Christian Disciplines in Times of Economic Challenges

by Dr Lee Soo Ann

When I agreed to this topic several months ago, I hardly realised how rapidly the economy would deteriorate. Today, we have the restructuring of the financial services industry in the U.S and Europe, a slowdown in China and deterioration in the Singapore economy itself. These are indeed challenging times but what I intend to say is applicable also to “good times”, perhaps more so.

How we think and behave in “good times” affects how we think and behave in challenging times. Conversely, how we think and behave in these times should hold us in good stead in less challenging times. In this way, there is a continuation of the Christian spirit in us, in “good “ as well as in challenging times, and that matters most.

I wrote a book last year entitled “Economic Volatility”. The previous 11 chapters had described and analysed how Singapore moved from place to nation, but in my last chapter, I concluded that what may be of more concern to Singapore is not so much a high or a low growth rate but rather a volatile rate.

I also pointed out how complex a society we have become, deeply impersonal because of the structures and processes of modern life. I also pointed out how many of our policies are short-term in nature, though our problems are still very much long-term.

As Christians, we should be concerned with ordering our private and public lives to be consistent with a volatile economy. Second, we are faced with a more complex society where the main drivers are technology, work outside Singapore and material desires. Third, largely as a result of both volatility and complexity, we are driven to emphasise what is immediate rather than what is long-term.
To these three concerns, I wish to advance the cultivation of the habits of:
- solitude, to counter volatility
- simplicity, to counter complexity and
- sanctification, to counter the tendency to emphasise the immediate, rather than what is eternal.

Steady growth but concerted

The first 25 years of Singapore as an economy were one of steady growth although these were also years of rapid change in institution building. I say 25 years for I date the foundation year as 1959 when Singapore obtained full internal self-government. That was the year when we had our flag, anthem, crest, Head of State and so on, although we were not yet independent.
When we became independent through separation from Malaysia in 1965, a few more things were added on, such as national service, a diplomatic service and a Singapore dollar, but the major institutions had by then been laid such as public housing, an expanded Central Provident Fund (CPF), land acquisition, integration of the rural with the urban areas and infrastructure expansion.

In the past, there was also uncertainty because there were racial problems and conflict with communist ideology. The political independence of Singapore also could not be taken for granted.

A strong government and people support behind them have however resolved most of these problems. Although Islam is identified with the Malays, their economic position has dramatically improved. Not many realise that the Malays were no longer subsidised, in much of the first 25 years.

The last 25 years however have seen several economic crises. First, there was the 1985 downturn, a major one in which the CPF was severely cut. After we recovered from that, came the Asian financial crisis in 1997. No sooner had we got out of that, then the world had a techno-slump and the US encountered 9/11 in the year 2001. After that, came SARS in 2003. The present international financial crisis started a year ago in 2007 and may take a couple of years before it is fully digested.

Volatility and the cultivation of solitude

The very “success” of Singapore has generated a new set of problems, one of which is volatility due to Singapore being closely integrated not only with the American and European capitalistic economies, but also with our neighbouring countries in terms of people. We are now a more open economy not only in trade and finance, but also in terms of more and more foreigners coming to live with us.

Integration with North America and Europe in terms of trade and finance means that we are subject to their business cycles. Much of Singapore is dependent on multi-national companies (MNCs) and we try to attract the best companies here. This means that new activities make their appearance here, the latest being bio-medical and nanotechnology. Because we are a small nation, we latch on to what we think are going to be sunrise industries.

We then let go sunset industries, or rather we allow the MNCs, which had brought them in, to bring them out again. A fresh set of MNCs make their appearance. So when the techno-slump occurred at the beginning of the 21st century, many Singapore lost their jobs when which appeared to be an IT boom disappeared.

Singaporeans are therefore continually exhorted to retrain and prepare themselves for new activities, such as the integrated resorts coming out in Marina Bay and Sentosa. It was not so long ago that hundreds were trained to enter the life of sciences and now they tend to be high-class life science salespersons!

Volatility also comes through the foreigners who live and work among us. Today, there are more than a million of them. Eight years ago, there were only 700,000. The growth rate of foreigners living in Singapore is several times that of babies being born. Some foreigners become citizens but even then, they retain their foreign ties, and although they may have renounced their foreign citizenship, they may come from countries, which allow them to regain their citizenship. Singapore is again immigrant. These foreigners may compel us to change jobs or become extra competitive in our existing one, because Singapore admits foreigners freely. All it needs is for an employer to say he wants a foreigner and they are in. Though there are quotas in some industries, there may be ways of going around them. By and large, they complement Singaporeans in their jobs, but they are also competitive i.e. they can succeed better in the same jobs that we do. Perhaps, it is because they are hungrier, or just better.

