Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: 'Issues of Law and Justice in Singapore: Some Christian Reflections' edited by Daniel K. S. Koh and Kiem-Kiok Kwa

This book is initiated to provide accessible resources about matters on law and justice in Singapore, to put "on record what Singapore Christians have been thinking; and in so doing encourage more Asian Christians to participate in the contextual enterprise of public discourse on subjects which would contribute to the strengthening of community life." (p. ix)

The seven chapters in the book is categorized in two parts. The first part concerns theological and biblical framework on law and justice.

In the first chapter, Daniel Koh, a noted theologian-ethicist from Trinity Theological College, opens up the book by briefing the reader of the various nuances of the word 'justice' as discussed by Ronald Preston, Duncan Forrester, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Rawls and others.

Without addressing the matter in an aloof manner, Koh draws the connection between the philosophical discussion on 'justice' with Singapore's National Pledge:

"There may not be a country anywhere in the world, either now or in the past, with a perfect understanding or a perfect system of justice in place. But justice as a desirable and essential component of the kind of society Singapore hopes to build is clearly echoed throughout the state in the pledge which school students recite at the start of each new day when they promise "to build a democratic society based on justice and equality..."" (p. 6)

One of Koh's most insightful discussions is on the relationship between love and justice. Following Preston and Forrester, he suggests that the relationship can be best understood in a reciprocal way,

"[A] fuller appreciation of justice should be enhanced and nourished by the presence of love. While the two may be different, if there is no justice, there is no love and if there is no love, what is offered as justice is likely to be a truncated version of what real justice ought to look like." (p. 31)

By that, Koh means that justice when pursued as fairness must not be focused on satisfying individual's self-interest but rather to be balanced by a genuine intention for the well-being of others regardless whether or not the self benefited from it. (p. 20-22) This would also help to re-discover the scope and extent of cultivating self-love. (p.22-31)

It seems fair for Koh to say that this theological perspective on justice "can be applied in assisting Christians, in particular, and fair-minded Singaporeans, in general, to place justice in the forefront of their social engagement in the public square for the benefit of all people." (p. 32-33)

The second chapter is Gordon Wong's reflection on the issue of law and justice through the Old and New Testament. Wong started off by disclaiming that his article is just random reflections instead of a full summary of the Bible's perspectives on the topic.

Cautiously, the Professor of Old Testament points out that the reader of the Bible must not be too ready to conflate into single meaning the various references of the word 'law' as appeared at different places of the Bible. For instance, when apostle Paul wrote about the law, was he referring to the Mosaic law, natural law, or the legal tradition developed by the Pharisees?

By looking into the recent public debate on the law on homosexual practice in Singapore, Wong draws the example of how those from both sides of the debate have been talking across each other by not being attentive to how each side understands the law. Those who want to remove the law understands it as criminal law, while those who want to maintain it understand it as moral law. "An awareness of this difference in understanding what type of law is being discussed may help advance the debate." (p. 38)

On another note, Wong reminds the reader that,

"So central and important is the practice of justice that it even takes precedence over the practice of worship. As important as acts of worship are in the Old Testament, they are not as important as acts of justice!" [For eg. Amos 5:23-24] (p. 45)

The second part of the book consists of five chapters concerning the various issues of law and justice in Singapore.

William Wan writes on Christian's relation with the four major aspects of legal punishment: retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation.

On retribution, Wan comments that it is justified and required because what underlies this aspect is that the criminals "must take personal responsibility for their wrongdoing." (p. 60) On deterrence, the author remarks that this aspect of punishment violates the imago Dei. The person being punished is made an example to others and hence is treated as a means to an end. (p. 77)

While Wan asserts that the prevention through imprisonment is valid yet this must only be carried out on those who are convicted of a crime and not on those who might commit crime. (p. 79)

The rehabilitation aspect has to be carried out with due consideration given to the criminal. Wan quotes C. S. Lewis, "[When] we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a 'case'." (p. 80)

There is one point in Wan's article that needs further comment. He writes that "Deuteronomy 24:16 articulates the doctrine of individual responsibility: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin."" (p. 73) Yet there is Exodus 34:7 where punishment extends to subsequent generations: "[He] punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation." So the appropriation of doctrine for criminal responsibility in common law remains a question to be explored.

