The Church’s real challenges are in Asia, says Singapore archbishop (I)
by Paolo Fossati

“The Asian continent is different from all the others since it is extremely varied in terms of religions, cultures and economic realities," the prelate said. In Singapore, faith is a “fundamental component for the country’s development.”


Rome (AsiaNews) – Mgr William Goh Seng Chye, archbishop of Singapore, discussed a number of issues with AsiaNews the day after his meeting with Pope Francis, issues like the reality of Asia, the life of the Church and religious harmony in Singapore, and his personal observations about Amoris Laetitia.

Nine years after the last ad limina visit, the 11 bishops of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (BCMSB) visited the Vatican between 4 and 9 February, to honour the tomb of the holy apostles Peter and Paul and meet Pope Francis.

Born in Singapore in 1957, Mgr Goh was ordained archdiocesan priest in 1985. For four years, he was assistant parish priest at the Holy Cross Church before travelling to Rome in 1992 to finish his studies in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Upon his return home, he taught and lectured at the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary of (SFXMS) between 1992 and 2005.  

In 2005, Mgr Goh was appointed SFXMS rector and spiritual director of the Catholic Spiritual Centre, a position he held until his ordination as the fourth archbishop of Singapore in 2013. What follows is the first part (of three) of an interview with Mgr Goh.

"The real challenges for the Catholic Church are here in Asia,” said Mgr William Goh Seng Chye, during his first ad limina visit to the Vatican as archbishop of Singapore. "The Asian continent is different from all the others, since it is extremely varied in terms of religions, cultures and economic realities," he added. In this context, Singapore stands out as a reality in its own right.

"It is a very particular Asian country, characterised by strong economic and technological progress, perhaps similar to South Korea and Hong Kong. Together with Malaysia and Brunei, it belongs to a Bishops’ Conference that brings together nations that face different political, economic and religious challenges.

“Singapore is a unique country, the expression of a cosmopolitan and highly educated society. More than 40 per cent of its residents have at least one university degree. About 75 per cent of the population is ethnic Chinese, but there are important Malay (13.5 per cent) and Indian (9 per cent) communities.”

One of the peculiarities that characterise the rich city-state is the relationship between the government and religion. "Unlike other countries,” the prelate explained. “However, we like to define ourselves more as a 'multicultural and multi-religious state'. The government is in fact secular in order to preserve the unity of the nation, but most ministers and officials profess a faith. The state is not against religion, but is in favour of it, seeing it as a fundamental component for the country’s development.

“The government provides important support to all religions, without favouritism. For example, it is customary to invite religious leaders to take part in numerous meetings and ask them for advice on issues affecting the country, especially from a moral and social point of view.”

“Some ministries, like the Ministry of the Family or the Ministry of Education, collaborate closely with religious leaders. Along with youth policies, these are the areas in which the government invites us to express opinions because we all work for the good of the country."

The collaboration between the State and religions for the country’s development is also reflected in the archbishop’s personal involvement. "I was appointed presidential advisor for minority rights and religious harmony. Thanks to the work of governmental interethnic and inter-religious bodies, there are frequent occasions for discussion and talks among all groups in Singapore’s cosmopolitan society. Our ability to live together peacefully, especially among different religions, is truly a miracle.

“Among the various initiatives, religious groups have set up a non-governmental organisation, the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), which provides a significant place for sharing different experiences of faith, this thanks to the important help from the government. All this makes Singapore a truly unique reality, where every religious problem is dealt with directly among religious leaders, even with a phone call. This is the beauty of our country, there are no conflicts," the archbishop said.

"All religions are on the same level and do not exercise any political power. Instead, all the countries that surround Singapore have a dominant religion, favoured by their governments. When this happens, the tendency to discriminate against others is strong. Unlike what happens in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, religions in Singapore do not have political power and do not seek it. For this reason, dialogue is easier and the common goal is the good of the country.

“Whenever foreign delegations visit Singapore, they make sure to meet local religious leaders. Recently, even Prince Charles of England visited the country and held talks with leaders on how to promote religious harmony. In Singapore we try to be a model, but ultimately the problem of many countries is the mutual exploitation of religion and politics. This is why I believe that elsewhere our system may not be effective ", Mgr Goh noted.

The day before the interview, Mgr Goh met Pope Francis along the bishops of Malaysia and Brunei. The archbishop said that these countries are very different from one another. For this reason, during the audience with the pontiff, the presentation of each took a long time. "As a result, there was little time for questions and observations," the archbishop explained.

Still, "We managed to have a very meaningful talk,” Mgr Goh said. “'Ask me all the questions you want, any! Even if you do not like the pope, you can tell me," Pope Francis told us with the humility that is his trademark. He was present like a father and as such he listened to us.

“For my part, I asked him two questions that are close to my heart. First, I explained my curiosity about the efficiency of a structure organised around small dicasteries in the context of a universal institution to which billions of people belong. After, I asked for clarifications on the theme of communion for the divorced included in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s second apostolic exhortation.

“Many in the Church have doubts and are uncertain. Such confusion and division also frighten me, but the Holy Father told me: 'Chapter VIII cannot be decontextualised. It is only the end of the exhortation. Chapter IV is more important, where its principles are explained. For Pope Francis, the question cannot be reduced to whether divorced people can receive communion or not?' Rather, the question is: 'How can we reach them, [and] assist them from a spiritual point of view?' Unfortunately, sometimes there are different approaches between academics and those involved in grassroots pastoral outreach. Pope Francis belongs to the latter group.”

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