A Personal Reflection
Memories of Mt Carmel
Part I – The Church Takes Root
It is hard to believe we grew up in an era when “life was sunnier, simpler, easier and happier” (The Daily Mail 13 April 2016). Did our generation snooze through that decade known as the Swinging ‘60s ? And missing all the fun and excitement in letting that “lost golden age” slip through our fingers ?
That decade unfolded with Western Europe recovering economically. Following post-war reconstruction of the ’50s, the working class could own “a radio, television, refrigerator and motor vehicle”. Two superpowers were launching spacecrafts with monkeys in orbit, followed by astronauts as they raced for the moon.
The popular culture was pushing the boundaries in dress, music, drugs and sexual behaviour. The miniskirt came into fashion and was touted a ‘symbol of liberation’. For a brief period, the androgynous look was the rage – when a 17year-old Twiggy, sporting her short hair and stick-like figure, became the hot model of the day.
Elvis Presley, the king of pop, returned to the music scene on 23 March 1960 after serving military service in Germany where ominously, a sergeant introduced him to amphetamines. He was handsome and clean-cut at that time and teenage girls swooned at his appearance. The establishment and certainly the church were scandalised by his sexualised pelvic gyrations.
The Beatles burst into the world scene in Feb 1964, appearing on the Sullivan Show watched by 70 million people. They soon became the dominant force in Rock & Roll music, and their songs resonated with the youths, including Singaporeans. I remember hiking with the scout group and singing Hang Fai Di La Wei (Cantonese lingo for Walk Faster, Won’t You?), a humorous rendition by composer-singer Seong Koon Low Won of the Beatles’ song, Can’t Buy Me Love.
Their outrageous hair-style (fairly decent by today’s standards) was derided by our school-teachers as looking like a mop covering the head. Beatlemania epitomised youth rebellion. The Singapore government got into the act with its “long hair will be served last” policy, forcing the Bee Gees and Led Zeppelin to cancel their gigs for refusing to cut their hair to approved length.
Religion was rendered irrelevant by the counter-culture reaction against social norms. Christianity was derided as having had its days of respectability and social appeal in England “between 1800 and 1960, and began to go into terminal decline in the early 1960s”. Philip Larkin, the English novelist and poet declared disrespectfully,
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three .
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Frank Colton invented the first commercially available oral contraceptive, Enovid in 1960. Sexual behaviour was progressively liberal after National Health Service made the pill available to the UK general public in 1961. The first James Bond movie, ‘Dr No’ in 1962 glamorized the suave debonair who could mix business with casual carnal pleasures and still deliver the results. For those who pooh-pooh the influence of the media on life and morals, it is interesting to note that recently MI6 Intelligence Agency was recruiting and specified that those looking for a James Bond-type career did not need to apply.
The Swinging ‘60s? Lost Golden Age? “Not really in my life … as far as I’m concerned the whole thing was just a media myth,” remarked an unnamed woman in Sheila Hardy’s book, Women Of The 1960s: More Than Miniskirts, Pills And Pop Music (reported by Dominic Sandbrook, The Daily Mail 13 April 2016).
Perhaps, as the British Empire dismantled in the ‘60s, the media wistfully recollected only seminal moments when Britain led the world in music, fashion and style (besides gloriously winning the Football World Cup). There was selective amnesia about reduced British military and economic influence, culminating in the painful devaluation of the pound in Jan 1968.
Notwithstanding the popular hype, the reality in Asia and Africa is people were struggling with poverty, inequality, injustice and political upheavals. We remembered life was without frills in the early 1960s in Singapore. Most families were frugal as the GNP per capita was less than US$320. Sure, there were teen dance parties, cabarets for adults (replaced now by karaoke lounges, discotheques and nightclubs). A large proportion of the populace lived in over-crowded housing except for the educated and more affluent class. There were 20,000 farms on the island (Jurong, Kranji, Choa Chu Kang, Sembawang, Tampines, Ponggol, Pasir Ris) and their dwellers were considered country bumpkins who only visited the city folks on special occasions like weddings and Chinese New Year.
The Singapore Improvement Trust (predecessor of HDB) was making slow housing progress with 23,000 low-rise flats in Tiong Bahru, Kim Keat/Whampoa, Farrer Park, Guillemard, Pickering Street, Redhill and Alexandra areas. The population in 1960 was 1.64 million and teeming with school-going children – though living quarters seemed more claustrophobic than with today’s 5.6 million stacked nicely in high-rise ‘pigeon-holes’. Economic uncertainty was weighed by several major events – the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-1966), separation from Malaysia (1965) and announcement (1967) of British withdrawal of troops which put the jobs of 20,000 people at risk.
