Faith groups turn more to local leaders for greater sensitivity

Bishop Chong Chin Chung (with arms outstretched) at his consecration service in Commonwealth Drive last December. Bishop Chong said a home-grown minister offers "context-based preaching that is sensitive to local situations and cultures". Other Chris
Bishop Chong Chin Chung (with arms outstretched) at his consecration service in Commonwealth Drive last December. Bishop Chong said a home-grown minister offers "context-based preaching that is sensitive to local situations and cultures". Other Christian bodies said they are careful in inviting foreign speakers and only a few times a year.ST FILE PHOTO

Methodist Church's biggest event now fronted by S'poreans

The biggest event in the Methodist Church in Singapore's (MCS) calendar - its annual Aldersgate series of events - had been chaired by foreign speakers for over a decade. Invited luminaries included the late American theologian Thomas C. Oden.

But during the past three years, the MCS has looked only to home for its keynote speakers. Its Aldersgate programme last month was fronted by Singaporeans, Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon and Bishop Chong Chin Chung.

Bishop Chong told The Straits Times that a home-grown minister offers "context-based preaching that is sensitive to local situations and cultures".

He said: "In the past we looked to the Western perspective for inspiration. There has been a shift in our community to prioritise local or regional leaders. We realised that such speakers are more familiar with our congregations."

Like the Methodist Church, some other faith groups are also turning more towards local leaders instead of those from abroad, as they have a surer grasp of the sensitivities in Singapore's context.

This is even as the authorities reiterate that there is no room for religious extremism or exclusivism in Singapore, following the case of Imam Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel, an Indian national, who was fined in April for making offensive remarks against Christians and Jews. The Ministry of Home Affairs said then that the religious teacher would be repatriated.

After a Friday sermon, Imam Nalla had recited a prayer in Arabic, saying: "Grant us help against the Jews and the Christians." He later said the additional prayer he read was not from the Quran, but an old Arabic text originating from his village in India.

  • HOW MUCH THEY PAY

  • Most religious organisations here sponsor air tickets, lodging and meals for foreign guest speakers. Christian churches also disburse honorariums to invited speakers, said the National Council of Churches of Singapore's spokesman.

    He added that denominations have had longstanding practices about such payment, and that as far as independent churches are concerned, it is assumed the honorarium is decided by the church leadership.

  • THE METHODIST CHURCH IN SINGAPORE (MCS)

    The MCS has guidelines for speaker honorariums, specified in its financial manual. The benchmark rate is about $100 per hour, which all its churches are advised of.

    All expenditure has to be reported to the relevant boards and councils of the MCS. Its bishop, Dr Chong Chin Chung, said: "Our Church is a not-for-profit organisation. We are prudent in compensating speakers as these funds are our members' donations which they have entrusted to us. Members hope that their donations will be used to help the poor and needy, to build up the community, and for evangelism."

  • THE LUTHERAN CHURCH IN SINGAPORE

    The Church mostly relies on local preachers. Guest speakers, if any, are paid between $100 and $200 per sermon.

  • CITY HARVEST CHURCH (CHC)

    CHC gave a total of $230,000 in honorariums to nine foreign speakers and one foreign worship band over a dozen services in 2016. Its spokesman said the honorariums are not purely a "speaker's fee" but also includes money to sow into the speakers' ministries for their global works.

  • CORNERSTONE COMMUNITY CHURCH

    Its honorariums range from $600 to $1,000 per service.

  • THE CATHOLIC CHURCH

    There is no standard fee as it depends on the organisers and the distance of travel and the standing or status of the speakers, said its spokesman.

  • BUDDHISTS

    Individual associations usually sponsor the airfare and accommodation of visiting monks. The Buddhist federation's head, Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, said "no money exchanges hands according to the Buddhist monetary practices".

  • TAOISTS

    The Taoist Federation chairman, Mr Tan Thiam Lye, estimates that five overseas Taoists priests are invited annually. Their air tickets, lodging and food are usually sponsored.

  • MUSLIMS

    The chairman of Assyafaah Mosque, Mr Mohd Salleh K. Moideen, said most of its guest speakers are from Malaysia. Typically, mosques here pay less than $500 per speaker, he added.

    Melody Zaccheus

Since then, some members of the public have suggested that the authorities conduct a more thorough screening of foreign representatives of religious groups before they are allowed into the country.

Religious groups here say that they themselves conduct such checks as well as sensitise foreign speakers to the local environment.

Foreign speakers for major Methodist events usually come from the international Methodist circle. They are required to send their CVs, recommendations by their bishops or area superintendent as well as recordings of their sermons on YouTube or elsewhere. They are also briefed on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

Other Christian bodies, including the Lutherans, Lighthouse Evangelism and New Creation Church, also said they are careful in inviting foreign speakers and only a few times a year. Cornerstone Community Church, which invites about one foreign speaker a month, said it invites only speakers it knows well. Its senior pastor Yang Tuck Yoong said it warns them not to touch on politics, race and other religions.

Some faith groups even have departments or committees just to ensure that foreign representatives uphold the laws of the land and are aware of religious sensitivities.

The Taoist Federation Singapore, for instance, screens foreign speakers and the topics they plan to discuss, said federation chairman Tan Thiam Lye. A handful of overseas Taoist priests visit each year.

The Mufti of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), Dr Mohamed Fatris Bakaram, holds quarterly sessions to engage the cohort of foreign imams so their teachings are in keeping with the Singapore context. The six Indian Muslim mosques in Singapore each employs one or two imams who are usually from South Asia.

Foreign religious speakers invited to deliver talks to the public are usually from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. They are brought in by organisations or event organisers and their employment passes are issued by the Ministry of Manpower after seeking inputs from various agencies, said Muis.

Meanwhile, all the priests in the 24 Hindu temples here are from overseas. Previous reports placed the number at about 130 priests from different parts of India. Priests primarily conduct rituals and rarely address worshippers.

The Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) has a committee that looks into their recruitment. Their induction is conducted by the temple management committees which also supervise them when they are on duty, said an HEB spokesman. He added: "They must be knowledgeable, adaptable and have the right soft skills."

In the Roman Catholic Church, its Chancery screens all foreign applicants for leadership positions here. A "statement of suitability for ministry" must be filled up by their superiors and signed off for character and professional qualification. Of its 160 priests today, about 70 are foreigners.

The Singapore Buddhist Federation's head, the Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, estimates that its temples and institutions bring in about 30 foreign monks a year for major events such as Vesak Day. He said: "Buddhist speakers, whether monks or lay people, usually concentrate on their own religion and don't comment on others because our scriptures teach us to respect all."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2017, with the headline 'Faith groups turn more to local leaders for greater sensitivity'. Print Edition | Subscribe