Film / Book Reviews, Touch

A well-documented story of the church in Singapore

In His Good Time

(Third Edition 2003)
Author: Dr Bobby E. K. Sng
The Bible Society of Singapore, 2003
Paperback, 371 pp

AS ITS subtitle declares, the book In His Good Time is about the story of the church in Singapore. It offers a broad sweep beginning from 1819, the very year of Singapore’s founding, to 2002, a period of 183 years.

The coverage, however, does not include the Roman Catholic Church, except for brief references in the pre-1840 period. That side of the story, the author Dr Bobby Sng says in his Preface, is “better undertaken by one of her members”.

At the outset, Sng, a medical doctor who had served as the General Secretary of the Fellowship of Evangelical Students and latterly Secretary of the Graduate Christian Fellowship, reveals a principle that would guide his work, namely that no history of the church can be written “as if the development of church could be understood in isolation from the surrounding socio-political events or worldwide theological tensions”.

He therefore selects his material for inclusion or emphasis with these questions always in mind: What is the Christians’ common heritage? Who were the people and what were the events that shaped the church’s history? What are the lessons that the church today can learn from its past? The upshot is that the story is not only ably told, but events are evaluated together with their human players.

Sng takes his reader back to the day (Jan 29, 1819) when Raffles landed on the shore of a Singapore that was no more than a large Malay village. He provides an interesting background to Raffles’ career, as well as documents the latter’s role in introducing Christianity to the island.

It seems that within four months of his founding of Singapore, Raffles gave a piece of land to establish a college for both “the study of the Chinese language and the extension of Christianity”. He also gave encouragement to the first resident missionary from the London Missionary Society (the Rev Samuel Milton) and even gave him money to conduct church services for the island’s inhabitants. As Governor, Raffles was keen for the spread of the knowledge of Christianity believing that that would lead to an improvement of society.

The chapters that followed chronicle the growth of the church from that point. Growth was initially slow, even though many missionaries had come to work in Singapore. What marked the turning point was the departure of most of these missionaries for China, around 1840. Those who chose to stay or had newly come, namely Benjamin Keasberry, Sophia Cooke, Thomas M. Fraser, William Henry Gomes and others, and lay persons like Philip and Elisa Robinson, gave devoted service which helped build an indigenous church.

What these men and women did before the turn of the century contributed significantly to the subsequent growth of the church. Sng honours them as people who had “made their lives count”.

As the author takes his reader across the years he skillfully weaves in the details of how the major denominations such as the Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Brethren and the Assemblies of God entered the Singapore scene. The Salvation Army as well as many of the smaller denominations and large independent churches all received worthy mention.

Even as the young Singapore church grew, it was not spared the controversy that had its rise in the West between evangelical and liberal theologies. Sng, whose sympathy is not with the liberals, traces how the evangelicals “won” the day and how that development led to the rise of the various evangelical institutions and organisations which in turn shaped the future of the church.

Many other aspects of church life and events are also given attention in the book. These include the contribution of mission schools, the church’s response to social needs, the rise of parachurch organisations, the effects of World War Two, and the renewal movement. In a new chapter, added in this third edition, Sng brings his story up-to-date, with a capture of the more important events of recent years. He has aptly entitled this chapter “Into the New Millennium.”

Any history of the church would be incomplete without a careful documentation of its human players vis-a-vis their kairos role. In the book, those men and women who had acted and made a contribution have been identified, named and recognised. The author’s deeper purpose for doing so is “that we shall not only understand how our Christian forbears responded to the challenges of their times but that we may also learn to respond to ours”.

The book’s value is enhanced by the author’s many careful assessments of why things happened the way they did.

I would heartily commend this book to anyone who not only is interested to know about the story of the church in Singapore but is also concerned to draw useful lessons from that story for his own good time.

Lim K Tham is the Chief Executive Officer of Care Corner Singapore. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church .