In this setting, Mt Carmel was started as a children’s Sunday School on 4 Dec 1960. For two preceding years, the late Uncle Robert Ong, then in his late twenties, had been laying the groundwork offering free tuition with bible lessons to neighbourhood kids. He spotted the needs of a generation sent to English stream schools by mostly Chinesespeaking parents. This shift to English reaped tangible returns when Singapore later plugged into the international financial and commercial markets. It served God’s purpose too. In the 1960s and 1970s, Inter-School Christian Fellowship (ISCF), Scripture Union (SU), Youth for Christ (YFC), Navigators were very active in reaching the students. Mao Zedong unknowingly played a part in God’s plans when he expelled missionaries from China, for these displaced missionaries helped in establishing beachheads throughout S E Asia.
There was a constant turnover of kids attending except for a few ‘stayers’ like Lee Lian Song and his brother Lian Huat, and Mary Lew. The adult pioneers discussed the drop-out phenomenon and started a Teenage Service on 1st Nov 1963 as they felt Sunday School was not meeting the needs of kids who progressed to secondary school. Providentially, along came several promising secondary students between 1964 and 1966 : Lim Meng Kin, David Wong, Patrick Chiang, Richard Ang, George Tan, Tommy Woo, Deborah Pang Eng Ngoh, Alice Pooi, Priscilla Ng, Cecilia Lim, Joyce Chua, Jenny Tsang, Lee Sook Cheng, Minnie Mok etc. With this crop, the work finally took root and the flood-gates were opened. The spurt in growth must have cheered the pioneers, namely Robert Ong, Eio Eng Hua who recruited medical student, Ang Beng Chong; and other SS teachers who came from Life Church/Galilee Church to help (Gan Sai Ling, Maureen Leong, Han Soon Juan, Steven Kwan, as well as the organist, Victor Kam).
What was Mt Carmel like back then?
We went to a church near our house, even though it was in a crammed HDB hall and not a ‘proper’ church-building. Life B-P Church might be nicer and more awe-inspiring but far away. Galilee B-P Church worshipped in a breezy seaside bungalow at Pasir Panjang but Mt Carmel was where our school-mates and neighbourhood friends were. We were in our comfort zone. It was also novel to invite friends to an unusual ‘church’ setting. Anyway, it didn’t cost a cent to walk to church (incidentally, in those days daily school pocket money was 50c to $1).
After Redhill neighbours complained of noise disturbances, the ‘culprits’ simply re-located to impose on fresh unsuspecting neighbours at Robert Ong’s new home, a three-room flat in Rumah Tinggi on 1st Oct 1965. But as the group burgeoned to about 40 students/SS teachers each Sunday, Robert Ong stumbled upon an untenanted shophouse nearby, available for $240 per month. It was destined to be our flagship for the next 18 years. Mt Carmel Gospel Mission was started on 26 April 1967 at Block 61 Lengkok Bahru, and looked invitingly spacious especially as it could lay claim on a small vacant grass plot next to it. For a time, neighbourhood courting couples frequented the dim enclave but they disappeared soon after – probably because of the mosquitoes but the new ‘noisy’ kids on the block might have been a factor.
There was some unhappiness among the teens about the propriety of emptying the meagre Building Fund of $640 (donated by the SS teachers, actually) to help pay for the HDB deposit. The pastors and elder from Life Church were firmly against approaching Life Church to donate pew benches and pulpit while we held back ‘available funds’ – the illustration given was that no benefactor would give a beggar any bread while he held 640 loaves possessively under his arms. Much grumblings about being roughshod went on behind the adults’ backs. The result was closing of ranks and a sense of comradeship. Anyway, the idealistic young people later decided the Building Fund should be renamed “Development Fund” to allow for a wider use of funds. Talk about good governance …..
The Ong family were persuaded by Rev Timothy Tow to relocate and occupy the Lengkok Bahru office as bedroom and partition off one-third of the hall for living space. The young people were appalled by this proposal as they felt it would inconvenience the Ong couple and their 3 children. Besides, it would negate the whole purpose of having more space for activities. They held their pow-wow at the Redhill School tuckshop and appointed the late Stephen Kwan to be their adult spokesman on the twin issues of HDB deposit and Ong occupancy. But the ‘big-guns’ from Life Church were apprehensive that young people gathering in an empty shophouse during the weekdays would arouse neighbourly suspicion and fuel gossips of impropriety. Uncle Ong and his family adjusted poorly to the new environment with its lack of privacy (and the mosquitoes) and moved out a year later. For years thereafter, several cohorts of Carmel youths passed through the portals and never betrayed the trust of the adults. As a result of this episode, the youngsters decided they should have a say in the affairs of the church – hence the tradition of a strong lay-involvement in Carmel.
Today, the house-church model is no longer a viable option due to strict Building & Construction Authority (BCA) rules. Anyway, Christians are spoilt for choices. Families are prepared to drive half-way across the island to attend a church that suits them. The church wins if it provides better child-care facilities or toddlers’ club, or the better Sunday School or a more vibrant youth service.
