Saturday, July 28, 2012

What is wrong with the West?

Early this week as I listened to the news on the memorial service in Norway to commemorate the massacre a year ago, I thought of an incident that happened a long time ago.  I was standing in a queue to go on a ride in Disney World, Orlando when a pleasant elderly lady asked me how I liked America.  I told her it was fun.  Come on, I was in Disney World.  She asked me if I ever thought of living in the States.  I replied in the negative partly because I could tell that she, like most locals in any country, would welcome tourists to her country but not immigrants who would compete with locals in the job market.  I jokingly mentioned my own native food which I was more used to as a reason.  She didn't seem convinced and she asked me to tell her the "real reason" why I wouldn't want to live in America.  There was a shooting spree (I now forget which one) in the US just months before and I could tell from her tone of voice that she was alluding to this.  Being an obliging chap and one who is careful not to offend others, I told her that one day, I would have kids and if I was told that there had been a shooting spree in my child's school, I would laugh my head off because such a thing couldn't possibly happen in Singapore.  I told her I liked to be assured that my children would be safe when they were in school.  She told me she knew what I meant.  A close friend of hers was shot just months before.  "What do you do to people who smuggle guns into your country and use them?" she asked.  "We hang them.  Capital punishment," I replied without flinching.

Proponents of the abolition of the death pealty will go namby-pamby here.  The State shouldn't take the life of a human being.  Well, Breivik took the lives of 77 people.

At the memorial service in Norway on 22 July, Norway's prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg told the people, "He [Breivik] failed, the people won."  In Oslo Cathedral, Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien told Norwegians: "The light shines in the darkness; darkness hasn't been able to overcome it."

Let's be serious and not babble like fools here.  How have the people won?  Breivik killed 77 people.  The people DIED.  Breivik lives and will continue to live.   You can say a million times that Breivik failed and the people won but words don't mean a thing if they don't reflect reality.  Who would you rather be? Breivik or one of the 77?   Knowing how hospitable penitentiary facilities are in Norway, I would rather be in Breivik's shoes any time.  I might even write a book about the day I killed 77 people.  Have I missed something?  How have the people won? 

Just two days before the memorial service in Oslo, there was a shooting incident in Colorado at a cinema screening the new Batman film.  12 people were killed.   Hours after the shooting, Republican Louie Gohmert suggested on a radio show to the host Ernie Istook that the shooting was caused by "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs." Gohmert also wondered aloud why nobody else in the cinema had a gun to take down the gunman.

Instead of banning guns, Gohmert is suggesting that Americans should all carry guns to a movie.  It's back to the Wild Wild West, folks!

Singapore should hold its head up high and make no apology for its death penalty.  Breivik could never have done what he did if he had lived in Singapore.  And I mean NEVER.  Even if he did, he'd by now be swinging by his neck after which doctors would harvest his body parts for transplant purposes.  At least there would be some use for Breivik's carcass.  A curse to humanity while he's alive, Breivik can at least be of some benefit to patients when he's despatched with.  As he should be.

Stoltenberg was dead wrong - the people have not won.  They're dead and buried.  Breivik has won and let's make no mistake about that.  The West must stop using words to change reality.  The people can only win if you do two things - ban guns and kill anyone who disobeys.

The West has no moral right to tell Singapore what to do.  They can't even keep their house in order.  It's that disgraceful.  I have lost count of the number of shooting massacres in the West, especially the US.  Criminals and potential criminals in Singapore who don't like the harshness of its laws should just get the hell out.  Go to Norway or the US and buy as many guns as you legally can.  There's no room in Singapore for criminals.  It's the noose for the likes of Breivik here.  They swing and decent people applaud.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Hey, the war is over!

When I was a young boy, my Uncle who was a great fan of Lee Kuan Yew explained to me that the system Singapore adopted for its Government was rightly termed "benign paternalism".  Today, "paternalism" is viewed in a negative light by most people.  The dictionary in my computer includes in its definition of paternalism the idea of rights restrictions "in the subordinate's supposed best interest".  But what if the restrictions in the past were REALLY done in the nation's best interest?  It's very easy to decry today the human rights restrictions of yesterday but what if we're here today because of the rights restrictions of yesterday?  I'm not saying that this is so but the fact is we don't really know, do we?

