Counterintuitive Christianity

I wrote this for another blog – rafflesedify.livejournal.com – back in October 2014. I suddenly thought of it this morning, and decided to reproduce the post on my blog.

(Original link here)

Mount Carmel

As we progress in life, our beliefs about humanity, history, morality and destiny are constantly questioned by others and by ourselves. Well, to be fair, “questioned” is a very mild word – sometimes these beliefs are attacked and vilified, especially in university, where the academic atmosphere of free speech encourages a whole myriad of arguments and viewpoints.

The plurality of beliefs can be quite confusing, even to the point of being disconcerting, especially when so many of these beliefs are mutually contradictory (and therefore cannot be adopted simultaneously). As if that wasn’t enough, beliefs can sometimes be challenged aggressively, creating a very poisonous atmosphere. Emotions flare, tempers rage, our pride is hurt.

Like many other university students, I have felt overwhelmed by challenges to my beliefs, especially my belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. But even worse than that, I have sometimes witnessed in the UK a hatred for Christian doctrine, values and beliefs. Christians are often scoffed at for holding to “archaic” and “outmoded” beliefs and mocked for living a “blind” and “rigid” life.

In such instances, I am often reminded of Jesus’ words.

  • “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18 and 20)
  • “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

Jesus was loving, compassionate and innocent, and he was hung on a cross. How could I expect anything else for myself? As it is, the “challenges” I face pale in comparison to the extreme persecution of Christians around the world – in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, etc. Through the centuries, many followers of Christ have been heavily persecuted – not just mocked and ostracised, but injured, robbed and murdered.

Paul gave a thorough account of the trials in his life in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27. He received the punishment of “forty lashes minus one” from the Jews at least five times in his life. He was beaten with rods thrice, pelted with stones once, and shipwrecked thrice. He faced danger from rivers, bandits, Jews, Gentiles and false believers. He endured hunger, thirst, sleeplessness, nakedness… the list goes on. Paul did not provide this account to boast about his perseverance, or to display his battle scars. On the contrary, his conclusion in the following chapter (2 Corinthians 12:9-10) was to delight in his trials and tribulations for the sake of Christ, “for when I am weak, then I am strong”, and because God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

When I am weak, I am strong! This counterintuitive conclusion is one of the most uplifting testimonies of all time! In fact, the Bible is full of counterintuitive and countercultural teachings. And living out this Kingdom culture is what Jesus meant by being “in the world” but not “of the world”. Here are just a few examples of the many astounding stories and teachings in the Bible.

The old hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is a beautiful song extolling the steadfast nature of God in His provision and compassion. I was amazed to learn that the words “great is thy faithfulness” come from Lamentations 3:23! Ensconced in the heart of a book of melancholy and despair are words of hope and reassurance. Many of us would not normally encourage ourselves in God in a moment of affliction, yet this is what the author did.

In fact, this is what David did in Ziklag too. In 1 Sam 30, we read of the devastation that David and his army faced. The wives, children and property of the men were taken from Ziklag by the Amalekites. In one fell swoop, the men had lost everything dear to them, and David almost faced a mutiny from his soldiers. But his first action in his distress was to encourage himself in the Lord. The Lord strengthened David and his men, and gave them the victory over the Amalekites.

In the book of Judges, God whittled down Gideon’s forces from 32,000 to 300 in preparation for a battle with the Midianites. Army commanders usually increase their troop strength in preparation for battle, but not in this case! Once again, this is madness in the eyes of the world, but God gave Gideon and his men the victory.
In Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount is full of counterintuitive lessons. Blessed are the poor, those who mourn and the meek (v.3-5). Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (v.44). If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to him your other cheek (v.39).

In Mark, the disciples were taught that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35) and that “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Mark 10:43).

In Luke, Jesus taught that whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it (Luke 17:33). He also taught that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11).

There are many more examples that I could use. The counterintuitive nature of Christianity is so encouraging to me because it means that when my circumstances are bleak and I am in a state of despair, things are not as they seem. God’s power is made perfect through my weakness. The same Jesus who said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” (Matthew 16:24) also said to the woman at the well, “Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

In death, there is life.

My prayer is that as I continue to face challenges, trials and tribulations in life, I will always trust unceasingly in the God who perfects His power in my weakness, and who uses the foolish to things of the world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Qualifying for the Istana

“Raising the bar” may do more harm than good.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew firmly believed that Singapore’s success and survival depends on the strength of its institutions and not primarily on the wisdom of individual leaders. One of those institutions has been under review since January this year when PM Lee Hsien Loong announced the establishment of a Constitutional Commission to examine several aspects of the Elected Presidency (EP).