Walking Isn’t Just For Exercise
Walking is good for spiritual health, not just good for the heart. After tidying up the place and keeping the planks in Rumah Tinggi, we would leave together for a 2-3 km walk home to Redhill Estate in straggling groups of 2s or 3s. Those were good times for fellowship and for talking about our faith and our experiences, about becoming more spiritual and finding love, joy and peace in Christ.
More students came from Prince Charles/Prince Philip low-rise flats and the Bukit Ho Swee area after Lengkok Bahru premise opened for ‘business’. We gave the roadside hawkers (at Jalan Tiong/Tiong Bahru Rd junction) a little morale boost before walking home. For a time, the hawker stalls with low stools was a good stopover place to ‘discuss religion’ with newcomers/friends or talk about church, Christian literature, etc. Later, when the roadside hawkers were re-sited, we adjourned to nearby coffee-shops, nicknamed Hotel Malaysia, Shangri-La for easy identification of assembly point. It was our version of the golfers’ watering hole.
The young people were greatly blessed from sauntering together, and unknowingly, were encountering Christ as did Cleopas and the disciple on the Emmaus Road (Lk 24:13-32). It came naturally because everyone either walked home or to the bus-stop. No-one had parents with cars to fetch them or the ready resources to take the cab.
There is a pithy Christian aphorism, “Faith can move mountains, but don’t be surprised if God hands you a shovel.’ We were scrawny and without much experience or resources, but none of us tried to whistle in the dark and holler words of faith. Instead, we just used the shovels given to us.
Chua Choon Lan
Survivor from Redhill Days
Memories of Mt Carmel
Part 2 – The Church Bears Fruit
In 1960, only 2% Singapore population of 1.65 million were Protestant Christians. We never dreamed being the vanguard of a blossoming growth to 18.8% by 2015 (population 5.54 million).
When I first attended Mt Carmel, there were already familiar faces (fellow school-mates) among the 20-25 mixed sexes, sitting on wooden planks straddling two stools, in a small sitting room about the size of two car-park space. The setting was the same as our homes. The mother-in-law of Uncle Robert Ong lived there, at the fringe of Redhill Estate facing a little hilly forested area with wooden houses, and in the far distance was picturesque Mt Faber.
Circumstances rather than choice caused the shift to Rumah Tinggi in Alexandra Hill Estate (new home of Uncle Robert Ong and his family). It sat on a little hillock 2-3 km from Redhill and was adjourning Lengkok Bahru which had a mixture of 1-room, 2-room & 3-room flats for the lower income group. In the early days, most Carmelites came from Redhill, Lengkok Bahru and the surrounding area.
Young And Eager
When the church was small, everyone counted. And everybody helped to keep the body-life in Christ humming. There was readiness to nurture new Christians in the faith, introduce them to daily quiet time and bible-reading through person-to-person follow-up system (mentoring is the popular term nowadays). This was especially true in the late 1960s. By 1970/71, the numerical growth in Lengkok Bahru meant the ‘labour-intensive’ FU system could not be sustained. To cope with the influx, the action group (cell-group) system was introduced, primarily with older ones leading the younger converts, unlike the present-day CGs which often function as small fellowship groups.
We tried to bring friends and school-mates to Mt Carmel, and their rejection was discouraging. So it was hard to believe the OMF missionary who told us the young people on this little island were very responsive to the gospel, unlike the Western youths. But the efforts did not go unrewarded, for there was at least one Carmelite in each block in Redhill Estate by 1970 and we were actively evangelising and tracting the Lengkok Bahru area. Anyway, it was heart-warming to meet some of those die-hard atheistic school-mates 20-30 years later and learn they were active church leaders elsewhere.
Being first-generation Christians, we were crossing certain thresholds. It was not uncommon to hear testimonies of new converts facing family objections to their attending church. These days, it is more likely parents have to cajole their children to attend Worship Service or Sunday School because the kids complain of being bored. It would be deemed abrasive for a pastor or church leader to quote to these 2nd generation, “If you get bored in church, may I suggest to you that it’s not a commentary on the sermon – it’s a commentary on your heart!”. Nonetheless, it’s certainly worth wondering if the Enemy was ‘bored rather than threatened, and acquiescent rather than anxious’ when he saw persecuted believers showing perseverance to go to church.
Growing Up Years
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another (Prov 27:17). There was eagerness to absorb the Scriptures and seriousness to live the “consecrated life” and be more dedicated. Uncle Robert Ong, the ‘founder of Mt Carmel’ was inclined to remind the youngsters to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33). For those actively involved in school activities, it took a little while to figure out how to reconcile church-life with studies and extracurricular activities. Gradually, we realised it was honouring to God to be faithful in the student vocation by studying hard. That was also why the Gospel Mission became known in the community as a good tuition centre. Actually our Postal Code 3 was reputed, back then, to have one of the highest teen delinquency and school dropout rate.
