I recently visited the Vatican City, at the same time when protest marches were being held in Ireland over the child abuse scandals against the Roman Catholic church.
The most beautiful thing about the Vatican City that struck me was neither the art nor the architecture – those were pretty but were cloying after a while. The most beautiful thing I saw were actually 2 men. One of them was the ticket seller to the Vatican Museum — he had only one finger and a slight stump of a thumb. Yet he was collecting money, giving change, dispensing tickets, with the speed and efficiency of any other ticket seller.
Having grown up in a culture where fetuses are screened and aborted for abnormalities, where disadvantaged persons can only sell tissue paper, where we are taught to pity them with paltry donations into tin cans, I’ve been flooded all my life with messages that disadvantaged persons were a liability to society. In the recent few past years, greater awareness about their abilities have been campaigned for, and I came to think that disadvantaged people could be as contributive to society as any other person could be — all a disadvantaged person had to do was a job that did not depend primarily on the skills he was handicapped for, and for society to give him that chance.
But the Vatican City ticket seller challenged my view completely. It said something about a society who would hire a person with only 1.5 fingers to sell tickets to thousands. It said something about a person who would take a job that primarily made use of a skill he was handicapped for – and excel at it.
The other person who touched me was the locker room (where visitors could deposit their bags and bulky items in lockers and pigeon holes) attendant. Visitors did not deposit their items into the lockers directly – they passed it to the attendant over the counter who then had to make sure everything was in place. This attendant had Downs’ Syndrome (or something similar, by his looks), and was as efficient and orderly as any good attendant I’ve ever come across.
I long for the day where my society would not see cheap foreign labor as the first choice for these jobs, and cease to see disadvantaged people as being disabled.
But I do think we are getting there. In the recent few years past, I have come across people with Downs’ Syndrome travelling by themselves on the MRT, very competently like any other normal person. A decade ago, such people were always accompanied by caregivers. Just seeing these people on the MRT more than convinces me that, if society gave them an education that is every citizen’s right, people with handicaps could be no less functional than a “normal” person. The image of a disabled person staring blankly into space, depending entirely on her caregiver, is one that is the fault of a society which has already condemned the person from birth, and has shirked its duty of investing in that person’s well being and education.
Visiting both the Vatican and Ireland during this period also is a reminder that no organization is perfectly good or perfectly bad. It was at the Vatican that I saw the most beautiful accordance of respect and dignity to people who have long suffered unjust and undue discrimination. Yet it is within the same Roman Catholic church system, that gross widespread child abuse has taken place. It really highlights the importance of not demonizing organizations or people, and the dangers of idolizing organizations of people. We need to look beyond identities, and look at each deed for itself, evaluate each deed for itself, so that the good can be recognized and reinforced, and the bad can be stopped and brought to justice.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with a Chinese friend. When I pointed out the atrocities of the Chinese Communist Party, he pointed out that Communism in China actually brought equality to women by allowing them to equal status in the workforce, that slavery in Tibet was abolished, and that prosperity has grown. Of course, we who have been influenced by the Western media would look at each of these achievements with a raised eyebrow, yet what we really need to do is to stop seeing these organizations as morally responsible persons, but start looking at each deed for itself, because you will find both good and bad.
When the Western and Islamic countries demonize each other, their accusations are probably true. But to the people that belong to each of these groups, they would see themselves for the good that they are, and very understandably feel a sense of injustice done towards them , when they are accused of being the monsters they do not see in themselves, their families and friends. And we all know that injustice and a threat to the safety of your loved ones are the strongest motivations for a person to risk life and limb to fight against the “enemy”. Is there any wonder we’re not going to solve the threat of terrorism in a long long time?
One of the reasons why power asymmetry exists in Singapore was very pronounced at a recent Health Technology Assessment conference I attended.
Power asymmetries arise when there is asymmetrical distribution of information and resources. It does not matter if you have the best democratic election mechanism in place, as long as information and resources is primarily in the hands of the State only. This also happens within large private organizations and the masses, which is why monopolies can be potentially abusive/exploitative.
One would think that power asymmetries existed in places like India and China because a large part of its population is uneducated and poor. In resource rich countries that exists in much of Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the USA power between the electorate and elected is more balanced. Why hasn’t that happened to the same extent in Singapore, despite us ranking way up there in terms of GFP per capita ?
I’m sure there are many reasons, and one of those came up strongly during this International conference.
In many countries with relatively higher State-people power balance, there are very strong NGOs, filled with experts and professional who were willing to contribute their time and expertise to generating and distributing information. Many of these organizations were privately funded too.
In Singapore, we have many charitable organizations. Most of our very few NGOs are also strongly focused on direct services to the disadvantaged group. That is not a bad thing – that is very commendable in fact. What is very lacking however, is this information generation through research, and information distribution through public education.
We really need 2 things. We need experts and professionals to come forward to volunteer. We need these people to stop doing so much overtime in the office, and start contributing. When I was volunteering at AWARE, I noticed that a disproportionate number of active volunteers are not even Singaporean. In the biomedical research industry, many were foreigners who came to Singapore for the money, and few of those who are Singaporean see the need to be involved in advocacy work.
The second thing we need is government-independent funding. Many NGOs and VWOs in Singapore take government funds to some extent. Once you have government funding, your messages are essentially taken hostage. Government funding is great when you’re trying to feed the poor, but not when you’re coming up with well-research evidence why poor people are being systematically produced.