Singaporeans themselves move out of Singapore, for education, a less rapid paced lifestyle, and work. The number however, is far less than the number of foreigners who enter Singapore. The result is uncertainty for those who remain, not only because of the many foreigners who compete with them, but also because of the new MNCs and new activities, which are brought into Singapore by the Economic Development Board and other agencies.

In an article by Linda Lim and myself, which is going to be published next year in an Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) book on “The Management of Success Revisited”, we argue that Singapore could have pursued the development of a more robust domestic economy like Taiwan and South Korea. We have heard of domestic companies like Acer and Samsung but none of our companies are of that scale. Taiwan and South Korea closed much of their doors to foreign investment up to recently, which is why they could develop such large domestic companies. They merely bought technology and relied on domestic loans to fund new domestic ventures. Singapore brought in MNCs wholesale. We also used their technology and did not develop our own.

Given the pace of volatility from external companies, activities or foreign individuals, the Christian response is that of developing a robust personhood. Whether we stay in Singapore with all its uncertainty, or go abroad to study and work, Singaporeans need to be robust individuals, capable of adjustment, change and risk-taking.

What Christian discipline then can we develop? It has to do with cultivating the inner self and solitude. Solitude is the capacity to be alone, but with God. Society today is made up of very lonely people, but solitude is not loneliness. A person can appear to be alone, but if he or she is communicating with God all the time, he or she is enjoying solitude, not suffering loneliness.

Jesus refreshed Himself with many hours of solitude, going to the hills to pray, away from the crowds, some say as much as one third of the time. The gospels portray a very active Jesus, but in between the passages describing what Jesus spoke or did, are gaps, which indicate that Jesus was not with people but with God.

Today, much of Christian activity tends to be group-oriented, whether it be church or para-church organisation. Even prayer tends to be group-oriented. It is easier that way - it is much harder to pray by one self, and for long periods of time. The same goes for Bible study. It is easy to join the Bible study fellowship, but hard to study by oneself. It requires an effort to read or listen to scriptures by oneself.

Technology however is an enabling factor. I can play scripture CDs in my car when I drive. I can put it into my personal digital assistant (PDA) and scroll up and down when I am in a bus and so on.

Complexity and the cultivation of simplicity

Many years ago, Dr Bobby Sng preached a memorable message on keeping our lives simple. He pointed out how we allow activities, processes and objects to clutter ourselves, so that we end up being busy, but morally and spiritually lazy.

That message was given before the arrival of the Internet, the hand-phone and i-tunes. There are now so many processes packed into a digital object that we hardly have time to utilise more than 10 per cent of it in a normal day.

How then can we cultivate simplicity? The child that grew up in my home for the past seven years gave an answer. A child is essentially simple, though all the time growing. Simplicity comes in the child’s life being based on the parents and/or caregiver, whether a relative or a maid.

Around that base, the child adds in new activities and new relationships but always with a foundation on that base. For example, the child may meet a stranger, but that stranger is recognised as a friend or relative of the parents. The child may acquire a new toy, but that toy is given by some such person or on some special occasion, linked in a certain way to the parents. If a child is always close to the parents or a caregiver, the child can bring in new persons, objects and processes, if they are linked to the foundation of the parents. A child can therefore grow like in concentric circles around a core.

In the same way too, we can absorb new relationships, objects and processes if they are linked to our first love. Our first love is God, or if it is not, it should be God. Our lives remain simple if they are always centred on God.

However, the relationship to God is different in different areas of our life. Much of the time, we compartmentalise God, not integrate God into our activities. Hence, we associate Sunday and church with God. Monday and office is not God. It should not be God versus office, money, stocks and shares, technology, hand phones, etc. It should be God + office, God + money, God + stocks and shares, God+ technology and hand phones, and God+ home. It should also be God + church, for sometimes God is missing in church! We could be so involved in church programmes that we forgot God!

The common denominator to all our activities and concerns is therefore God, in the same way that the common denominator to all of a child’s activities and concerns is his or her parents or relative or caregiver. Simplicity arises from integration into a common denominator. As Christians, we are born again into a childlike simplicity of dependence upon God in each and every thing we do and say.

God-centred simplicity requires cultivation of the discipline of putting God into each and every are of our lives. Too often our Christian life starts from separating God.

