Superhero no more

Alvin Phua joined the Jehovah Witness (JW) denomination as a child. Many years after, he left the faith and eventually became an atheist. He also started a bar called the Public House and it became a popular gathering place for the local sceptic and humanist movement. In 2013, Alvin spoke about his experience at a Humanist Society event. Here is his story:

It was a weekend in 1984. There was a knock on the door of our three-room flat at Jurong East. My mum, who opened the door, was greeted by two ladies from the JW denomination in Singapore. I cannot remember everything they said, but two things probably got my mum’s attention. Firstly, they were university graduates who spoke English, which was still a rarity in Singapore at that time. Secondly, they promised a way to live forever.I was ten years old at that time, living with my family — my parents and a younger brother — in a three-room flat in Jurong East. We were a typical Singaporean Chinese family at that time. I grew up speaking Hokkien. I also spoke spattering English, but I didn’t know it was bad since everyone I knew spoke that way. My grandparents were followers of the Chinese religion. I grew up with Chinese rituals, offering joss sticks and paper money to the gods once in a while.

Despite the cultural and religious differences, their demeanor impressed my mother and me. My mum thought that by learning the Bible and Christianity, we would also be getting free English lessons by default, which my mother admitted in much later years, was the thing that she found most attractive. In those days, English was so important that anyone who can speak English can land a good job even without much education. Although English was already introduced into Singapore schools a while back, it was rarely spoken in most households. So, she invited them into our home, sat them down in the kitchen where the main dining table was, and listened to their pitch. The JW came across as educated and sincere. They looked and sounded reasonable and humble. Despite having a university education in English, they gave up the prospect of higher paying jobs to work full-time for the divine, collecting only a meagre sum of a couple of hundred dollars from the congregation as a means to just get by. That dedication and conviction was also very impressive and convincing.

Of course, they didn’t offer English lessons. Nonetheless, my mum and I were totally won over by their pitch. First, they explained how the world and universe started. “If there was a carpenter for a table and a watchmaker for a watch, surely there is a creator for birds, the bees, the wind and the mountains,” they told me. So that seemed like a ’more than good enough’ philosophical answer for a 10-year-old kid. Secondly, they gave me a purpose, that is to help people live forever. One of the biggest fantasies I got was when I saw a picture of a kid hugging a huge male lion in one of their magazines. That kept me dreaming for the longest time. It painted a very beautiful and what seemed to be a flawless picture of eternal life on paradise Earth where you can go barefoot, run around the field, and hug lions on absolute pristine grass fields without thorns and bristles and any worry in the world. A place with glorious fruiting trees everywhere and people smiling, loving, laughing and playing all the time. It was pretty attractive, but it required you to first believe in the faith.

Below: The JW publishes magazines such as Awake! and The Watchtower. 

Door to door

While the Jehovah Witnesses consider themselves Christians, their beliefs can be quite distinct from mainstream Christianity. One major difference was, they do not believe in a hell, only a paradise Earth. They also believe that most believers will end up on paradise earth, not heaven. Heaven was only for a chosen few, 144,000 to be exact.

Also well known was their belief in political neutrality and their refusal to serve in the military. The latter, naturally, will be a problem in Singapore because of National Service, where men are drafted into the Singapore Armed Forces or the Home Team for two years. JW activities and materials have been banned in Singapore since 1972.

Despite this, my mum and I was swept into the JW. In fact, I became totally hooked on the ideology. I felt like it was my purpose, my calling. I have an explanation for this. You know, I believe a lot of people fantasise being a superhero of sorts, where you get to save a lot of people. They want to have money, power and status so they can do that. However, it remained a fantasy to most people, unless you are very successful in life. For me, the ability to save lives, to help people live forever, is a wonderful power to have and to share. I did not know the term at that time, but I have intense altruistic leanings. I knew that the JW was illegal. However, I wasn’t afraid. To me, to be able to save the world and bring them eternal life, a jail was a small sacrifice. Besides, I did not think the police were around at every corner. And even they were, joining the JW was exciting to me. It felt like a secret society.

Below: A news article in 1996, on the Christianity Today website, about JW arrests in Singapore.

After the first visit by JW missionaries, we had religious studies at least once every week at different homes of JW members for the next few years. Thinking back, I guess that was to avoid detection. And once in a while, there will be larger gatherings. The attendees came from all walks of life, rich and poor. Clearly, it had a certain appeal. Once, we even crossed the border and attended a major congregation at Johor Bahru. Very early on, they realised I was quite good with the Bible and I was encouraged and invited to follow on their door-to-door proselytization efforts. And I did.

This went on for a couple of years. I accompanied adult missionaries on visits to HDB blocks across Singapore. The message was similar to what my mum received when they came knocking on our door. We preached a way to eternal life, a life free from suffering. Of course, I was a selling point too. People are always curious about me, preaching religious truths even as a young kid. I was pretty good at it as well. The reception was generally friendly. Many Singaporeans still had very strong community spirits then which I guess had lingered on from those kampung days of the past. People loved to talk, have conversations. Those were the days when door-to-door selling of vacuum cleaners, Tupperware, curry puffs and all kinds of daily goods was a common occurrence.

And just like the salesmen who went to door to door selling products, I took my job very seriously. Naturally, not everyone bought our pitch, and this started to bother me. As a rule, we also consciously avoided the Muslim households because through anecdotal experiences, we have learned that proselytising to them would get us into trouble. I was also taught that the other reason was that Christians and Muslims are eternal enemies in the biblical context. I never felt comfortable with that as it meant that there was actually a group I could not help. It blemished my approach and sincerity.

After a while, I also became troubled with those who rejected the faith as the JW believed that once a person received the teachings of Jehovah but rejected the invitation to convert, they would have forfeited their only chance of eternal life. I became very worried for those who rejected my sales pitch, and placed on myself a great responsibility to sell the faith as convincingly as I could. Unfortunately, as I learnt, there is no such thing as a perfect sales pitch. I knew that the best salesman in the world, perhaps, could only convince half of the people he approached. On top of that, I was also told that if someone dies before receiving the truth, he or she would be given a second chance to accept the faith upon resurrection, which opened up all kinds of philosophical conundrums within me. I became obsessed with praying hard daily hoping that answers would be revealed to me to clear my confusions.

This continued to disturb me for a long time. On one occasion, I came up with a solution that I thought was a brilliant plan, which horrified my mentor Yoke Hwa.  For although the JW believed that all those who died before receiving the word of Jehovah would be given a “second chance” during the end of the world when Jesus returns, nonetheless, I believed that this was not a foolproof scenario to guarantee complete salvation. Surely, there will be some adults who, “corrupted” by other religions and beliefs, would still reject the “second chance” because they might think they are being tested by their own gods?

Thus, I proposed to Yoke Hwa: We should kill the most innocent of all, babies and children, from KK hospital to Kindergartens and upon resurrection during the end of the world, they would be automatically saved because they could not be in any position to reject the “second chance” and the only downside was that I would be giving up my privilege to enter the Kingdom of all those wonderful promises. She immediately told me to put this off my mind, telling me that the devil was corrupting my mind and demanded that I prayed to be forgiven of my murderous thoughts. I did but yet, I failed to see how my plan would not work unless the premise was not forthcoming in the first place.

Below: Alvin in 1990.

Doubts and enlistment

My mum stopped believing in the JW teachings after two years. In the same year, 1986, my parents divorced and I changed addresses often.  As a result, the bible study sessions and JW gatherings became less common and regular. However, it took me a much longer time to shake off my beliefs. It lingered on for years. Finally, my religiosity peaked, like a dying bird gasping for last gulps of air, just before enlistment in 1992, when I was 18. I had been feeling guilty about being a lapsed JW follower, and I was toying with the idea of not getting enlisted and surrender myself, somehow hoping that such an act and decision will elicit some kind of rapture within me. To me and I believe to many others as well, that this was the biggest test to a Singaporean JW-believing male. To choose between a tainted identity and suffer the negative consequences in the real world while proving a worthy follower of Christ or to cowardly give in to the same real world and give up or renegotiate with the faith.

I was again praying like crazy, praying for Jehovah to guide me, to provide me with a vision. I told Him, I was willing to give up that everything human beings yearn for. Everything. The physical, the mental and the material. I was willing to be completely staunch. I would then transform myself into the most effective salesman for the faith, for I would have been able to sell with conviction. After all, the best salesmen are those who have personally used the product and benefited from it. I wanted that kind of conviction.

This was when my mum intervened when I discussed with her my struggles. Two years into the faith, she became very sceptical about its teachings and left the faith. However, she was liberal in a sense that she allowed me to continue with JW activities, but only up to a point. Upon hearing of my tortured plans not to enlist, she became very worried about my future. Eventually, she gave me an ultimatum. She told me: If I don’t go to the army, she will disown me. I could not get past this ultimatum although I knew she did not really mean it and eventually used this as an excuse to leave the religion. I told Jehovah: “ I know I am supposed to love you more than anyone but I am unable. I have been unable to love you more than I love my mother no matter how much I tried. You cannot blame me for this. ”

Below: Alvin serving his National Service.

