Southeast Asia: Part 1 – Singapore/
August 15, 2018
Dr. Kelly Campbell, Associate Dean and Director of the John Bulow Campbell Library, Columbia Theological Seminary, and I had the honor of representing ATLA at the 2018 Forum for Asian Theological Librarians (ForATL) in Jakarta, Indonesia. Considering the distance Kelly and I would travel to attend the conference, we decided to include visits to academic libraries in the region, eventually settling in Singapore as the focus. In this report, I will highlight key takeaways from various meetings.
The island-nation of Singapore strives for harmony. You could modify “harmony” with ethnic and religious; Singapore strives for a peaceful environment overall. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, Singapore scored the highest on the Religious Diversity Index. The constitution of Singapore recognizes the freedom of religion and religious practice. To ensure the stability of the country, Singapore has regulations to ensure that the individuals do not engage in behavior that undermines public order, health, or morality. During our visit, the ways in which this influences daily life in Singapore became clearer each day.
As I arrived in Singapore before Kelly, I visited Dr. Michael C. Mukunthan, Chief Librarian at Trinity Theological College (TTC), on my own. TTC, established in 1948, is the oldest seminary in Singapore. TTC was founded by missionaries who had been interned in Changi prison by the Japanese during WWII. TTC is governed by representatives of the Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran Churches.
Dr. Mukunthan, who received his Doctor of Theology from TTC, also has a Master of Science in Information Studies. He has been the librarian at TTC for more than fifteen years.
TTC attracts many students from China and they offer courses in both English and Mandarin. As a result, TTC’s library has an extensive collection of Chinese language materials. Dr. Mukunthan showed me one of the library’s treasures, a Chinese translation of the Bible, published in 1832.
Dr. Mukunthan also explained a cultural difference of Singapore. Students studying at seminary are definitely planning to work at a church or in some ministerial role. Seminary degrees are not viewed as academic humanities degrees for employment in the government or private sector. There is a clear delineation between the study of religion in a seminary setting and an academic setting, which Kelly and I found when we visited the National University of Singapore.
National University of Singapore
Kelly and I met with several representatives of the library at the National University of Singapore (NUS), who were very generous with their time explaining the study of religion at an academic university setting in Singapore. Given the culture and norms, NUS does not offer advanced degrees in religion. However, students have a real opportunity to study religion extensively within various other disciplines (e.g., law, history, anthropology).
Various searches within the NUS institutional repository illustrate the range of research. Keyword searches (at the time this was written): Religion (986 results), Christianity (1,420 results), and Islam (1,061 results). Also, NUS supports digital humanities projects, including one on places of worship in Singapore:
The staff at NUS shared the story of Lou Engle and the concern about alleged statements he made regarding the Muslim community during the Kingdom Invasion Conference in March 2018. The pastors who organized the conference apologized to the Muslim community for Engle’s remarks. The police in Singapore have asked Engel to return for an interview.
Evangelical Theological College of Asia
From there, Kelly and I visited Andrew Reid, Principal and Founder, and Joy Kwan, Administrator, at Evangelical Theological College of Asia (ETCAsia). Dr. Reid is from Australia and he came to Singapore to found the school. ETCAsia was founded a year ago which means that they are still too new for accreditation in Singapore. They are in a set of rooms in a shopping mall, but they feel they fill a gap that is missing in Singapore. They are committed to the Reformed Evangelical distinctions as found in the Confessional Statement of the Gospel Coalition. Biblical studies are core to the curriculum.
Singapore Bible College and Biblical Graduate School of Theology
At SBC, we met with Dr. Jerry Hwang, Associate Professor of Old Testament, and Dr. Cynthia Chang, Library Director and Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies. SBC is an evangelical seminary founded in 1952. The school offers extensive programs in both English and Chinese. The school of Theology in Chinese, for example, offers six courses of study resulting in either a degree or diploma. The school has over 500 full-time students, and the library has over 75,000 volumes as well as access to extensive electronic collections.
Drs. Hwang and Chang reinforced the cultural context in which the students are working and studying in Singapore, especially for Chinese students. They supported the stories we had heard regarding religious harmony in Singapore.
Finally, Kelly and I met with Daisy Sim, Assistant Library and Bookshop Manager at BGST. Founded in 1989, BGST exclusively offers graduate-level degrees. BGST trains lay people to help them live their Christian faith and to increase the number of properly trained lay people who can help their pastors or church leadership. The library is very tightly curated and specifically targeted to that mission.
The visits left me with much to consider. Many of the institutions in Singapore support students for whom Chinese is their first, and possibly still only, language. They need more electronic resources. We also have students in the US who could benefit from Chinese-language resources. I want to look at this need more closely to understand what is needed and where, what is available, what is feasible, and how it would fit in ATLA’s offerings. I was also struck by the fact that researchers at some academic universities such as NUS would probably be publishing in journals that ATLA does not typically cover because of the rarity of articles related to religion (e.g., history, law, social sciences, political science). I would like to explore how we could check for these and include them when appropriate.
Next month, I will share my experience attending ForATL.
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