Immediate emphasis and the cultivation of sanctification

Extreme volatility and complexity lead us to emphasise the immediate or the short-term. This has been termed the tyranny of the urgent. Everything seems to be urgent. In his book on “The Seven Habits of an Effective Person”, Steven Covey recommends the setting up of a vision to counter the tyranny of the urgent. What or who should be the vision of a Christian?

The acronym CHRISTIAN means that without the word “Christ” I am nothing (IAN). How does a vision of Jesus Christ give us the capacity to withstand the tyranny of the urgent? One of the spiritual giants in the church is Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian movement. In the 11th century, he wrote on the four stages in the love of God.

The first stage is when we love self. Paradoxical though it may seem, we need to begin by loving ourselves. Such love is not as selfish as it seems, for many of us do not love ourselves enough in a world, which is impersonal because of its volatility and complexity. We are continually looking outwards so much so we do not look inwards to appreciate who we are.

One of Buddhism’s attractions in Singapore is its attention to our inner selves. Christianity actually gives better attention to the inner self than Buddhism, for the gospel says that we can be born again of the Spirit, which means our inner self. Yet in the practice of Christianity, we may not give as much attention to our inner self, for example, to meditation and contemplation. Meditation and contemplation were early Christian practices. In Psalm 139, the psalmist writes of how we are fearfully and wonderfully mad, and ends with the cry for God to “search me and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting”.

Bernard of Clairvaux then moves on to the second stage of love, where we love God for self’s sake. Knowing that it is God who made and sustains us, we move on to love God for what God can do for us. This is the stage where most Christians are today. They depend on God to be by their side, to help them through a difficult day, and to advise them in this and that. This is needful love.

The third stage of love is where we love God for God’s sake. This is appreciative love, enabling us to praise God even when God does not seem to bless us. In this stage, we see God everywhere, even in “bad” circumstances. We bless God in difficult times, knowing that there is a God in control and this is a holy and great God, King of kings and Lord of lords.

There is yet a fourth stage, which Bernard describes as loving self for God’s sake. It is looking at ourselves from God’s perspective. The second stage of loving God for self’s sake is looking at God from our perspective. God’s perspective is totally different from ours, which is why it is said that very few Christians reach this fourth stage, if ever at all in this lifetime.

A child looks at his or her parents on how they can help him or her become what he or she thinks. It is quite different from how the parents the child. A parent sees a potential about which the child knows little about.

When we are driven to concern about the immediate or short-term, we are looking through our own eyes. God however sees us through God’s eyes, and what is short-term or immediate may to God be totally irrelevant or unimportant. Take for example, my eight-year-old daughter wants this toy or that dress straightaway, but I see beyond that, to what she needs 10 or 15 years from now on. I may give her what she immediately wants, but try to tell her that there is more to her life than that. If I refuse to accede, I have to explain to her why her immediate gratification is at the expense of her long-term potential.

How many of us try to look at ourselves from God’s eyes? What does God see in us? God sees us as if we can be in heaven, and so sometimes, we are denied this or that on this earth. God sees us as wretched and miserable, and yet capable of being crowned with glory and honour. As the psalmist asks: “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him”.

So we are asked in Psalm 8 “to consider the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars which God has set in place”. In that psalm and in many other scriptures, we are lifted from where we are, and challenged to be at the place where God is, seeing everything including ourselves from God’s perspective.

In this fourth stage of love, we see ourselves as depicted in Romans 7, as wretched persons, in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Romans 7 leads to Romans 8 where Paul challenges us to be led by the Spirit of God, so that we can be sons or daughters of God. What a contrast, from that of being a slave, to being a son or daughter! This is the difference from seeing everything from our own perspective, which is that of the first and second stages of love, and seeing everything from God’s perspective, which is what the third and fourth stages of love are about.

Sanctification is being able to see things from God’s perspective, first seeing God Himself and then seeing ourselves as being lifted up to being children of God, rather than being slaves of self and sin. It is the vision, which can lift us from being overly concerned with the immediate and the short-term. Through the presence of Jesus given to us by the Holy Spirit, we can see everything from God’s perspective, especially ourselves.

Economic challenges as lifting or lowering God’s perspective of us

Four decades ago, I was a young graduate and a keen Christian. With my economics training, I saw Singapore society as being torn apart from racial tension, and drifting to communist ideology. My first job was in the then Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Although I went on to academia rather than join the Economic Development Board as I was asked to, I threw myself in my teaching, writing and public service to building up the Singapore economy. I never forgot the church though, and it was through the absence of church buildings in the policy of building new towns, that together with a few others, we started what is now Presbyterian Community Services.

