Singapore is multireligious as well as multiethnic. Religions: Buddhist 42.5 percent, Muslim 14.9 percent, Taoist 8.5 percent, Hindu 4 percent, Catholic 4.8 percent, other Christian 9.8 percent, other 0.7 percent, none 14.8 percent (2000 census). Singapore is surrounded by Muslim countries: Malaysia and Indonesia. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Many Singaporean Chinese like Chinese elsewhere combine traditional Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian beliefs. Spiritual beliefs and superstitions still abound in Singapore. The Chinese worship both Buddhist and Taoist deities as well as their ancestors spirits in hope of pacifying everyone and thus ensuring good fortune. Ancient rites and customs thrive in numerous 350 temples. There are significant numbers of Sikhs and Parsis. Many Christians are Catholics. Moonies and Jehovah's Witnesses have been officially banned by the government.

According to the 2000 census, 2.9 million Singaporeans professed adherence to a religious faith. Of these, Buddhists and Daoists made up 51.0 percent of the total, or 64.4 percent of the Chinese population and 13.9 percent of the “other” ethnic composition. Islam had the second largest following at 14.9 percent, or 99.6 percent of the Malay population. Christians represented 14.6 percent of religious believers and 53.3 percent of the “other” ethnic category. Hindus made up 4.0 percent of believers, or about 55.5 percent of the Indian population. Other religions made up only 0.4 percent of the total, and 14.8 percent professed no religious affiliation. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

Major religious preferences reported in 1988 were Buddhism (28 percent), Christian (19 percent), no religion (17 percent), Islam (16 percent), Daoist (13 percent), and Hindu (5 percent). Singapore's nineteenth-century immigrants valued the social as well as religious aspects of their congregations, and their descendants are more likely to concern themselves with social activities centered around their temples and mosques than with elaborate ritual or ceremony. The government, although secular, views religion as a positive force for instilling moral values in the society. At the same time, it keeps a watchful eye out for social or political activism within religious groups. Muslim fundamentalists and over-zealous Christian proselytizers alike are kept under careful scrutiny, lest they upset the religious and ethnic harmony of the country. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

Singapore's immigrants commonly made their religious congregations a form of social organization. From the foundation of the city, colonial authorities had avoided interfering with the religious affairs of the ethnic communities, fostering an atmosphere of religious tolerance. It was characteristic of colonial Singapore that South Bridge Street, a major thoroughfare in the old Chinatown, should also be the site of the Sri Mariamman Temple, a south Indian Hindu temple, and of the Jamae or Masjid Chulia Mosque, which served Chulia Muslims from India's Coromandel Coast. The major religions were Chinese popular religion, commonly although inaccurately referred to as Daoism or Buddhism; Hinduism; Islam; Buddhism; and Christianity. Other religions included smaller communities of Sikhs and of Jains from India; Parsis, Indians of Iranian descent who followed the ancient Iranian Zoroastrian religion; and Jews, originally from the Middle East, who supported two synagogues. *

Seven of the ten national holidays were religious festivals; two of them were Chinese, two Muslim, two Christian, and one Hindu. The festivals were the Chinese New Year; Vesak Day; Hari Raya Haji, the Muslim pilgrimage festival; Hari Raya Pusa, which marked the end of the fasting month of Ramadan and was a time of renewal; Christmas; Good Friday; and Deepavali. Citizens were encouraged to learn about the festivals of other religious and ethnic groups and to invite members of other groups to their own celebrations and feasts. Public ceremonies such as National Day or the commissioning of military officers were marked by joint religious services conducted by the Inter-Religious Organization, an ecumenical body founded in 1949 to promote understanding and goodwill among the followers of different religions. *


Religion, Ethnicity and Repression in Singapore

In the 1980s, members of all ethnic groups lived and worked together, dressed similarly, and shared equal access to all public institutions and services. Religion, therefore, provided one of the major markers of ethnic boundaries. Malays, for instance, would not eat at Chinese restaurants or food stalls for fear of contamination by pork, and a Chinese, in this case, could not invite a Malay colleague to a festive banquet. Funerals of a traditional and ethnically distinctive style were usually held even by families that were not otherwise very religiously observant. The Community Associations and the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board encouraged the public celebration of such ethnically distinctive and appropriately colorful and noncontroversial festivals as the Chinese lantern festival and the dragon boat races. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The marriages, divorces, and inheritances of members of religious communities and the management of properties and endowments dedicated to religious purposes were of concern to the government, which interacted with some religious bodies through advisory boards dating back to the colonial period. The Hindu Advisory Board, established in 1917, advised the government on Hindu religion and customs and on any matters concerning the general welfare of the Hindu community. It assisted the Hindu Endowments Board, which administered the four major Hindu temples and their property, in organizing the annual festivals at the temples. The Sikh Advisory Board acted in the same way for the Sikhs. *

In the 1980s, the government regarded religion in general as a positive social force that could serve as a bulwark against the perceived threat of Westernization and the associated trends of excessive individualism and lack of discipline. It made religious education a compulsory subject in all secondary schools in the 1980s. The government, although secular, was concerned, however, with the social consequences of religiously motivated social action and therefore monitored and sometimes prohibited the activities of religious groups. The authorities feared that religion could sometimes lead to social and implicitly political action or to contention between ethnic groups. Islamic fundamentalism, for example, was a very sensitive topic that was seldom publicly discussed. Throughout the 1980s, the authorities were reported to have made unpublicized arrests and expulsions of Islamic activists.

Religious Change in Singapore

Between 1980 and 2000, the Christian population has increased from 10.1 percent to 14.6 percent , while Buddhism went up from 27 percent to 42.5 percent (at the expense of Taoism which fell from 30 percent to 8.5 percent). The proportion of Muslims and Hindus remain more or less the same, at 15 percent and 4 percent. Among the Chinese, however, 23 percent of those aged between 15 and 24 say they don't believe in any religion. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 20, 2001]

In 2008, the Earth Times reported: “Census figures have also revealed the Taoist share of the population plunged from 30 percent in 1980 to 22.4 percent in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2000. Buddhism is holding strong. More than 80 percent who were born Buddhist are staying Buddhist, said the newspaper's survey. It also is the fastest growing religion. Buddhism is the top choice among those in search of spirituality, gaining converts among those seeking "time out" from stressed lives. Three-quarters of those queried who abandoned Taoism said they felt disconnected to the religion or perceived a "lack of meaning" in following it, the report said. [Source: Earth Times, August 9, 2008]

Modernization and improved education levels brought changes in religious practice. The inflexible work schedules of industrialism, which tended to restrict communal ritual to evenings and Sundays, and the lack of opportunity or inclination to devote years to mastering ceremonial and esoteric knowledge, both contributed to a general tendency toward ritual simplification and abbreviation. At the same time, prosperous citizens contributed large sums to building funds, and in the 1980s a wave of rebuilding and refurbishing renewed the city's mosques, churches, Chinese temples, Buddhist monasteries, and Hindu temples. Ethnic affiliation was demonstrated by public participation in such annual rituals as processions, which did not require elaborate training or study. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Immigrants tended to drop or modify religious and ritual practices characteristic of and peculiar to the villages they had come from. Hindu temples founded in the nineteenth century to serve migrants of specific castes and to house deities worshipped only in small regions of southeastern India became the temples patronized by all Hindu residents of nearby apartment complexes. They offered a generic South Indian Hinduism focused on major deities and festivals. Many Chinese became more self-consciously Buddhist or joined syncretic cults that promoted ethics and were far removed from the exorcism and sacrificial rituals of the villages of Fujian and Guangdong. The movement away from village practices was most clearly seen and most articulated among the Malays, where Islamic reformers acted to replace the customary practices (adat) of the various Malay-speaking societies of Java, Sumatra, and Malaya with the precepts of classical Islamic law — sharia. *

In 1988 the Ministry of Community Development reported the religious distribution to be 28.3 percent Buddhist, 18.7 percent Christian, 17.6 percent no religion, 16 percent Islam, 13.4 percent Daoist, 9 percent Hindu, and 1.1 percent other religions (Sikhs, Parsis, Jews). The Christian proportion of the population nearly doubled between 1980 and 1988, growing from 10 percent to nearly 19 percent. The growth of Christianity and of those professing no religion was greatest in the Chinese community, with most of the Christian converts being young, well-educated people in secure white-collar and professional jobs. Most converts joined evangelical and charismatic Protestant churches worshiping in English. About one-third of the members of Parliament were Christians, as were many cabinet ministers and members of the ruling party, which was dominated by well-educated, Englishspeaking Chinese. The association of Christianity with elite social and political status may have helped attract some converts. *

By the late 1980s, some Buddhist organizations were winning converts by following the Protestant churches in offering services, hymnbooks, and counseling in English and Mandarin. A Buddhist Society at the National University of Singapore offered lectures and social activities similar to those of the popular Christian Fellowship. Some Chinese secondary students chose Buddhism as their compulsory religious studies subject, regarding Confucianism as too distant and abstract and Bible study as too Western and too difficult. They then were likely to join Buddhist organizations, which offered congenial groups, use of English, and a link with Asian cultural traditions. In the late 1980s, other Chinese whitecollar and skilled workers were joining the Japan-based Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society, an organization based on Nichiren Buddhism), which provided a simple, direct style of worship featuring chanting of a few texts and formulas and a wide range of social activities. The more successful religious groups, Christian and Buddhist, offered directly accessible religious practice with no elaborate ritual or difficult doctrine and a supportive social group. *

Religious Laws and Rules in Singapore

The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act allows authorities to stop religious leaders from addressing or advising groups, to prevent them from inciting hostility between different religions and disaffection against the government, among other offenses. Singapore also uses the Sedition Act to clamp down on anyone inciting communal tensions. Two ethnic Chinese men were jailed in 2005 for anti-Muslim blogs. Under the Sedition Act, offenders may be liable to imprisonment of up to three years or a fine not more than $3,144 or both.

Bloomberg reported: In contrast to the U.S., where churches often champion political and sometimes anti-government views, religious groups in Singapore refrain from criticizing those in power. The laws “provide a broad framework to ensure that these pastors stay clear from discussing the politics of the day,” said Mathew Mathews, a research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore who has written about mega churches.