Every country has its embarrassing past.  The right thing to do is for the Government to acknowledge they were wrong and to apologise to the people.  They do that quite easily in the West.  Many countries have apologised to their people of aboriginal descent for all the wrongs done against them in the past.

Asian countries are usually reluctant to apologise. They seem to think that the matter will fade from our memory when nobody talks about it and so they ban publication of articles on the topic. 

In this age of the internet, it's impossible to conceal the past.  Google will lead you to websites of all kinds including those that are highly incendiary and to youtube videos too and you can listen to the voices of past political detainees and the human rights abuses they suffered.  China has tried to conceal some of its past and it is to some degree successful because it ruthlessly bans many sites online and even dips its fingers into major search engines to block out searches for potentially embarrassing topics such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  Its small success is also due largely to the language barrier - the people of China prefer local Chinese sites for social networking, blogging and all their other internet needs and it's easier for the Chinese Government to control and monitor these homegrown sites while it bans many foreign websites.

What if China apologises to the people for the Tiananmen Square Massacre?  Its leaders can always issue an apology and admit they were wrong.  They can compensate the families of victims of the massacre.  The amount can't be more than a tiny fraction of what China spends in one day in monitoring and keeping vigilance over the internet.

What will happen if China admits it was wrong and apologises to the people?  I can't think of anything bad that can possibly follow.  Will there be a riot?  Of course not.  It can only please the people that the Government is now acknowledging its wrongs and is prepared to take responsibility for the past.  It may even give some assurance to the people that they can expect justice and fair play in the future.

Singapore today is very different from what it was a couple of decades ago.  What happened 25 years ago won't ever happen again today.  Everyone knows this.  Even the most hardened anti-establishment person knows this to be true.  It's a different Singapore today.  The past is gone.  It's all hunky-dory now.

The reason why I was motivated to write this is because of an article I've just read on Yahoo News about M. Ravi dancing in the Speaker's Corner.  I have a lot of respect for people who are passionate about human rights and are willing to sacrifice themselves in the service of others but sometimes, it's easy to go overboard with what we are passionate about and this can affect our health, both physical and mental.

I am reminded of a story about a British soldier who hid himself in the Malayan jungle during World War II after Japan invaded Malaya.  It was decades later when he emerged from the jungle looking for Japanese soldiers.  He hid behind a tree just as a group of people were passing by and he could hear them speaking Japanese.  Suddenly, he jumped out from behind the tree and pointed his rifle at a group of frightened Japanese tourists and he was about to pull the trigger when an Indian rubber tapper who had been observing everything from behind him shouted, "Hey, the war is over!"

Yes, the war is over!  Forget your angst!  It's party time!

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Church and Your Money

There's been a lot of publicity about innocent people being unduly influenced into giving huge sums of money to religious organisations to which they belong.  Various religious leaders have been charged in court, some have been convicted and what's puzzling to most people is not so much the crimes committed by these supposedly holy men of God but the reaction of the congregation.  The blind, dogged, persistent support given to the church leader even when there have been accusations that he has improperly used the money of these very supporters is something most people find puzzling.

As a long-standing Christian (and a devout one, even if I say so myself), I am in the best position to explain the psychology of these believers.  I have heard of a couple who sold their only home and gave the entire proceeds to their church.  They are obliged to rent from their meagre salaries a modest flat to live in.  You'd probably think they are insane.  But the reality is they aren't any more insane than you and I.  Why then do they do what normal people wouldn't dream of doing?

I'm sure this happens in every religion but I will only give the Christian perspective which is the only one I'm familiar with.