Rev Philip Heng used to chide his Galilee Church youngsters for their slow spiritual progress, pointing to Carmel group which was able to stand on its own after he guided them through just one year of weekly bible teaching on the Gospel of Mark. He was blissfully unaware that while we respected him for his teaching, preaching and dynamism, some were also amused by his theatrics during sermons, calling his sessions, the “Rev Philip Heng Show” (like the entertaining US sitcom, The Phil Silvers Show of our time). His influence was great and we developed a lasting friendship with him. I still remember his quote, “The paths of least resistance make crooked the ways of rivers and men.”
The girls had their Ladies Bible Society (LBS) sessions supported by stalwarts like Mary Lew (who went to Far Eastern Bible College), Jenny Tsang (also joined FEBC), Deborah Pang Eng Ngoh, Alice Pooi, Priscilla Ng Chey Keng, Joyce Chua, Minny Mok, Yip Soh Moy, Cecilia Lim, Florence Lee, Ivy Er, Sally Kan, Kok Kum Fah, Teo Chor Tiang, Catherine Lee etc. The boys were led by Lee Lian Song, Lim Meng Kin, David Wong (who went to FEBC), Tommy Woo, Patrick Chiang, Richard Ang, George Tan who were the tried and tested 1st batch from Redhill days. Margaret Tan (a teacher) and the late Stephen Kwan (pioneer SS teacher) left their jobs to study in DTC and FEBC respectively.
I don’t remember anyone going to church to goof off, or to pass distracting messages furtively during Teenage Service (but then, we didn’t have 4G phones to text to one another). With a homogenous student audience, it was fairly easy to delve on teen issues. Lay speakers were popular as their messages were lively and never long-winded. Anyway, who would gripe when “in the 1600s, sermons were regularly more than two hours long, and people were fined for falling asleep in church!” In contrast to the present-day generation growing up familiar with bible tales, we didn’t complain about the same old stories or about uninspiring speakers. In retrospect, those who were bored probably left as there were no parents plonking them in Mt Carmel against their will.
Rules or Less Rules ?
We were made very conscious about Christian distinctiveness and having a Christian testimony. Every so often, there were warnings against ‘worldliness’. It seemed there were many more rules in those days – like not dancing or going to the movies, or listening to pop music, or smoking/drinking or getting too close to the opposite sex. Any of them meant a backslidden Christian. One of our favourite speakers even railed against watching television, calling it the ‘box of hell’ (black-and-white monochrome TV, mind you).
Today, the climate is different. As someone said, “There’s a pervasive feel of freedom, but it’s more like ‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone’.” The flipside is that many Christians are less conscious about being sucked into the world’s mould, whether it’s lifestyle, or entertainment, or pursuit of wealth and material comforts or adopting secular ideas into the church programmes. John Wesley warned, “What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.” He did not envisage that in America one day, a pastor would say, “the one thing that bothers me is the youth girls look like they’re dressed to go out to a night- club.”
We need to have a Christian world-view and to develop a Christian mind to evaluate the world around us and the values that we unconsciously imbibe. That will help us decide critically whether we ought to ‘introduce’ the Santa Claus character into the church, or celebrate Valentine Day, or participate in Halloween for ‘harmless fun’, or join the LBGT mass rally in Hong Lim Park to show we are not homophobic.
Growth Despite Dropouts
We were too engrossed in week-to-week routines to think about leadership succession or engage in strategic planning. With student converts joining in successive batches, the ‘first generation’ could move on to serve in the Worship Service or Sunday School ministries and pass the leadership of the Youth Fellowship to the next generation. The first-fruits of Lengkok Bahru (Leng Kum Hon, Wong Kah Fatt, Lim Chee Meng, Leng Yew Chee, Sam Kong Choy, Chan Kin Yan, Kiew Tai Wah, Ng Cheng Wan) helmed the YF before passing the baton to the next batch (Henry Tan, Kiew Tai Seng, Goh Thiam Hock, Peter Leong, Philip Cheng, Aw Tian Yew, Lim Whee Kiang, Ng Kah Hiah, Jennifer Loh, Tang Li Choo) then subsequently to Kong Eng Teck, Lim Whee Khee, Chong Chai Beng, Tony Wong, Tan Sok Chuan, Soh Gek Kee, Susan Wong, Erh Pheck Hoon, Chia Lai Fong, Chia Lai Pheng etc.
Not everything was rosy, though. People began to fall through the gaps. Several Carmelites who joined the workforce after School Certificate (now called ‘O’ Level) felt disconnected with the student mentality. Some young people tend to focus on making Youth Fellowship a time of fun and enjoyment rather than emphasize on the spiritual dimensions. Among those cohorts, the drop-out rate was higher – for, ultimately church is not about entertainment but about seeking life affirmations. In later years, we used to see a few visiting Carmel during Easter and Christmas, though it was also encouraging to hear others were attending other churches regularly.
