Strait Times (Singapore) interviews Archbishop John Chew

Source: The Strait Times

April 16, 2006

THE LUNCH INTERVIEW - Straight talker who loves his work

Bishop John Chew, head of the Anglican Church in Singapore, makes no apologies for expressing his views and believes other citizens should do the same. Unpretentious, solid and substantial, Dr Chew believes there could be other ways to approach the challenges that Singapore faces - by Tan Hsueh Yun

THE interview date was set, the time locked down. But where would we lunch? ‘Come over to the diocese (office),’ says the press liaison for Bishop John Chew, head of the Anglican Church here. ‘It’s the bishop’s favourite restaurant but he doesn’t know the address.’ After a short chat at the distinctive building in Francis Thomas Drive, the one with the fish scale-like plaster work on the facade, we pile into Dr Chew’s Toyota Camry and head to the restaurant. Mystery solved - he has picked an eatery tucked away in quiet Whampoa West, on the ground floor of an HDB block. Guan Hin Restaurant has been there a long time and is one of those places that still attracts a steady stream of customers because it serves excellent Teochew food. Dr Chew, 58, is obviously at home there. The staff greet him like a regular, he orders in fluent Teochew and then settles down to the interview. You could say the choice of restaurant says a lot about the man - unpretentious, solid, substantial. But you would expect that of someone who leads the 25,000 Anglicans in Singapore and who was recently inaugurated as the third Archbishop of the Anglican Church’s South-east Asian province. What really sets the bishop apart is that he is not afraid to speak his mind. It was shown during the debate on whether or not Singapore should have a casino. The Anglican Church encouraged its members to register their objections, whether by speaking up or writing to the media. He also makes it clear he did not think much of the safeguards - such as the entry fee. Even after the announcement that Singapore would go ahead and build two casinos, he still speaks passionately about the issue when asked. Tucking into steamed garoupa during the interview, he says he is not convinced people will come to Singapore just because of the casinos. Indeed, he believes there could be other ways to approach the challenges Singapore faces. While these might be economically less attractive, the social and cultural gains would more than offset the lesser economic gains. ‘To say I was disappointed is a real understatement,’ he says. The way he sees it, the effects the integrated resorts have may be felt only later. ‘You won’t see it in this generation, maybe two generations down the road,’ he says. This slippery moral slope worries him. He cites the film Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys who fall in love while herding sheep one summer in Wyoming, as another warning sign. ‘It may be a cultured way of depicting a certain lifestyle, but two generations later, it will be an accepted lifestyle.’ The decision by Britain to recognise same-sex civil partnerships also comes in for strong criticism. Singer Elton John and his partner David Furnish were among the first legally bound gay couples there. Says Dr Chew: ‘If Elton John can do it, imagine the impact on his fans.’ The way he sees it, Singapore cannot afford to go down that path. ‘It is just too dangerous, we have no fallback, “he says. “It’s not like in the West, where these things take time to trickle down.” My conclusion is we don’t have room for error. We are too small not to think of future generations.” Which is why he believes concerned citizens, Christians and others with religious beliefs have a duty to make their views known. He says, ”If our voices of concern are not heard, there will be a group of people who want to contribute to the well-being of the country who will be disenchanted.  This will be Singapore’s loss. If they give up, it will be very serious.” The frankness, the desire not to take things lying down, may have something to do with the struggles of his youth. He was born the fifth child in a family with three sons and three daughters. His mother worked at the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association and his father, whose family had rubber and pineapple, worked in the family business. He was schooled in Catholic High and Anglican High Schools and went to Nanyang University, where he majored in government and public administration, graduated with honours in 1970. Yet there seemed to be what he perceived as an “invisible ceiling” when it came time for graduates to go job-hunting. “English-educated graduates were riding the wave all the time,” he says. “The Chinese-educated had to struggle for everything.” He recalls how a university mate, a chemical engineering graduate, accepted a job a Singapore University graduate had rejected. His friend was paid half the salary offered to the English-educated job seeker. But he remembers all this without a trace of bitterness. “You don’t take things for granted,” he says matter-of-factly. “You know you have to struggle, you have to do better. You appreciate whatever chances come your way. His first job in 1971, was an assistant director in the Defence Ministry, where he says he learnt to track issues and do research. A year after, he married his university sweetheart Swee Kin, then a teacher. He stayed at Mindef for two years, then moved to what was then the Ministry of Science and Technology, where he worked for three years as an administrative assistant. Then, the five years he had given himself to experience working life was up, and it was time to heed the calling. It had come in 1969, when he was still at Nantah. It was during his years there that his Christian faith grew, and he became a member of the university’s Christian fellowship. Having made the decision to heed the calling, he says he then made a rash decision. The calm, measured man lunching at Guan Hin is the last person you would expect to make a reckless decision, but he insists that was what he did when he decided to study theology and divinity at the University of London. He says: ‘Looking back, it was scary. We didn’t have much in the way of savings and at the end of the first year, there was enough in my savings account to buy a one-way ticket home for one of us.’ He wondered if he should call it quits but then something happened, the sort of thing that strengthens a person’s faith. He went to college one morning during a term break. Something drove him there, and he went to his pigeon hole. In it was a letter. He says: ‘It was something out of the blue, from a university mate from the Nanyang University Graduates Christian Fellowship. He had sent a cheque with money collected from a group of friends.’ The emotional impact of finding that letter still resonates today. Dr Chew looks down and pauses for a minute before continuing. ‘I can’t remember how much it was but it was enough for me to stay on. Other help gradually came in and we lived as frugally as possible.’ He completed his doctorate in Old Testament Studies at Sheffield University in 1982, came back to Singapore and joined Trinity Theological College as a lecturer, becoming principal in 1991. He held that post until 1999, and was installed as the eighth Bishop of Singapore in 2000. In February this year, he started a four-year term as the third Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South-east Asia. Aside from the Diocese of Singapore, the province also includes the Dioceses of Kuching, Sabah and West Malaysia. He says Singapore plays a major role in the Anglican communion, and will work to have its voice heard as part of the Global South network of non-Western Anglican Churches. There is also much to do here. On June 4, the St Andrew’s Church Mission marks its 150th anniversary here with a special service at St Andrew’s Cathedral. In August, St Andrew’s Village, which houses the three St Andrew’s schools and Ascension Kindergarten, will be launched. This will be followed in October by the official opening of St Andrew’s Community Hospital in Simei. The church will also break ground this year for the St Andrew’s Autism Centre in Siglap, which will be ready in two years. It is the first of its kind in Asia as it will provide day care facilities for autistic people aged 13 to 55. With the busy schedule, it is perhaps fortunate the bishop loves his work. ‘If you feel your energy is spent in a meaningful, productive way, that is a form of rest,’ he says. He does, however, make time to have dinner at home whenever possible with his wife. Their son Chih Ern, 31, works in events management. Home is in Bishopsgate, the official residence of the Anglican Bishop. But surely he has to deal with work stress? How does he cope? He says he does not golf and is happiest with a book and the company of his family. ‘I don’t have to fight boardroom battles. That saves a lot of energy.’ Always speaking his mind.

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