The 9-person commission was tasked with studying and offering recommendations on three aspects:

  1. The eligibility criteria for qualifying as a presidential candidate
  2. The framework governing the custodial powers of the President, especially with regard to the role of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA)
  3. The opportunity for individuals from minority races to be elected to Presidential office.

In 1991, when the EP was introduced, the government introduced stringent eligibility criteria for presidential candidates in accordance with the significant responsibilities and high honour of the office. Candidates who work in the private sector must have held the position of CEO or Chairman of a company with a paid-up capital of at least S$100 million, for a period of at least three years. Candidates from the public sector must have served in key positions such as judges, Cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries or heads of statutory boards. The candidate must also be deemed by the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) as a person of “integrity, good character and reputation”.

Despite these stringent criteria, some suggest that the bar needs to be raised even higher for private sector candidates (nobody is making the same claim for public sector candidates). To be more specific, calls have been made to raise the paid-up capital threshold. During the Parliamentary debate on the President’s Address in January, MP for Marine Parade GRC Edwin Tong said the threshold is “obsolete and outdated” and called for the threshold to be raised. At one of the public hearings held by the Constitutional Commission, lawyer Ranvir Kumar Singh suggested that the paid-up capital requirement be raised to S$500 million.

In his own speech to Parliament after the President’s Address, PM Lee did not specifically say that the qualifying threshold needs to be raised – he said that the criteria need to be “updated” and “reviewed”. But given his claim that the S$100 million paid-up capital threshold would be S$158 million with inflation today, and his reference to Singapore’s growing economy and increased complexity of financial institutions, it is highly unlikely that the government advocates lowering the bar.

S$100 million is arbitrary

The idea behind “raising the bar” is that Singapore’s rapidly growing financial reserves require even stronger safeguards, one of which is the President who functions as a “second key” to the reserve. One way to strengthen the Presidency is to ensure that only the most competent and responsible individuals sit in the Istana, and the proposed solution is to raise the paid-up capital requirement. The larger the company a person heads, the more confident Singaporeans can be that this person would function as a proper custodian of Singapore’s reserves.

But does the size of a company that a person leads directly correspond to his/her competence as a custodian of a country’s financial reserves? Former Attorney-General Walter Woon argues that the S$100 million figure is “purely arbitrary“. NUS Adjunct Professor Kevin Tan claims that that anyone who can run a S$100 million can probably run a S$300 million company as well. In contrast, the human rights NGO MARUAH points out that the 2008 financial crisis demonstrated that even the CEOs of the largest companies in the world made “self-serving and irresponsible decisions” that hurt shareholders and taxpayers.

In my view, the paid-up capital requirement is important as an indicator of a private sector candidate’s competence – albeit an imperfect indicator – but the exact number is not crucial. And the specific competences that this indicator hopefully points to are people management and decision-making as a CEO or Chairman, not investment prowess and business sense which are irrelevant to the job of the President.

How relevant is the paid-up capital requirement?

In fact, I argue that assuming responsibility for large amounts of money is not even the most important aspect of the President’s job. The clearest evidence of this is the fact that the same stringent requirement is not expected of public sector candidates – a former Supreme Court judge would have never handled the same budget as the CEO of a large company. In fact, all of Singapore’s elected Presidents came from the public sector. But more importantly, the President only assumes his/her role as the “second key” to the reserves when the Government requests access to past reserves, which is infrequent. The only time that the Government has ever tapped into past reserves was during the financial crisis in 2009, when S$4.9 billion was drawn from the reserves to fund the Government’s economic recovery plan.

Of course, requests for access to past reserves may become more frequent in the future, depending on who’s in power and what the economic circumstances are. But even then, MARUAH argues that a presidential veto of a government spending Bill is unrealistic because it is “politically inexpedient” to do so and because the President would need the support of the CPA or at least one-third of Parliament to do so. After all, even if the President believes that drawing from past reserves is unnecessary and harmful, will he really have the political capital to reject the government’s request, especially after the request has been evaluated by government economists, the Finance Minister and elected MPs? Furthermore, the President’s hand is not the only one on the “second key” – he/she is guided by the advice of the CPA, which the constitutional commission is considering strengthening.