Were the early days really as idyllic as depicted? Well, “nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory,” noted American writer, Franklin Pierce Adams. It’s just the way our brains are wired, to forget the unpleasant things and retain the joyous experiences. Moreover, as John C Maxwell (American pastor & writer) said, “We over-exaggerate yesterday. We either think it was better or worse than it was – you know, the good old days. We over-estimate tomorrow; we think we can do more than we can – always. And that’s why we put off everything till tomorrow.”
Actually, many churches (esp house-churches) have similar stories to tell about the closeness, the commitment and the fervency of earlier times. Just ask the pioneers of our co-tenant, Bible Church. Despite the disappointments, failures and disagreements, when the group was struggling and the numbers were small, people seemed to follow the more biblical pattern of building one another through expression of their giftedness and not focusing on personal needs and building themselves up for their own benefit.
A church during its early growth period is different from an established church in a maintenance mode. Yet everyone wishes it can remain vibrant and true to its calling, for it has been said, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else”.
Chua Choon Lan
Survivor from Redhill Days
Memories of Mt Carmel
Part 3 – The Church Is Not Static
Most churches go through periods of growth and stagnation. Sometimes, the decline can be terminal, after all even churches planted by the Apostle Paul could disappear, as any visitor to modern-day Turkey would soon discover. Kent Wilson (formerly associate publisher, Discipleship Journal) maintains that “churches are dynamic. They change with the people who define them and sometimes God uses you to change the church.”
Overall, Carmel was riding on a crest of growth as more Singaporeans responded to the gospel. This was the trend in Africa and Asia despite civil violence or ethnic warfare in post-colonial African states and severe persecutions and mass sufferings in Maoist China. In 1970, the “global South was home to 76% of the world’s total population but only 43% of all Christians”. By 2010, almost 60% Christians lived in global South. In Asia, the Christian population doubled from 7.8% to 15.2% (Center for the Study of Global Christianity 2013, Gordon Cornwell).
Western Europe was declining in the faith and moving steadily from ‘Christian Country’ to ‘Civilized Society’, according to Hugh McLeod in his book, “The Religious Crisis of the 1960s”. As the years rolled on, we would read about “400 churches closed! Pastors killed and imprisoned!” in Third-World countries but in Western societies, it was “400 churches closed because communities don’t want them around !”
Over in the United States, there was rejection of the institutionalised church. People experimented with alternative religions in yoga, transcendental meditation, Buddhist mysticism and even Hinduism. The world watched with apprehension as America seemed to tear itself apart in self-destruction. The ‘60s began with great hope in America with the election of its youngest president, John Kennedy but things began to turn sour as the years unfolded.
The Cuban missile crisis almost plunged the world into a nuclear war. John Kennedy was assassinated on 22 Nov 1963 John Kennedy was assassinated on 22 Nov 1963 (incidentally, the same day when C S Lewis & Aldous Huxley passed away). As the American Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on 4 April 1968. The Vietnam War fomented widespread discontent and caused Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from his presidential re-election in March 1968. Senator Robert Kennedy was attracting crowds when he was shot dead in Los Angeles on 6 June 1968, a day after winning the California Presidential Primary election.
The young people’s disillusionment fuelled the rise of Hippie Movement and the drug culture, symbolised in 1969 by Woodstock Festival which attracted some 400,000 to three days of music, drugs and ‘liberated’ sex. Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist, was advocating psychedelic drugs and LSD to achieve a higher level of consciousness.
God’s answer to the turmoil was the Jesus Movement which mobilised the evangelical youths to more vigorous evangelism, simple lifestyles and communal living. They also influenced churches into using guitars and drums, besides pianos and church organs. On the intellectual front, the “Christian high ground was recovered by Evangelicals through the works of C S Lewis, Francis Schaeffer and Paul Little (IVCF) and others”. Billy Graham was converting thousands in his gospel rallies and he remained the most admired person in America, while John Stott was particularly influential with his bible expositions and challenging his readers to live a Christian counter-culture life-style.
Despite the upheavals elsewhere, Singapore was surging ahead with its manufacturing industry becoming more sophisticated and moving into computer systems, semi-conductors and integrated circuits, away from textiles, garments, wood products etc. To our political leaders, the costly (and morale-sapping) US military interventions in Vietnam bought time for the Asian tigers, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to emerge economically and even weather through the 1975 world recession.
The ‘70s decade saw a steady stream of Carmelites leaving school and joining the work force. At the same time, there was an undercurrent of restlessness as people grew out of the Youth Fellowship niches. Unless they joined the Sunday School teaching ranks, the boys were in a limbo and just going out on Saturday nights for fellowship and feastings (bao-eating contests) before they enrolled for National Service. Formerly active members became detached and pursued diverging interests elsewhere, leaving a void to be filled by a shrinking pool of willing workers. A contributory factor for the diminishing resource was the birthing of new congregations.