Every organisation needs money and the church is not unique here.  The church needs money and it's not wrong to give to it.  First, I would like to classify churches into traditional churches and non-traditional churches.  By my definition, traditional churches are churches that do a lot of charitable works.  They build schools, hospitals, hospices, old folks' home, orphanages and other kinds of welfare homes.  These churches do a lot of good for society and giving to them is good and right.  But these are churches that usually don't demand money from parishioners.  They don't threaten parishioners or frighten them into giving money.  By my definition again, non-traditional churches are usually new-fangled churches, usually independent and sometimes they become really large and they are called mega-churches.  A mega-church almost always has a single person who holds all the power in the organisation and nobody questions his power and authority and because his church is new and probably started by him, there aren't any real checks and balances to curb his untrammelled power.  Another feature of a non-traditional church (remember, this is entirely my own definition) is that it does not build schools, hospices, orphanages and other welfare homes.  It probably does some charitable work but nothing as major as running welfare homes.  Not all churches that are non-traditional and don't run charitable homes, hospices and orphanages are bad.  I'm sure some are all right but those churches that have been getting bad publicity on the local press are almost always non-traditional churches that don't run welfare homes.  I have to make this clear because it's not my intention to tar all independent churches with the same brush.

I'm sure many people will disagree with my classification and I really don't bother about the distinction.  I'm not out on a crusade to draw people to traditional churches and frankly, I haven't got any evangelistic zeal.  I am all for everyone following his own religion and the religious culture of his community.  What I want to examine here is not which church is good and which is bad but I want to peer into the minds of believers and see what makes them tick.  What makes a person give the bulk of his money to the church and when accusations are made by impartial authorities against the church leader, what makes this same person defend the leader mindlessly and with the ferocity of a wild beast?

A lot has to do with the teachings of the religion.  In Christianity, the worthlessness of man is something that is stressed all the time.  We are like dust at God's feet.  As the famous hymn goes, "Amazing grace.... that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see".  Or as St Paul writes, he is nothing without Christ, that Christ should increase and he decrease.  The worthlessness of mankind leads to the concept commonly called the "total depravity of man".  We are told from the cradle that we are utterly worthless and not only are we worthless, we are totally and irredeemably depraved.  Irredeemable?  Well, not quite.  There is one redemption open to us and it's only through Jesus Christ, the Redeemer that we may be saved.

Together with this idea that we are utterly worthless and depraved without Christ is the concept that we own nothing.  As the book of Job tells us, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither".  And the New Testament carries on the same imagery with St Paul saying "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out."   All things come from God and when we give our money to the church, we aren't giving God what's ours.  We are returning to God what is really his.  As the hymn goes, "We give thee but thine own".  We are but stewards of the property that belongs to God even though the law of the land says we have a legal title to the property.  We hold all our possessions in stewardship for God's ultimate use and for the purposes of his Kingdom.  These are lofty-sounding words that don't mean more than that the money should be used by the church.

That is in fact the correct teaching of the church.  It's not something the mega-churches cooked up.  What the mega-churches have done is to build on this concept as I will illustrate later.

What Christianity has done to the average parishioner is to make him in a sense vulnerable.  This was vitally important in the history of Christianity when the church was always fighting tooth and nail with the State and controlling the parishioners was what the church sought to do.  Of course many of us don't really care what the church teaches and we don't give a hoot for this concept of stewardship and we would use our property any way we like and the church can go to the blazes for all we care.  That's the stand of the majority of Christians even though they may not admit this and many don't even realize this.

But there is always a group that feels keenly the pricking of their conscience every time they fail to give huge sums to the church and it is this group that can fall prey to errant pastors who know this weakness of a segment of their flock.

In traditional churches, there are some safeguards against exploitation of these faithful few.  Traditional churches NEVER coerce parishioners into giving money.  Giving is always considered a matter between the parishioner and God.  Everything is left to the individual to decide for himself or herself how much, if any, he should give to God. The guiding principle is what St Paul says - to give cheerfully.  So, if you don't feel good about giving, don't give. It's that simple.  Traditional churches too have a proper system of accounting and they have rules in place and the money given by the parishioners do not go to the pastors.

Now I have to be careful what I say because, like I have already explained, not all non-traditional churches are bad.  What I'm going to say next is not applicable to all non-traditional churches but only to a very few of them. What do these very few errant churches do to ensure their ecclesiastical coffers are filled to the brim?