Tan Seow Hon, who is currently Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University, writes a sharp essay on the issue of abortion. She revisits the Abortion Bill 1969 and discusses extensively its underlying problems.

Her article indirectly highlights the hasty legislation process of the Bill that does not undergo a more sustained debate. (A brief version of her in-depth argument is published in the Straits Times, dated 24 July 2008, reprinted at Asiaone news website titled 'Time for Singapore to relook abortion law'.)

I am especially in agreement with the following two points concerning a just discourse etiquette that she makes in the essay. First,

"Just as religious persons may not cite a religious text without more reasons, non-religious persons should not regard it as relevant that their interlocutor is religious if she is willing to offer non-religious reasons in discourse." (p. 102)


"If an argument stands the test of reason, may it not be impugned on the ground only that it is made by someone who happens to be religious. Otherwise, the religious would be in a [...] situation in which if they made a religious argument that was not accessible to all, they would be silenced, and if they made a non-religious argument, they would be accused of a facade of rationality." (p. 112-113)

Both were not uphold, as demonstrated in the article, during the abortion bill debate in 1969.

Debbie Ong contributes in Chapter 5 on the issue of marriage and divorce. As a Mediator in the Family Court, Ong points out the developmental history of the marriage and divorce law in Singapore as well as shares a real scenario of how divorce is deliberated.

Ong brings to our awareness how local legal system negotiate through the problems like monogamous heterosexual marriage, equality of husband and wife, qualifications to file for divorce, and the difficult issue of "marital rape".

Kiem-Kiok Kwa, who lectures on inter-cultural studies at East Asia School of Theology, examines the Methodist Church in Singapore in her essay.

She lists the various exemplary activities that have been undertaken by the local Methodist Churches as the manifestation of their seriousness is adhering and commending the 'Social Principles' stated in their Book of Discipline. Kwa makes a passing note that the statement "We deplore capital punishment" is taken out from the 1985 edition without further elaboration.

Commenting on the root of Methodist's social work, Kwa writes that these Social Principles is a

"unique reflection of Methodist theology and praxis since Wesley was concerned for the physical, intellectual, spiritual and social needs of people even as he preached personal redemption and social holiness." (p. 156)

Due to this, the Methodist Churches' comprehensive programs range from providing pre- and post-marital counseling, social-outreach activities across generation, education institutions, to engaging in public issues and social movements that care for the less-privileged, lower level of the society, and the environment.

In promoting for a just economy, Kwa recommends the option of fair-trade. Although Kwa is not intentional in addressing political economy in detail, yet it bears reminded that the suggestion for fair-trade falls into the problem of cultural capitalism, as emphatically raised by Slavoj Zizek:

"We are encouraged to believe that tokens of charity benefit those who suffer. Rather than look at the cause of problems, an overbearing system, deluded social psychology, personal abdication of responsibility and faulty philosophical worldview all of which try to alleviate problems of it’s own making using the same methodology that creates and sustains these problems, we simply work the dysfunctional system harder and faster."

That means activities such as the fair-trade initiative not only fail to address the problem but actually prolong it. In Zizek's words, this sort of "remedy is part of the disease." It still remained to be seen how this option can lead to a just economic practices without also inheriting the violence of the economic system that it condemns.

The last chapter, which is also the longest in the book, written by Thio Li-ann deals with the general approach towards public engagement. The article contains many illustrations taken from debates occurred around the world to serve as a guide to understand local issues.

Overall, the various issues highlighted in the book are important for local Christians and Churches to be familiarized with in order to get hold of the present situation as well as learning which approaches to be considered and which to be avoided. I have come to reckon this volume as a necessary compendium for the Christian community for its deliberation in the area of public theology, social engagement, legal system and justice with a high level of relevance and sensitivity to the local context.


Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Thanks for the fine review. Interesting book indeed. It covers a pretty wide scope. With so much injustice pervading the earth, this book can be a good starter for Christians to take heed of current issues on justice or the lack of it, think through them theologically/biblically and act if necessary. Hope to get a copy to read soon.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

I'm glad that the review is helpful to provide a foretaste of the work to you. :-)