In 1971, the Gospel Mission appeared vibrant as it had more than doubled in size to 120-130 strong after only 4 years in the new premises. The young people were fielding 22 Sunday School classes for 230 students. An offer came from Galilee deacon, Vincent Cheng to start an outreach in his Margaret Drive (Queenstown) flat after his initial offer to his church was not taken up. A group of enthusiastic Carmelites felt it was a pity to miss such an opportunity. As Elder Ang Beng Chong recalled of the Hebron outreach, “We said ‘Yes’ first and thought about the implications later.” They launched their foray into Queenstown with 3 gospel meetings in Dec 1970 and began worship service in Jan 1971.
While Hebron branch was still finding its foothold (now 25-strong) and had to move in Sept 1974 to Holland Drive flat (the Leongs were expecting a 2nd child), Carmel continued to be very adventurous, if not foolhardy to say the little. But thank God for innocence, idealism and the willingness to strike out.
Finding it difficult for church-groups to tender directly for shophouses, Elder Tan Kim Ping proposed the way forward in church-growth strategy was to start a business front in order to secure a HDB shophouse which could then be used for Christian outreach. He and his wife set up the Swee Pharmacy in 1975 at the new Telok Blangah Estate. It was a novel idea but unfortunately, it was ahead of its time. At that time, Singaporean heartlanders were not used to patronising a pharmacy (unlike successful outlets today, like Guardian Pharmacy, Watsons, GNC etc). Besides, Telok Blangah was so new that many residents had not moved into the estate. Hence walk-in patronage was poor. Carmelites who could help by buying the products were newly married and did not have family and household needs to stock up much supplies. The business folded up subsequently but the outreach went on to become Hermon B-P Church.
Soon, before the dust had settled, yet another opportunity came along in 1978. As Hebron and Carmel members set up homes, they noticed being allocated the newly-minted Clementi Estate units and in some cases, even bought 5room flats in the same block. A Hebron couple, Richard & Angeline Ang offered their three-room flat in Clementi Ave 2 for a new outreach work by Hebron. Some 20 Hebronites and Carmelites (Lee Lian Song, Leng Kum Hon, William Chooi, Wong Kar Fatt, Tan Tock Loon, Kong Eng Teck, Lewis Ting, Henry Lee, Andrew Lim and their spouses) anchored the outreach for two years (1978-80). Later, to lessen the load on any particular couple, they even experimented with having Sunday gathering rotated in different homes. However, in July 1979, the government issued pronouncements against holding worship activities in HDB flats (initially in response to complaints about temple shrines). The group did not want to jeopardise anyone’s home and felt discretion was the better part of valor. They also decided Clementi group was not growing enough to establish a congregation in another place and everyone went back to their respective ‘roots’.
There was to be a prolonged quiescent period before Mt Carmel started another outreach – the Horeb group in Oct 1988.
The rapid expansion out of Lengkok Bahru to new branch locations had sombre effects on the ‘mother church’. New outreaches meant the ‘loss’ of several key leaders and mature members. The Carmel group saw both elders and their families (Ang Beng Chong and Tan Kim Ping) and stalwarts like Lee Lian Song and Philip Lee & their spouses, Ng Chey Keng, Yip Soh Moy, Peggy Yeo moving away to the outreaches. Like the human body which had sudden haemorrhage, it took time to recover. And when 2-3 outreaches were attempted in 5-7 years, the effect on manpower was sorely felt and morale in the mother church sapped.
Take the Sunday School, for example. It was not easy to find enough teachers. Much credit must go to the womenfolk who manned the fort despite the difficulties. There were insufficient male role-models for the kids and scarce manpower to help physically. In the sultry hot afternoons, conditions were not entirely pleasant for the teachers or the students; and classes in the hall had to contend with one another separated by curtain partitions. The superintendent, Lim Chong Teng had to laboriously set up and dismantle the canvas tent (often single-handedly) outside the premises so that classes could be spread out.
The atmosphere of dispiritedness and discouragement was rather pervasive, even infectious. The church was in the doldrums in the mid-1970s. We had a ‘part-time’ pastor Dr R K Nghakliana who was from India and pursuing theological studies in Discipleship Training Centre (DTC). There was even the feeling that our sister group in Hebron was more vibrant. At one point, the Hebron group (with attendance of 70) felt it could manage its own affairs and in 1977, toyed with the idea of going independent as the ‘mother-church’ seemed to drifting along.