Private funding has been thought to be a major issue in Singapore for a couple of reasons. Firstly, foreign private funding has always been used as “evidence” for foreign manipulation into Singapore’s politics and internal affairs. There are restrictions on the types and extent of foreign funds for certain activities. Secondly, many rich commercial firms in Singapore depend on themselves being in the good books of the government. Foreign firms who wish to remain in Singapore do not want to offend the government and none of our local firms are either big enough or government-independent enough to disregard the government’s agenda.
However, there is a source of private funding in Singapore that is capable of taking on this role — the religious organizations. Singaporeans are very religious, and see a lot of value investing financially into their afterlives. Many religious organizations already fund much of charity work. We need to start going beyond charity work, and start funding advocacy and research work. We need to convince the decision-makers that advocacy and research work is NOT being anti-government, that is very much pro-people, and that sometimes they really have to be brave. We need to convince decision-makers that researching into what processes in our system create the structurally unemployable is as important as feeding the children of these structurally unemployed. We need to be upfront and say, ‘Yes that sort of research may not go down well with certain powerful groups, but your religious texts that call for you to sacrifice for the greater good, were really talking about such situations, not terrorist activities or militant crusades.’
So we actually do have the expertise within our people, and we do have the funds too. What we need to do next, is to convince people to start using these for the public good.
I was recently discussing the basis of religious beliefs with a group of christian friends. Many seem to think there’s a huge amount of human influence into exactly what we believe, or in whom we choose to believe (ie. pastors). Non-pastors in the group seem to believe pastors a lot more than the pastors in the group believe pastors (themselves or other pastors) .
Having also been involved other groups – humanist (people who don’t believe you need religion to be/do good) groups, inter-faith dialogue groups, scientific (science researchers who come together to discuss religion/ethics) groups, — I’ve come to notice that many (inclusive of our group) hold a common view : that what we believe in has enough human influence to make us doubt the knowledge we have of the divine.
And yet, despite agreeing on this common view, people make such radically different choices — some to be atheistic, some agnostic, some Hindu, Christians , suicidal, insane etc etc .
Which makes me wonder why.
One of the reasons why I didn’t agree too well with institutionalized religions is that it puts one under ridiculous pressures to conform.
How often have we heard remarks like “How can you do that can call yourself a Christian?” or “A good Buddhist doesn’t do…….” Etc
Which was why I found inclusive, non-judgemental, non-religious groups that worked for the good of humanity, and at the same time encouraged decisions to be fact-based (rather than subjective value-based) very attractive.
However, after joining several of these groups, I find myself back to square one.
Because I’ve added many of these people to my Facebook etc, I find myself in a position where before I want to put anything on my status bar, I’ve to consider what a feminist, humanist, vegetarian, atheist, agnostic, homosexual, environmentalist etc etc etc might think. And I find myself in a position where I can no longer make a joke or even announce my craving for KFC anymore.
I feel so restricted, l feel like I’ve to be politically correct all the time, and after a while I notice people around me doing the same. Pretty soon we’ll sound as homogenous as a fundamentalists.
Is this desirable? Can we work against this? How? Should we even try?
Imagine if you were going on a plane ride for a nice family vacation with your family, and your family was all on board the plane awaiting take off already.
You go to the bathroom, and overhear terrorists discussing plans to bomb THAT plane.
Now what will you do?
Will you go up to your family and go “I’m going to tell you what I believe, but i respect your choice and decision whether or not you want to believe and get off the plane”?
Will you make tracks and brochures and invite your family to a rally to tell them about terrorism and how their plane might be bombed , and to put up your hands and come to the front, all who wish to be saved?
Will you even nag at them every five minutes to get off the plane?
No way. If you even slightly believed the terrorist has a bomb on the plane, you will be dragging your family screaming and kicking off the plane. Money lost because your holiday is forfeited? Who cares about money!!!
And of course, if you were a bit of a nicer person than Hitler, you would probably be shouting and insisting everyone get off the plane as well.
Now the thing about Christianity is this. Unlike most other religions where the way you get to heaven/paradise/some nice place was to do good deeds and perform some rituals, Christianity demands that you believe a FACT. Christianity demands that you believe the FACT that Jesus Christ was God-incarnate who came to earth at that specific time in history, and that he was crucified, and he later resurrected and ascended to heaven. A Christian must believe these events are FACTS.
Only then can the Christian have FAITH that believing / worshipping God as proclaimed by JC, would get him to heaven and out of hell. In Christianity, THAT and ONLY THAT faith will get you into heaven and out of hell — no amount of good deeds or rituals on your part can even come close to subtituting that faith.
And so if a person was a Christian and by definition believed in that fact, and if that Christian person even cared for someone else / society, a very natural consequence is to behave as my aeroplane story illustrated.
( I’m talking about the AVERAGE person’s behavior; there are always exceptions, which i’m sure YOU are………..And I’m also not talking about people like Thio Su Mien who, I feel, demand others follow her ideology, because that’s the “right” thing to do, and not because she really wants people to get to heaven, or else she would have just had another evagelical rally)
If this Christian REALLY believed his mother, father, wife, little daughter, smart son will go to hell for all eternity if they didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, what would he do??
My friend (a pastor and theologian) said that we’ll end up fundamentalists and terrorists if we behaved like what I suggested we would.
Yeh i agree.
But think about it.