First, they teach their members properly.  These churches always refer their members to the practice in the Old Testament.  Now, the structure of the temple in the Old Testament is very different from the church that we have today.  They had Levite priests and much of the giving to the temple went to the Levites, a group of people who were by birth ordained to be priests.  The traditional 10% or tithe comes from this practice.  But in the Old Testament, the giving of tithe was not all there was to the financial obligation of a devout Jew.  He had to give from his crops to the Levites, something which is called "First fruits".  The system is extremely complex and if you want to cream off your parishioners, you can do it quite effectively by going into detail on what exactly the ancient Israelite had to give to the House of Levi and of course you extrapolate the whole thing and you, the pastor, becomes the Levite in order to give profitable meaning to that Old Testament practice.

Next, you tell your congregation that because they are obliged to give so much to the church, withholding it from the church would be tantamount to robbing God.   This is a frightening allegation - that the Christian is robbing God!  But you can always find something in the Bible to support anything you want and all you have to do is to turn to the book of Malachi (that's the last book of the Old Testament) in which the prophet tells the people that they have robbed God.  I assure you it's very effective when used on a compliant congregation.

Now is the time when you can talk about God's curses.  He who has the temerity of robbing God must surely expect curses from the Almighty.  Extend the curses to the entire family and to the children of the sinner.  That's usually very effective in bringing a hardened person to his knees.

But a good pastor will not just stop there.  The Gospel of Christ is always called the Good News and that's what the congregation wants to hear.  You tell them that God will break the curse if they are obedient (ie give abundantly to the church).  Say to them, "Jesus is waiting at the door to give his blessings.  He wants to give his blessings but as long as you are disobedient, he can't do so.  What will your answer be today?  What is YOUR response to Jesus who now stands at the door with his blessings?  Will you let him in or will you chase him away?"

Now, you do not end there.  If you end there and let the congregation leave the church, you have failed.  It's natural for even the most pious parishioner to have some sense knocked into his head the moment he leaves the church.  What you should do at this point is to ask everyone to pray with you.  Of course you lead in the prayer.  You speak for the people to God.  You tell God how WE have sinned against him.  We have robbed him, you confess.  We have disobeyed him.  But we now repent of our grievous sins.  At this point, you should look over the pulpit to see if some in the congregation are beginning to weep.  There should be some, usually among the ladies if you have done it right.

You thank Jesus for his patience and his compassion.  There he stands at the door with blessings in his hand and we have shut him out.  Lord, we open our hearts to you.  We invite you in.  We receive your blessings.  NOTE: You mustn't say anything about giving money to the church because that would be too obvious but you need not worry.  Everyone knows that that's what he's supposed to do and it's their hateful disobedience and sin that have prevented them from doing so.

At this point, you don't end the prayer but you go into a period of silence but before I continue, I should say something to those who attend traditional churches.  Those who attend traditional churches will no doubt notice that there is a departure from the Liturgy but we are not talking about traditional churches with boring liturgy cast in stone.  We are talking about the modern non-traditional churches that do things "as the Spirit leads".  What I have said is not something I have made up myself.  It's something I draw from my personal experience when I attended non-traditional church services a few times in my younger days.

Let's go back to the pulpit.  Because you have not ended the prayer but have lapsed into silence, the congregation would still be in a prayerful mood.  You break the silence with an admonition: "The Spirit is speaking to you now.  Listen to that still small voice."  This last bit is important.  Of course nobody really hears the Spirit of God speaking.  I mean if you really hear something audible, you'd do well to see a psychiatrist.  That's why the Bible refers to the "prompting" of the Spirit and the voice of the Spirit is always described as the "still small voice".  A devout Christian is trained to "hear" the voice of God by the IMPRESSION that he "senses".  Basically, an impression is no different from a thought.  Of course the parishioners will "hear" the voice of the Spirit.  The pastor has just spoken at great length about the importance of giving to the church and it is impossible that the parishioner senses no impression that should go along the same line.  The devout Christian will believe that he "hears" the Spirit "in his heart".  He feels that the Spirit is telling him to give more money.  Just in case some of them are a little obtuse, you should help them along.  "Is the Spirit of God telling you to do what you have thus far neglected?"  Again avoid talking directly about filthy cash.  You are above all that, surely!