Carmel was sustained by plodding leaders and members who showed faithfulness and stayed at their posts. Rev John Ting helped greatly to rejuvenate the group as a stand-in pastor when Pastor David Wong went for further theological training in Manchester. As Corrie Ten Boom said, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.” The numerical growth in Lengkok Bahru crept up gradually and soon we were overcrowded again. The committee obtained permission from HDB to construct a glass panel between the ‘office’ and the main hall so that young parents could participate in the worship service through the intercom. Prior to that, most of us took turns with our spouses at baby-sitting to enable the other to worship in peace alternate Sundays.
Around this time, the leaders decided to air-condition the Lengkok Bahru premises and replace the ineffective airduct ventilation system. There were some reservations expressed about indulging in a ‘luxury’ out of sync with the community. Certain members pointed out that money could be better spent for places like India where people walked for miles and endured the hot sun to attend church service in a shed. However, the improved physical condition saw an end to some fainting episodes and probably attracted more newcomers, resulting in the 2nd Worship Service being instituted in 1979.
Transitions In The Church
The nation-wide phenomenon in those days was Christians tend to drop out of church after they started work, entered National Service, graduated from the university or after getting married. Mt Carmel was blessed with members remaining faithful with church-going following the post-student phase. With the Singapore economy improving, more were enjoying the blessings of life and travelling on conducted tours to Europe and UK. The fall of South Vietnam on 30 April 1975 caused some Singaporeans to migrate down south to Australia. The TV images of North Vietnamese tanks moving onto the presidential palace and the scrambling evacuation by helicopter was disconcerting but the young adults in Carmel did not have much assets to worry about.
We were fortunate to have the help of OMF missionaries who were in Singapore for the Orientation Course. In those days before the immersion policy took place, OMF missionaries stayed in Singapore for three months doing language studies in Chancery Lane. Ailish Eves taught us in the Sunday School in 1969, while Judith Hopley helped for almost 9 months to guide and influence many of the YF members.
In the ’70s decade, as Carmelites found their life-partners, the Elders were concerned about the singles feeling neglected. They tried identifying ‘suitable’ prospects for not-so-subtle outings to concerts, ballets, musicals etc, though it was not known how successful were their SDU-type efforts. They were ahead of the government in this respect, for it was only in the 1980s that Dr Eileen Aw was tasked by the authorities to deal with the singlehood issue.
The late ‘70s was blessed by an infusion of fresh talent. But circumstances had changed for the newcomers did not come with a ‘single wavelength’ of mindset and they did not grow through the Youth Fellowship. In that wave were Siew Kim Siang, Chin Hoong Chor, Steven Lau, Koh Tien Lai, Ho Peng Kee, Chow Chee Yan, Teo Chee Kiang, Priscilla Choy, Amy Khor, Chia Choy Ping, and Penny Yang etc. They strengthened greatly the EFU work and the social outreach programme. There was openness in engaging the newer generation in leadership positions. This gave breadth to the Carmel pool of reliable workers and served it well when the move to Clementi Bible Centre came in the next decade. The Hebron and Hermon congregations were also stabilising – and it became a tradition for all three groups to gather for a stay-in year-end conference to listen to bible exposition, trace the progress of each group and engage in a lively AGM discussion of church affairs.
Looking back, we can say that Mt Carmel grew through slow nurturing, faithful service and corporate effort, not through entertaining, spectacular programmes or through a charismatic preacher-figure. As Billy Graham commented, “mountain-tops are for views and inspiration, but fruit is grown in the valleys.”
The Shop-House Era Was Over
For a time, Mt Carmel was enamoured of its witness in a low-income housing estate and its happy experience in establishing a vibrant congregation in a shophouse. We never pondered much whether our presence (and singing and laughter) posed a ‘nuisance’ to the neighbours living just above our unit. Despite past experience of having to vacate Redhill premise due to neighbours’ complaints, we were not savvy enough (or not shady enough) to send goodwill gifts (hampers were probably not a booming business yet) during festive seasons to show appreciation for their forbearance. Their patience was surely stretched and sometimes, exasperation expressed itself. For there were a few occasions when litter (dirty but not the killer-type) was thrown and water (of uncertain origin, but looked suspiciously like human efflux) was splashed from the higher floors onto the pavement outside the Gospel Mission premises as we chatted in scattered groups after worship.
Thank God the ‘Meet-the-MP Sessions’ were not so well-publicised or so well-organised in those days. Though ‘Letter to the Press’ was a novel Singaporean way of highlighting issues and social unhappiness, the Lengkok Bahru neighbours did not use those avenues.
We might have missed an opportunity to co-own a freehold land. In 1977, an ex-VCF friend told me about his Brethren church (New Bridge Road Chapel) having to re-locate due to expiring lease. As the average age of their membership was only 22, they were exploring partners to build a new church for an ‘impossible” $1 million at Pasir Panjang.
