres of learning and go with Elisha to the springs of the waters and cast the salt in there” (The World’s Student Christian Federation Vol 2, Addresses and Papers of John R. Mott, NY 1947, p. 517).

Times have changed

Tonight, we celebrate 50 years of GCF ministry. In the history of nations, 50 years is a short period but for Singapore, profound changes have taken place during this time. To begin with, the demographic world has changed. In the 50s, the population stood at 1.4 million; today it is 4.4 million. The people are better educated and better informed. In the 50s, there were just one university, one polytechnic and one teachers’ training college. Today, there are four universities, five polytechnics and 16 junior colleges. Furthermore, moves are afoot to make Singapore into a major educational hub for the region. Presently, there are just over 50,000 foreign students studying in Singapore. This number will increase to 150,000 in 10-15 years time. Already, the Singapore Management University has opened its campus in the heart of the city. It is projected to have an eventual enrolment of 8,000 students. By the year 2007, the University of NSW would have opened its campus in another part of the island. It will be Singapore’s first foreign private-run university and it will eventually have an enrolment of 15,000 students. All these developments present great challenges for our student and graduate ministries.

Secondly, the religious landscape has changed. In the past, because of its organizational structure and educated leadership, Christianity has always had an edge over the other religious groups. This is no longer true. Religious groups today are better organized and they receive good support from the community and the mass media. One needs only to look at the performance of the Soka Association on successive National Day Displays to realize their commitment and discipline. These groups now also have more educated leadership. Some years ago, a Buddhist Graduates’ Fellowship was formed. Its membership is said to be in excess of 2,000. There is also an Association of Muslim Professionals. All these developments mean that Christians function alongside groups that are well-organized and are led by people with vision and commitment. We need to ask ourselves: what does it mean to proclaim faith in a multi-faith society today?

And thirdly, the church scene has changed. In the 50s, those professing the Christian faith numbered less than 4% of the population; today it is 15%. These believers worshipped in about 80 churches; today, there are over 450 churches. Furthermore, churches today manifest a vitality that was unthinkable in the 50s and 60s. In some ways, churches have also begun to compete with parachurch organizations in their traditional roles, such as overseas mission and campus ministry. For instance, recent years have seen the emergence of church-based ministries in various campuses. In NUS alone, there are at least eight churches that operate their own student work. In graduate ministry, GCF can no longer claim a monopoly. The Population Census (2000) revealed that there were 66,581 Protestant university graduates. Contrast this with the meager 600 on our membership list. Where are the other graduates? They are out there in society, in the churches and various organizations. Surely, this ought to cause us to see how we can remake ourselves and to work with others.

The times have changed but the vision which launched the GCF 50 years ago, remains valid. I believe that there is something timeless about it. As a Fellowship, we must always have a vision of our role in professional life, church life, service to society and support of student work. If we lose this vision, we lose the raison d’etre of our Fellowship. May God raise up a generation of good people who understand the times, who have a macro-picture of the church and who will come forth to help us to fulfill this vision.

This talk was given at the Graduates’ Christian Fellowship’s Golden Jubilee.

Celebration Dinner on 23 September 2005 at the Singapore Swimming Club.