From a small childcare centre, Presbyterian Community Services has become the social service arm of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore with a dozen childcare centres, three elder service centres, and schemes to help the poor.

Twenty-five years ago, however, when in the business school, certain push and pull factors led me to go to a seminary. I felt that the Singapore being built up was too materialistic and self-centred. 1985 was the start of the volatile Singapore economy. 1990 was the start of the foreign labour policy, from non-traditional sources. Previously, Singapore depended on labour from Malaysia. However this source was drying up, and in order to keep up her growth, Singapore turned to labour from Thailand, China and Bangladesh for building, to the Philippines and Indonesia for domestic maids and cleaners, and to various countries for professions. Today, foreign labour is a major engine of economic growth.

Singapore also turned to new activities such as the IT industry, petrochemicals and bio-chemicals to maintain her economic growth. In the paper with Linda Lim, I described how Singapore in the 1980s became a capital surplus economy. She was saving too much for her own needs, and now was investing abroad her surplus funds.

Today, Singapore is rich and to maintain and defend that wealth, she spends the highest percentage of her GDP among ASEAN countries on defence, and has an external wing of Singapore companies going global. Continued globalisation has now in many ways become adverse to many Singaporeans, who cannot cope with all its demands, so that now there is a “new poor” who live in HDB housing.

I felt I had to integrate theology with economics, in other words, put (God + economy) rather than compartmentalise God from economics (God/economy). Hence, my theological studies were not only about the Bible and theology but also about an interdisciplinary study of integrating worldly concerns in a Christian framework.

In so doing, I was able to simply my life by integrating economics into God, focusing the study of economics on God. Before this stage of simplifying my life, I was in the stage of solitude, because of the death of my wife in 1977. For five years, I was an unmarried father. Even though I married again in 1982, it was still a period of solitude for me, as my present wife Tsao Yuan spent four of those five years in Boston studying for her Ph.D.

Perhaps, I was able to move on to sanctification when I return to serve the Bible Society of Singapore for 13 ½ years from my return in June 1990 to December 2003. I am uncertain about sanctification because only God can say whether I am more sanctified now, I cannot say that I always see things from God’s perspective, because I am still on earth.

It was during my early years in the Bible Society that Dr Bobby Sng asked me to join the committee to build St Luke’s Hospital. Presbyterian Community Services was one of the eight Christian organisations and churches that started St Luke’s Hospital. It was then that I decided to join GCF. In turn, I asked Dr Sng to join the Bible Society and for the last seven years, he has been its president.

Consequently, it was during the period that the economy was volatile, complex, and emphasising what is immediate, that I began my journey of solitude to simplicity and perhaps sanctification.

The disciplines of journeying through life

Today as members and friends of the GCF, you are called to make a Christian journey as a graduate. Your circumstances are different from mine, but I think you also can make a journey commencing in solitude, moving on to simplicity and then on to sanctification. It is a journey, which brings you closer to God in terms of being able to see almost everything from God’s perspective, while on this earth.

Nobody can tell you whether you are really closer to God. Only God can. Sometimes there are external signs such as through conversion, a change in your lifestyle, or a job change. My career has changed three times. I resigned from NUS in order to study a seminary. I then worked in a Christian organisation. I am back in NUS because the Bible Society has a retirement age. I now work full-time but get paid part-time. In your case, maybe you may go abroad to work or you may emigrate. Whatever the change in your environment or circumstances, discipline yourself to see more and more from God’s perspective.

Start with examining yourself, where you are, who you are, and what you are doing. Next centre more and more of your life on God. It may be difficult to do that with your career, so you may want to start with your hobbies, your church and so on. The GCF can form groups to help people integrate what they are doing with the nature, presence and activity of God in the world today.

I am always encouraged when people take a break from their career, from what they studied before, to stand back and see afresh. It is costly but it is worthwhile. Life on this earth is only a journey. Our true home is heaven and the person whom we are eventually spending the most time with, is God.

Yet, we burden ourselves unnecessarily with inconsequential matters. Climbing a mountain takes discipline, especially when we need to go as a group to ensure safety. But reaching the peak is worthwhile and a breath-taking experience. These are challenging times. You may ask me whether we are headed for a depression. It is said that when your neighbour loses a job, it is a slow-down. When you lose your job, it is a recession. However, when an economist loses his job, it is a depression! We should not be optimistic but hopeful. Hope is trust in God’s promises. His promises are real but things turning better or optimism is not real.
(This talk was given at the GCF 53rd Annual Thanksgiving Dinner on 19 September 2008 at the NUSS Guild House)