Next, you can add this which I have actually heard in youtube from a sermon taken from a mega-church.  You tell the congregation to put God to the test.  Give him a fixed amount and see if God will shortchange you.  There is something in the Bible about God giving a ten-fold blessing.  Seize that verse for this purpose and tell the people that God has promised a ten-fold return.  Try him out and see if he will go back on his promise.  Give $1000 and see if you do not receive ten times that amount in return within the week or month.  Or if you are wise, give God $10,000 and you'll get a lot more in return.  A website I have seen even talks about a hundredfold blessing, which is better.  Google "tenfold blessings" and "hundredfold blessings" if you don't believe me.  This is religion - you can't sue the pastor if you don't get your ten-fold or hundredfold return.

Sometimes, a bit of soft and slow music can go a long way to goad the believer to reach deeper into his pockets.  Tell the organist to pick a familiar slow hymn.

I recently learnt from a friend who attends one of these non-traditional churches that the pastors force all the members to give their payslips and income tax returns to the church which will ascertain that tithes are collected.  He assures me it's true but I find it preposterous.  Honestly, I know people can be stupid but I really doubt there's anyone in Singapore who wouldn't walk out of a church that asks for your payslip.

Another thing I understand from people who go to non-traditional churches is that they are given a lot of lessons on tithe-giving, etc.  They are always told to look at Malachi 3:10 which reads, "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need."  It's funny that although I have been a devout Christian all my life and have served the church from being an altar boy to various ministries in adulthood, I have never heard such a creative reading of Malachi.  The Levites' storehouse becomes the church!!!

What they tell their congregation is that their duty is to give 10 percent of their earnings to the church (the Levites' storehouse) and once they have done that, their duty is fulfilled.  If the church misuses the money, God will deal with the perpetrators himself.  But your duty to give 10 percent to the church remains.  Can you believe this?

But this is all perfectly legal.  It's more than legal.  It's religious and nobody dares to say a word against religion.  But to be fair, in most churches, all money goes through a proper accounting process and everything is above board.  Churches generally do a lot of good in society and the scandal of a few black sheep should not tarnish the good name of the holy church, the Bride of Christ.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The local papers again!

I do sometimes try to give the local press a chance.  I happened this evening to see a local newspaper article online and it was about Rajaratnam and I read it for I like the man.  Who wouldn't like Rajaratnam?  He was such a nice chap and quite an intellectual too.  And I thought to myself that the local newspaper wouldn't say anything silly or leave out important information as they did when they wrote about an opposition leader (see my previous blog entry here) because Rajaratnam was after all a Government man.

But I was wrong.  You may read the article here.

It's fine to praise Rajaratnam.  Like I've said, I like the man and anything said in his favour is agreeable to me.  But this line didn't strike the right chord in me:

"Hailed as a leading Indian short story writer, he was published alongside the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Mulk Raj Anand, whose short stories are today considered literary classics."

Rajaratnam was a great man but in the world of literature, he did not stand anywhere near Tagore or Anand.  True, defenders of the Singapore Press Holdings will say that line came from the preface of a collection of Rajaratnam's short stories but no responsible newspaper will print that quotation without qualifying it somewhat. That sentence may very well be suitable in a book that compiles the works of Rajaratnam and whose readers are probably aware of the works of Tagore and Anand or they must at least know the kind of reputation both these writers enjoy in the literary world but when a newspaper quotes it without some qualification, it becomes highly misleading especially when most Singaporean readers know very little about who the great literary giants really are and they may very well be led into believing that Rajaratnam was as great a writer as Tagore and Anand.

It's obvious the local press hasn't quite made it yet.  I have no doubt the day will come when I will pick up the local papers and read them as I would real newspapers but alas, that day hasn't come yet.

To cut or not to cut

A German court has ruled that circumcision of young boys amounted to bodily harm.  This has prompted Germany's Medical Association to tell doctors not to perform circumcisions.

