The Queen and I: Reflections of a Christian from a Commonwealth state
Since the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, much has been said about her faith and how it has influenced her life. Watching the Queen’s funeral this week has been interesting. While resonating with the Christian faith which is deeply personal to me, the grandeur of Westminster Abbey did not immediately resonate with me as the house of God.
The procession following the funeral service jolted my consciousness to the British Empire, an empire that has reigned in many parts around the world for many years, including Singapore. In an age that favors equality and democracy, the legacy of this empire, in particular decoloniality, has been the subject of much scholarship.
The passing of the Queen is complicated. How does someone from an ex-colony, who shares the same faith, process this? I offer some of my thoughts below.
Warm relations with the British
Different colonies have different relationships with the British. In Singapore, the British are generally well regarded. Singapore was a colony from 1819 to 1963 providing the British a harbor for trade along the straits of Malacca. As a bustling harbor, a large influx of people came around the region looking for work. My forefathers from China and the nearby region were amongst these.
Today Singapore is a melting pot of people from all over the region. With the increase in fortune since beginning life in Singapore, the overarching narrative of the British in Singapore has been positive. In fact, this colonial past was very much celebrated in the country’s nation building exercise. In 2019, Singapore celebrated the bicentennial year of the founding of modern Singapore which was described as the arrival of British statesman, Stamford Raffles, lieutenant governor of Bencoolen in 1819.
This atypical positive sentiment towards our colonial past has not gone unrecognized. CNN recently published an article wondering why the general sentiment of Singapore was sadder than in other former colonies where the response was more complex.
Christianity as a legacy of the British
As a British colony, Christianity in Singapore enjoyed the status of an unofficial state religion in Singapore. Terence Chong, writing in Singapore, Negotiating between State and Society, notes that Christianity at that time was “primarily geared towards serving the expatriate colonial community,” leaving the local populace to their own traditions and customs initially. At the turn of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,204 protestants, mostly British expatriates living in the municipal area.
Without the initial coercion of the Christian faith, Christianity was not connected to the forced conversion of the populace in Singapore. Mission organizations were focused on supporting poor Asian immigrants, offering Anglophone education to the native children. This resulted in a positive understanding of missionaries leading to the gradual growth of Christianity.
According to Chong, by 1980, 10 per cent of the population identified themselves as Christian and in 2000, 14.6%. By the last household survey in Singapore in 2015, 18.8% of the population self-identified themselves as Christians. This growth, while expedited by Singapore being a British colony, grew organically. Traditionally, there is no resentment towards the Christian faith.
Where do we go from here?
As Singaporeans, we did not grow up “hating” the British. If anything, the British were admired. Personally, there is also some intertwining of my Christian faith with the mission schools that I attended growing up. Today there are approximately 40,000 Singaporeans living in the UK. This is a substantial number considering that the overall native population of Singapore is less than 4 million. Besides Singapore, there is also a large number of people in the UK from Commonwealth states.
That we were once colonial subjects cannot be changed. While we cannot change the past, we can chart the future intentionally. From a post-colonial perspective, I would like to suggest the need to be cognizant of the colonial influences and to discern one’s appropriate actions.
1) Recognize limitations of colonial influence
The values of an empire have a profound influence on the context where they are present in. A big legacy of the British in Singapore is the adoption of modernization, which sees its roots in the Enlightenment. In Decolonizing Enlightenment, Nikita Dhawan argues that the idea of enlightenment and progress sets up a “singular, universal goal for humankind, namely indefinite improvement and development.” With such an understanding, colonialism exists to overcome “backwardness,” whereby guidance and support of the Europeans would bring about a positive social, economic and political outcome.
Crisis of Empire, by Thomas, Moore and Butler, argues that progress in different colonies evolved in the following way: introduction of Western languages, educational structures, industrial infrastructure and economic organization that led to the emergence of a self-consciously modern, Westernized, indigenous elite.
Modernization as a worldview has its limits and its negative sides. At its extreme form, people are dehumanized for the sake of the economy. This is at odds with our Christian faith. As Christians, we affirm that we are all created in the nature of God. Responding to the God of the universe, we set out to embrace the redeeming work of the gospel, reflecting God’s goodness wherever we are. As people of faith, God’s goodness is more than economic progress. It involves other social and spiritual aspects that are as important for the individual and the overall society.
2) Together a body of Christ
The body of Christ is a collective of individuals. This implies caring for an individual’s journey, history and context. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor 12:26).
The first step to caring is to actively take up responsibility for the other, earnestly seeking to understand the condition of the other. This is particularly important in the discussion of colonialism where the oppression of people groups is something that is real and recurring.
Even today, there continues to be existing power structures within the Christian community and in the world that enables suppression. As Christians, we are reminded of the all-powerful Christ, who made himself weak and vulnerable for the sake of saving humankind. Following in his footsteps, we can use our own individual power for the service of the other, to fight to alleviate the suffering of the other.
This other that we are responsible for is a real person or people group, not an ideology or the past. It extends beyond one’s blood family or countrymen, to the broader body of Christ.
In her Christmas message in 2004, the Queen said, “For me, as a Christian, one of the most important of these teachings is contained in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus answers the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ It is a timeless story of a victim of a mugging who was ignored by his own countrymen but helped by a foreigner – and a despised foreigner at that. The implication drawn by Jesus is clear. Everyone is our neighbour, no matter what race, creed or colour. The need to look after a fellow human being is far more important than any cultural or religious differences.”
The Queen’s personal faith has been much discussed. I thank God for the example of a faithful leader in her.
With the passing of the Queen, a chapter has turned for the British people. Symbolically, this is also a new slate for Commonwealth countries all over the world. The monarch that physically witnessed their independence has passed. It is my sincere hope that as we all turn the chapter together, we will let the gospel story and the responsibility for each other as the body of Christ be our principal guide.
Peirong Lin is Deputy Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance.