[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] The new Archbishop of South East Asia, the Most Revd Ng Moon Hing, was installed today during a service in Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. It was an appointment that could never have been anticipated when he was born into family of Buddhist Taoists; and it wasn’t until he was aged 20 that he discovered Christ and became the first person of his family to convert to Christianity.
“I was brought by friends to a church and there I was convicted and found Christ,” Archbishop Hing told ACNS. “It was difficult at the beginning because my parents were very against it. None of my family were Christian and I had to journey alone in those early days.
“A couple of years down the road I graduated from the university and I worked for a number of years as a civil engineer. And then I received a call – actually, I received the call before I graduated so the call carried on until I realised the time is right. So I quit the job and entered into ministry.
After a few years of theological training he was ordained at the age of 30. After serving his curacy he was sent to serve St Peter’s Church in Ipoh and remained there for the next 20 years. Three opportunities to transfer to other posts during that time didn’t materialise as his bishop had other plans. And so he remained there until 2007 when he was appointed Bishop of West Malaysia.
In September, Moon Hing was elected Archbishop of the province in succession to the Bishop of Kuching, the Rt Revd Bolly Lapok; and he was installed today at a service that included 300 invited dignitaries, ecumenical and overseas guests.
The province of South East Asia contains four dioceses. In addition to West Malaysia, which covers peninsula Malaya, there are two additional Malaysian dioceses: Kuching and Sabah in northern Borneo; and also the Diocese of Singapore.
But the Province is much bigger than this, extending into Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Nepal: all of which are country-wide missionary deaneries. Legally, these missionary deaneries are part of the Diocese of Singapore; but for all practical purposes they are deaneries of the province and the whole province is engaged in missionary activity with them.
The reason they exist as missionary deaneries is an accident of history, Archbishop Moon Hing says. “Originally, these were non-British colonies. . . The British had churches in some of these places but mainly for the British ambassadors or High Commissioners or for some British traders. For many years they were just an outpost, but nobody looked after them.”
In a series of reorganisations during the past 200 years, the churches in those countries were moved from the Diocese of Calcutta to the Diocese of Borneo until being move, in 1909, to the Diocese of Singapore. Shortly afterwards, plans were devised to create a Province of East Asia, bringing together those dioceses that were, at that time, extra-provincial to the Diocese of Canterbury in the Church of England.
But then came World War II and, with it, turmoil amongst the countries in Asia. The Council of Churches in East Asia brought together the Anglican churches of the region; and it still exists as a wider confederation of Anglican churches. But plans for a single regional province were abandoned as, firstly, Japan, and then the Philippines, Korea, South East Asia and then Hong Kong became their own provinces. The Diocese of Taiwan remained part of the (American) Episcopal Church – Province VIII of TEC.
But for the missionary deaneries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Nepal remained missionary deaneries under the Diocese of Singapore.
“For the first 90 years of the Diocese of Singapore it was difficult to look after these places except to just do confirmations and occasional visits,” Archbishop Moon Hing said. “The Church was too small and had gone through political changes in the diocese and later on there was country divisions and war and all those things.
“And so as the Church in the ‘90s became stronger and more established in both Singapore and West Malaysia, we said it is time for us to look after all these countries.” When the Province of South East Asia was formed in 1996, it took on responsibility for the “outpost” churches in those countries and shared responsibility for them throughout the province.
“So now the whole province [is responsible for them]”, the Archbishop said. “They became deanery countries. Though legally they are part of Singapore, in actual effect they are deanery countries of the province. It is the province looking after them.
“Our aim is that every one of these countries will have a diocese by themselves. They are very fast growing in all these places. The fastest growing is Nepal, and even after the earthquake it is growing faster than beyond our expectation. Now they range about 10,000 members going to church every Sunday.”
The Province of South East Asia is, and always has been, focused on mission and outreach. On its creation 30 years ago the Province established two province-wide bodies: Pynet – the Provincial Youth Network; and Proseams – the Province of South East Asia Missions Services. Moon Hing was the president chair of Proseams until his installation today.
Proseams brings together representatives of the four dioceses; and together they make annual mission visits to all of the missionary deaneries to help, encourage and provide resources – manpower and money. “We try to understand the culture and make it relevant to help them,” the Archbishop said.
In addition to the province-wide Proseams, there are now diocesan mission bodies which work with those countries allocated to their dioceses. While remaining, legally, under the Diocese of Singapore, the countries have been allocated and “adopted” by the four dioceses for the purpose of providing mission assistance and support. “We adopt them and we plant our own church and we send out people, we sent out money.”
The approach is producing remarkable growth in the missionary deaneries. The Anglican Church in Nepal saw a growth of 33.3 per cent from the previous year following the recent earthquake – and that’s on top of a usual annual growth rate of 11 per cent. “The main reason [for the growth] is because of the proactive work of Proseams making vision a reality,” Archbishop Moon Hing said.
All of this is taking place in a region where Christians are in a minority. The population of the Province of South East Asia is around 500 million; of which not more than one per cent is Christian. In every one of these countries we are a minority and so we work very sensitively,” Archbishop Moon Hing said. “And the people look at Christianity as a foreign religion – a religion of the white people.
“So for that reason we often have common ground to work on – all these deanery countries and in Malaysia and Singapore, we have to work [with the understanding] that we are going to be unpopular and seen as foreign.
“We have been doing this for many years and so it is not strange to us. . . And we are very culturally aware. We make sure that we do not antagonise the culture. We tread very carefully.”
The Province uses two main approaches to its evangelism: its main focus is on friendship evangelism, but it also does evangelism through education, through schools and through social ministry. And while the way this is done varies throughout the missionary deaneries, the common focus is on education and the teaching of the English language.
In Vietnam, the Province has established a number of tuition centres to teach English and also runs two-week stays for high school or university students at the church compound in Singapore where the participants will use English. “It fills up very quickly. People are lining up to come,” the Archbishop said.
In Cambodia, the Province has established the Khmer [pronounced Cam-igh] Hope centre providing two years of free education in computer skills, cooking, hotel skills and mechanics to train people to work in in hotels, embassies, or big corporations. They are also teaching people to make palm sugar. “A lot of people grow palms but they don’t know what to do with it,” Archbishop Moon Hing said. “We teach them how to make palm sugar and export it.”
In Laos, the Province established Arda – the Anglican Relief and Development Agency – as a relief development centre. But they soon abandoned all but the English language teaching. It now offers teaching from primary to secondary school and even adults. It is so successful that the government sends its officers to ARDA to learn English. And the government has asked the Province to expand the work of Arda to two further cities.
In Thailand, the Province established Salem homes to provide accommodation for families of people staying in hospital who could not afford hotel costs to visit them. In the houses, Bible study and evangelism takes place every other night. There are a large number of Anglican churches in Thailand and construction is underway on a building which will become a diocesan centre once the deanery is reconstituted as a diocese.
In Indonesia, the Province runs a microfinance scheme offering grants of less than £100 GBP to help people start their own businesses. One recipient used the grant to buy fruit and plastic bags. They cut and portion up the fruit into the plastic bags and then travel around offices to sell it to the workers.
In Nepal, the Province runs children’s centres and children’s homes and is actively involved in reconstruction and support following the April and May 2015 earthquakes.
These social action programmes are why many people in the Province have converted to Christianity. But Archbishop Moon Hing stresses that the provision of care is not dependent upon a conversion. “In no way are we forcing anybody to become Christians,” he said. “In no way are we giving them money to lure them. . . We are just doing good work, become their friends, minister to the needy and the marginalised and the sick. And some of them come in.”
And he said that many of the new Christians not only join the church as members but also join in the missionary work to “reach out to more people.”
Throughout the myriad social action activities, there is one common theme: the teaching of the English language. “Everybody wants to learn English,” Archbishop Moon Hing said. “When we do church, we use their language. But when we teach them we do it in English because everybody wants to learn English – even the government officers – because that is the only language they can communicate with the world.
“They cannot use Vietnamese to communicate with the world or Cambodian. So if they have to communicate with the world it is only in English. In Malaysia and Singapore, we were British colonies so we have stronger English and can help them in many ways.”
When asked how many languages exist in the Province, Archbishop Moon Hing laughs. “Many!,” he said. “Too many to count. Hundreds.
“Sometimes we need translation into two or three languages before people can understand. Let’s say I do English. Then they have to translate into their national language and then they have to translate into their local language.”
In rural areas, church services take place in the local language; but in the cities many churches hold multiple services to cater for different language groups. “In Saint Mary’s Cathedral we have 13 services [on Sundays]. We start early and keep going, keep going and keep going.”
The province was built on the not-too-distant work of past missionaries; but the church is now an indigenous affair. On taking up his office today, Moon Hing became the second indigenous Archbishop of the Province.
Missionaries are still welcome in the Province – but to work in teaching and education roles rather than church leadership. Missionaries today in South East Asia are only to be found in the missionary deaneries. There are 15 of them in Laos, mainly from Britain, Australia and New Zealand; but also from Malaysia and Singapore.