Here's what the BBC says:


Ignoring Russell Crowe's impetuous comments about circumcision for the moment, surely a surgery that is needless and irreversible should not be done on a child who is unable to consent to it legally?  There are medical conditions that require circumcision but we are not talking about those.   What about female circumcision which is commonly done in some parts of Africa?  Everyone agrees female circumcision is wrong and barbaric.  We say it's purely cultural and not religious but who are we to say that the traditional beliefs and practices of people in some parts of Africa are merely cultural and not religious?  Would we think differently if one of the major religions adopted female circumcision as a requirement?  Why does a practice suddenly become right when it's religious?

But religion is a touchy subject.  For the moment, two major religions adopt circumcision of young boys as its religious prerequisite.  Was the German court wrong to rule against religious practices?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Concert in Ostrava

To all my friends in Ostrava:

As you are aware, I'm a camera-happy kind of chap and I have captured just about everything on my cam.  For the concert of 7 July 2012, I filmed EVERY performance and I have uploaded a lot of them on youtube with a private link.

As many of you know, I have publicized these links on my facebook page but some of you may not have seen it because we haven't connected on facebook or in one particular instance, rare though I must say, the person has no facebook account and does not intend to have one.  For this reason, I will post on this page all the links to your performances on youtube.

I know many of you are impatient to see your videos uploaded but please be patient.  Uploading the videos can be quite a chore.  Each video can take anything from 4 to 8 hours.  To be fair to all parties, I'm uploading the videos in the order in which the concert was performed.  I will try to upload as many as I can but because of the length of the videos and the large number of them, I trust you will pardon me for my tardiness.

All the performances are excellent and to the best of my knowledge, all of you are happy with the uploading of your videos.  But I still try to have some measure of privacy and as you can see, I have set the privacy level in my youtube account such that the videos are accessible only to those with the private links.  I have also taken the step of posting this blog post in the 7 July entry which means visitors to my blog won't see this post easily unless they have a specific link to it since it's buried under a heap of other postings of mine.  But just in case some of you would rather have privacy for your performance, please let me know.

Many of you have asked me about the teachers' performances.  As you know, our teachers are top-notch, world-class musicians and are renowned not just in Europe but also the rest of the world.  These virtuosos are naturally very careful about having videos of them posted online.  Just as I have done in the past, I will do the same for this year; all the teachers' videos will NOT be posted online unless I have direct written instructions from them to do so.  As some of you know, last year, I posted on Facebook a video of the teachers' performance the year before that.  I did that only because I was requested by them to do so and I had the permission of every one of the performers in that video.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the teachers and giving them privacy is but a small token of our thanks.  

Here are the links to the students' performances:

1.  Saxofonove Trio! My friend, Zuzka, is the beautiful lady closest to the camera. Click here!

2.  The brilliant Eva on the clarinet.  Click here!

3.  Tereza and her cool saxophone.  Click here!

4.  My wonderful roommate, PaweĊ‚ Kroczek (actually, we were only roommates in 2010 but he's such a great musician I continue to call him "roommate" in the hope of sharing some of his fame when he becomes famous soon) Click here!

5.  The great Lukas Broda.  Click here!

6.  The petite and beautiful Katerina Jurenova.  Click here!

7.  My good friend, the vivacious and beautiful Katerina Cermakova.  Click here!

8.  My buddy, the great Michael Jermar, the coolest musician ever.  Click here!

9.  My friend, the great clarinettist, Lukasz.  Click here!

10.  The beautiful Anezka on the saxophone.  Click here!

11.  My good friend, the beautiful and magnificent Ania on the clarinet.  Click here!

12.  Martin Forst, my friend, the King of Jazz.  Martin Forst is to the saxophone what Martin Frost is to the clarinet!  Click here!

13.  Marcin the great clarinettist.  Click here!

There are many more videos to upload and I will do so from time to time.  Keep an eye on this page!

New additions:

14.  The Saxophone Quartet Part 1 Click here!

15.  The Saxophone Quartet Part 2 Click here!

16.  The Saxophone Quartet Part 3 Click here!

17.  My remarkably talented friend, the amazing David Lenz.  Click here!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Concert in Church


Friends performing in church.  It was beautiful but that was what I expected.  My friends include some of the world's top musicians and of course they are sure to be excellent performers.