When the Carmel Session was relayed this piece of news, the swift reply came that the Carmel pattern of growth was through multiplying congregations in shop-houses or such similar locale. So we did not explore further. Of course, it was questionable whether Pasir Panjang Hill Brethren Chapel would have accepted us (the BiblePresbyterians) for in the end, four Brethren groups (New Bridge Road Chapel, Clementi, Exodus and Angora) came together for that joint effort.
It was warnings from the HDB and Ministry of National Development about use of homes and shophouses for worship that jolted Mt Carmel into action in Jan 1980 and to search earnestly for land. Actually, the MND directive did not apply to existing shophouses, for we were able to pass the Lengkok Bahru premises to Horeb.
To Go or To Stay
There was a groundswell of support from the three sister-congregations for the acquisition of a ‘permanent home’ for Mt Carmel. As the CBC building was taking shape in 1984, a lively discussion arose in the Session as to whether to amalgate the three groups or to stay as separate distinct groups. Uncle Robert Ong, the founder of Mt Carmel, pitched the case for bringing everybody together, Incidentally, this was the stratagem of our CBC co-owner, The Bible Church. However, most Session members representing their groups were reluctant likening to a father who had built a house for his family. to abandon their congregational identities. As a result, it was decided Mt Carmel would occupy the morning slot, while Hebron would worship in the afternoon slot and Hermon should settle in the Lengkok Bahru premises. Hence, our co-owner Bible Church was to discover (too late) that their partner in CBC had ‘two wives’ though they were assured their deal was with one party and anyway, we kept activities strictly to equal time-slot usage.
It was really interesting that Carmel members were ambivalent about moving to CBC despite digging deep into their pockets for the building. It was as if Scot McKnight, author and Professor of New Testament (Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ilinois) spoke for them, “I don’t remember thinking if we didn’t like things we could change churches when I was young. The church was stuck with us and we were stuck with that local church. We were, after all, Baptists and we weren’t about to cross the street and become Lutherans. They probably weren’t saved anyway.”
The Elijah Musical was staged in 1977 by the YF for the 10th Carmel Anniversary and re-staged in 1980 to reactivate the largely dormant Development Fund. It helped to engage the members and created camaraderie among the three congregations. The 2nd Musical, Give Me This Mountain was remarkable for it showed the generosity and bigheartedness of our three groups. It raised $ 50,000 but kept half for its own building project and gave $ 25,000 to Galilee B-P Church for their Phase II Extension.
The Hermon congregation remained loyal to their group despite the attraction of a better place. Many Carmel members (32%) in Lengkok Bahru resolved to stay behind and join the Hermon group to continue the witness in the area. Others felt the need to stay back for a year to help in the transition of Hermon in its new location.
The Session leaders were reticent about publicising plans for Clementi Bible Centre (CBC) for fear of causing an exodus which could weaken the existing groups. It was inclined to let each congregational member make his/her own unsolicited choice. Session organised two ‘Celebration Sundays’ (3rd & 10th Mar 1985) at West Coast for all three groups after which everyone returned to serve in whatever respective congregation he/she felt called.
It was only at the last month before the physical move that Session approval was granted to designate the 1st Worship Service at Lengkok Bahru as for the group heading to the new venture while allocating the 2nd Service for those staying behind to join Hermon. The CBC Task Force had only 4 Sundays to share its plans and to identify the potential workers. Hence, it was with some trepidation that 75 Carmelites and 9 regular friends made their debut at the inaugural worship service on 17 Mar 1985 at CBC. Some key leaders stayed back for a year to help the Hermon group (40-45 strong) transition into Lengkok Bahru with Carmelites who were joining their ranks. When the ‘dust’ settled down a month later in April 1985, there were 200+ adult worshippers in Mt Carmel (CBC), 100 in Hebron and 120 in Hermon.
At CBC, it was a joy to see every Carmel member pitch in. Our veteran SS teachers, Joyce Ho and Lili Tham were the departmental superintendents who helmed the Christian Education programme with Koh Soo Keong as the General Superintendent. Lim Meng Kin spearheaded the Fellowship Ministry for YF & AF. In their first gathering, they had to contend with a flooded Fellowship Hall when the canal overflowed due to heavy rain coinciding with high tide at sea. To accommodate the influx of newcomers, every ministry was started from scratch – toddlers’ club, children’s programme, Sunday School, adult fellowship, adult bible classes, CGs etc. It was a privilege to be part of the generation which saw the church growing tremendously in West Coast and to receive a helping hand from fellow-BP members (Paul & Janet Phua, Henry Heng, Chia Hong Kuan & Mary, Ang Lee Luang, Chai Chin Loon & Chor Tiang etc) who came from other B-P churches for various reasons. The events from the dizzying days of 1985 onwards would fill many pages for another narrative …
But, just in case we miss the wood for the trees and allow this trip down memory lane to veer us from our Carmel motto, ‘Looking to Jesus’, let everyone remember “you can be committed to church but not committed to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ and not committed to church” (Joel Osteen).