Other than acting as a safeguard to the financial reserves, the President assumes other roles relating to guarding racial and religious harmony and the integrity of the civil service. For example, the President can initiate an anti-corruption investigation through the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) without the approval of the PM or the CPA. The President is also a diplomat who represents Singapore to the world. Since these roles are continuous and even allow the President limited autonomy in decision-making, surely they are more important than the President’s role as the “second key” to the reserves. The paid-up capital requirement has little relevance to these more important duties.

Raising the threshold is dangerous in the long-run

Since the paid-up capital requirement is an arbitrary, imperfect indicator of an individual’s competence, as well as irrelevant to the most important roles of the President, it would serve no purpose to raise the threshold. In fact, raising the threshold may be harmful to the Presidency and the country in the long run for two reasons. Firstly, since the threshold is an imperfect indicator of an individual’s competence, raising the threshold will reduce the pool of talent without ensuring that the remaining candidates are more competent than those who have been excluded. This contradicts the principle of meritocracy and is ultimately self-defeating.

Secondly, and more importantly, the restricted pool will be even more unrepresentative of Singapore’s diversity than it already is. This runs contrary to Part 3 of the Constitutional Commission’s mandate, which is to find ways to ensure that individuals from minority backgrounds are elected as President from time to time. This is important since all the candidates in the Presidential Elections of 1993 and 2011 were Chinese. (There were no elections in 1999 and 2005 because President SR Nathan was the only candidate who qualified.) In both sectors, but more so for the private than the public sector, minority races are under-represented at the top echelons. By drawing from an even smaller pool of elites, it will be even less likely that Singapore will have a Malay, Indian or Eurasian President in the future – or that Singapore will ever have a female president.

As someone from a minority ethnic group, I place great importance on the full participation of minorities in Singapore’s society and the accessibility of minorities to positions of leadership. It is no exaggeration to say that multiculturalism and racial equality are fundamental tenets of Singapore’s existence – it is literally the basis of our independence. Given the importance of this founding principle, I value evidence of multiculturalism played out in practice and not only in theory. I also value Singapore’s international image of multiculturalism, especially since I constantly receive befuddled looks when I introduce myself as a Singaporean – followed by the inevitable reply, “But you don’t look Singaporean”.

Diversity in the Istana is important evidence of Singapore’s multiculturalism and equality. A lack of diversity can foster a disconnect between the Office of the Presidency and breed cynicism amongst Singaporeans. This undermines the role of the President as a symbol of unity for the country. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal of diversity should not be to produce Indian Presidents, Malay Presidents or female Presidents – the goal is to produce Singaporean Presidents who could be Chinese, Malay or Indian, male or female. Since raising the paid-up capital requirement can reduce diversity in the Istana without necessarily increasing the quality of candidates, I argue that it should be kept at its current level.

Conclusion

I’ve argued that the paid-up capital requirement is an arbitrary, imperfect indicator of an individual’s experience and competence in handling large amounts of money, and is also irrelevant to the most important duties of the President. Hence, raising the S$100 million threshold will not necessarily produce better presidential candidates. What’s worse is that raising the threshold will reduce the representativeness and inclusiveness of the Presidency by further limiting access of minority ethnic groups and women to the Istana.

In fact, a case could even be made for lowering the threshold, not only for private sector candidates but for public sector candidates as well. In her submission to the Constitutional Commission, the Executive Director of AWARE, Corinna Lim, claims that the current thresholds for both the private and public sectors exclude women with illustrious careers such as Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, and Dr Kanwaljit Soin. She argues that the paid-up capital requirement should be reduced to S$50 million, and that the other public sector positions should be included, such as Ministers of State, senior ambassadors, and other senior members of the judiciary. While her argument is focused on women, the same logic can be applied across the board – there may be highly competent and respectable potential candidates who narrowly miss the mark according to the current threshold. Instead of using high thresholds to weed out “unqualified” candidates, greater responsibility should be placed on the electorate to judge the character and competence of candidates

Of course, no matter what the threshold is, a similar argument can always be made to lower it. Scrapping the threshold altogether is also not tenable – since candidates run independently of parties/organisations, which normally function as sieves, there have to be some qualifying criteria. I do not know how we will arrive at the golden threshold, but I am sure of two things – that raising the bar is counter-productive, and that we need greater public discussion about the Presidency beyond the Constitutional Commission.