And they serve a useful purpose: “non-Christians are looking at [the Church] as a foreign religion, so they are slow to come in,” Archbishop Moon Hing said; “but because English is the main thing in the whole of our region, if they want to learn English they want to learn it from white faces.
“They don’t want to learn it from us – the non-whites – so we still need the missionaries to be in the forefront to teach all these things. We train our people to be involved; but every-time we have white people to teach English we have a lot of people who want to go to their classes; but when we see Singaporeans or Malaysians teaching, less people will go to their classes.”
As he takes on the leadership of the Province of South East Asia, Archbishop Moon Hing says his focus in the coming years will be in three distinct areas: church, politics and manpower.
For the Church, he wants to speed up the process of creating new dioceses in the missionary deanery countries. He said that all of them apart from Laos and Vietnam are “growing quite fast” and he wants to establish a timetable for the creation of dioceses.
“The difficulty we have is that we don’t have the money yet,” he said. “We have the people; we have the church; but we don’t have the finance to help them run. Transport will cost a lot – they are too far to meet each other. They don’t have cars, like us, so everything is money.
“Nepal is 10,000 members yet we cannot create a diocese because we have to put in a lot of infrastructure like diocesan centres and operations centres to help them to carry on the mission work without us. This work must carry on.”
On the political side, the Archbishop points out that the region is “facing great political instability”. He points to countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos which “have not come out of their shell” following the turmoil of the Pol Pot regime; and to Nepal which “changes government like changing clothes”; and to Indonesia and Malaysia which is facing challenges from Islam.
“On the political side we are seeing a lot of instability,” the new Archbishop said. “We want to train and disciple the people so that in the event of any changes, their faith in Christ will not change [and that] whether the country is doing well or doing badly they will stick onto Jesus Christ and hold onto him tightly. So we need to intentionally train and help them to become disciples.”
And on the issue of manpower, the Archbishop is quite blunt: “We don’t want this generation to do lots of things and the next generation to know nothing at all.” He explained that when he became Bishop of West Malaysia he realised that the age profile of his clergy meant that he would lose half of them through retirement by 2020.
An ordination service at All Saints Church in Taiping on 30 October 2015. 12 people were ordained and commissioned; while another six were transferred from LOM to NSM.
Photo: Diocese of West Malaysia on Facebook
“So if I don’t intentionally develop more people we are going to face a manpower shortage,” he said. “Over the past nine years I have developed, trained and equipped many more to come into the ministry. Every year I ordained more than 10 people because I actively developed, trained and equipped them and also encouraged them to give their lives to God.”
He said that similar numbers were being ordained in Sabah and Singapore and that people were also being ordained in the deanery countries; although in smaller numbers. He said that the Province had to put a lot of effort into the development of human resources; but acknowledged that “It is a big task, a big job.”
For Moon Hing, the transformation from a Buddhist teenager to the Anglican Archbishop of South East Asia began as a “lonely journey”. But he is no longer the only Christian in his family. On his father’s side he has three uncles and an aunt. Three of the four are now Christians as are their families.
Moon Hing himself was one of 11 siblings. Of his 10 brothers and sisters, eight have become Christians as have their families. His father died as a non-Christian; but his mother, who had been against his conversion as a 20-year-old has converted. “When my mum became a Christian I baptised her myself,” Archbishop Moon Hing said. “Some 70 or 80 per cent of the whole family are Christians now but we still have 20 to 30 per cent to work on,” he said.
He said that there was a lot of joy in his family at his new role. “Everybody is excited; but they they don’t know what the archbishop is all about,” he joked.
In the 30-or-so years since being ordained, he said, “I have seen our diocese and our province grow tremendously, very much compared to many regions. We grew in terms of manpower, in terms of finance, in terms of outreaches and in terms of ministry and in the social arena, we grew very much.
“I am very happy and very glad to be involved in this era, this time. As Archbishop I will want to see the growth to carry on – if not faster – in order to catch up and prepare ourselves for the worst to come. We do not know what will happen, but extremism is coming our way. Too many extreme things are coming.”
But despite the fears for the future, the Province of South East Asia seems well place to face whatever comes its way. “The province is working very well together and we have good fellowship together,” Archbishop Moon Hing said. “The House of Bishops and the House of Clergy meet and we share resources amongst one another dioceses and missionary countries very well. I have been around quite a bit and I have not seen such a co-operative spirit in many places. It is just beautiful here. I am very glad I am here in this time serving God.”