So I got myself enlisted and served my two and a half years of National Service as a Reconnaissance Trooper. After I completed my service in 1995, I was still vaguely religious. Something like a deist. In 1997, I went travelling in the United Kingdom. At this time, my mum experienced difficulties in her bar business at Holland Village and requested my help. Eventually, I returned to Singapore, took over the bar — called JohnKims — and turned it around. By 1999, business was getting stable. The self-questioning and reflection on my beliefs continued with pace.

Alvin in 1997:

I was quite lucky. My bar in Holland Village attracted a lot of academics. I met professors, doctors, philosophers, chief executives. Even if they were none of those, they always had interesting things to say. I am someone who likes to be in a group setting, giving my two cents worth on any issue. So, this turned out to be quite an incredible experience. In years of discussions with my customers, I often ran out of things to contribute while the conversations aroused so many curiosities of mine. Every time this happened, I felt very inadequate and it was not the best of feelings. And anyone feels that way have two choices. They could run back to beliefs they are comfortable with, or they could see this a challenge to figure out and learn more.

I chose the latter. This set me on my journey to becoming an atheist and humanist. Of course, this didn’t take place overnight. There was no “aha” moment where I suddenly became an atheist or a humanist. It was a slow erosion, although I didn’t like to use the word “erosion” for implied something negative was happening. Slowly, my belief system was slowly replaced by other things, by a new way of looking at things, by the philosophies I read, the books I read, and my natural doubts. Finally, the bar business also gave me exactly what my mum thought the JW would provide years ago: proficiency in English.

Superhero no more

In 2000, a good offer came and I sold the bar at Holland Village. I set up a bar called The Public House where I continued to meet an endless flow of people. I was exposed to all people both different sides of the fence for countless issues. For example, the liberals and conservatives when it comes to gay rights, the extreme left and right in politics, and those who are against or in favor of the death penalty.

Below: The current Public House bar at 42 Circular Road in Boat Quay, on its opening day 7 years ago.

Alvin sharing his story at the Humanist Society event, My story as a former Jehovah’s Witness, in 2013.

Alvin (left), receiving a token of appreciation from the Humanist Society’s then-President, Mark Kwan. 

My religious beliefs were also changing. Bits and parts of me kept leaving. My idea of love was no longer the same as it was before. Singapore’s information landscape was also changing. The internet was becoming more widespread. I could go to a public library and use them, and even though access was more limited back then, I was able to listen to videos and listen to so many arguments and discussions. I started picking up science books, starting with biology which I have always been fascinated with. Eventually, I picked up a book called The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It explained many things about the life, and how evolution shaped it. It gave me a more definitive way of articulating myself and my musings.

It got to a point where it made no sense to me that there is a higher power. At the age of 27, I became an out and out atheist. Becoming so was very a gradual process, but I knew I was no longer the same Alvin as before. As a 10-year-old JW follower, every part of my body felt that there was a higher power out there. But at the age of 27, I reached a point where I was able to, bone by bone, vein by vein, stop feeling the aura of higher power. I knew that this Alvin was a completely different Alvin from 10 years ago, with a new morality and new principles. Moralities and principles that I find to be better simply because they get upgraded and updated constantly. They were no longer dogmatic.

Today, science and philosophy could more than adequately address all the questions I had. For example, as a 10-year-old I am very fascinated with the teaching that God created time. Today, I simply read up on physics to find the answers, and when these answers are not simple for the layman, I equipped myself with the technical language and suddenly those answers became simpler to me. Answers that I or anyone could verify, answers that can stand up to the most severe scrutiny.

Below: Alvin in 2017

As for my childhood desire to be a “superhero”, the sense of urgency to save the world has become even greater as an atheist and humanist. With a belief in the afterlife gone, I came to the conclusion that I will only lead one life. To me, it is scary to leave this existence with regrets. The idea of having only one life also gets more apparent as I grew older.

Today, the “superhero” in me is no longer superhero in a fantasy sense. To me, life is not about being a hero anymore, but about being a good person. A good person strives to learn more, and share more. There is something that makes me really happy, that is to make people laugh. Especially kids, as their laughs are one of the most sincere ones you can hear. I think not a lot of things generate more joy than the act of making people laugh.

As an atheist and humanist, I think I’m a more reflective person today. I am able to think about, for every action, what kind of reaction it will cause. For example, if I happen to believe in doing away with capital punishment, and if one day the Singapore government really drops it, I would like to think I have played a small part. So, it is no longer about me being a hero. Instead, I want the whole of humanity to be a collective hero.