Seah Chiang Nee wrote in The Star, “It was because of a spate of aggressive preaching that the government enacted a Religious Harmony Act in 1990 to put an end to two main dangers. Firstly, it was aimed at keeping religion out of politics, and secondly, preventing religious criticism of other faiths. Since then, police and Internal Security Department officers had to call up and warn religious leaders in three cases to stop or else the Act would be used against them, Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng recently said. [Source: Seah Chiang Nee, The Star, May 20, 2001 ++]

“On the eve of the 1991 general election, one religious leader urged Muslims to vote for Muslim candidates with deep religious beliefs. A pastor was warned in 1992 because he had used his church publications and the pulpit to criticise Buddhism, Taoism and Catholicism. A religious leader was admonished for criticising a widespread Hindu belief in 1995 that statues of one of their deities, Ganesha, could drink milk offerings. "Any religious leader who says such things against other religions would definitely upset the followers of those religions," Wong said. That would bar them from addressing any congregation or group on any subject. In fact they will not hold office or be involved in their religious publications. ++

“Violation of this restraining order would be punishable in court, and if convicted, fined up to S$10,000 or jailed up to five years, or both. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong sounded the first warning in January when he urged religious leaders to restrain and admonish overzealous followers who were insensitive and reckless on the Internet. "We have seen how countries have been destroyed by religious strife," he said. "We have no intention of allowing our delicate racial and religious balance to be disturbed by any group of whatever race or religion." ++

“Government actions under the Religious Harmony Act would not be subject to court review. During the debate, even government backbenchers who supported it said they were disturbed at the wide powers it gave the government. "We cannot ignore the widespread anxiety, especially among the Catholics and Protestants, that this Bill may be used by the government to quash political dissent that stems from their moral convictions," said (then) backbencher Aline Wong. ++

Religious Laws and Military Issues in Singapore

Andrew Loh wrote in Singapore Scene, The Singapore government “has tried. And to foster closer understanding among the various races and religions here, it introduced the inter-racial and religious confidence circles, or "inter-racial confidence circles" (IRCC) in 2002, after the 9/11 attacks on the United States the preceding year. However, its policies have also been criticised for exacerbating the racial divide, creating distrust and disenchantment among some in the minority race communities. Its racial quota in public housing, for example, its ethnic self-help groups, and the practice of requiring a minority-race candidate in each Group Representation Constituency (GRC) for elections. [Source: Andrew Loh, Singapore Scene, November 21, 2011]

The lack of minority-race — Malays, especially — representation in the higher echelons and combat units of our armed forces is an issue which some have raised in the past as well. In 1987, Lee Hsien Loong (then Second Minister for Defence) explained the absence thus: "If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion."

In 1999, Lee Kuan Yew said, "If, for instance, you put in a Malay officer who's very religious and who has family ties in Malaysia in charge of a machine gun unit, that's a very tricky business. We've got to know his background... I'm saying these things because they are real, and if I don't think that, and I think even if today the Prime Minister doesn't think carefully about this, I and my family could have a tragedy."

Arrest of Catholics and Ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses

“In 1987, the government detained 22 people, including several lay Catholic church workers, for their part in an alleged Marxist plot to overthrow the government. They were accused of using the church as a cover to advance communism. Singapore's Muslim minority, however, remain extremely sensitive about attempts to convert them. Many see the Act as a protective cover against aggressive evangelism. ++

The Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unification Church (Moonies) and the Christian Conference of Asia are banned in Singapore. Jehovah's Witnesses were banned in 1972, partly because male members refused to perform compulsory military duty. The Unification Church as banned in 1982 because "the group brainwashed families and broke them up, and members gave up their possessions to the church."

There are an estimated 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Singapore. In late 1995 and early 1996, 63 Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested during Bible study meetings at private homes. All 63 were found guilty of attending a meeting of an unlawful society. Seven paid fines ranging from $700 to $2,800 and 46 others chose jail to protest what they called religious persecution. [Source: Reuters]

Chinese Religion in Singapore

The Chinese practiced Chinese popular religion, a distinctive and complex syncretic religion that incorporates some elements from canonical Buddhism and Daoism but focuses on the worship of gods, ghosts, and ancestors. It emphasizes ritual and practice over doctrine and belief, has no commonly recognized name, and is so closely entwined with Chinese culture and social organization that it cannot proselytize. In Singapore its public manifestations included large temples housing images of deities believed to respond to human appeals for guidance or relief from affliction and use of the common Chinese cycle of calendrical festivals. [Source: Library of Congress, 1989 *]

These occasions included the lunar New Year (in January or February), a festival of renewal and family solidarity; Qing Ming, celebrated by the solar calender on April 5th (105 days after the winter solstice), to remember the ancestors and worship at their graves; the fifteenth of the fifth lunar month (April or May), in Singapore known as Vesak Day and celebrated as marking the birth of the Buddha; the festival of the hungry ghosts in the seventh lunar month, a major Hokkien holiday, marked by domestic feasting and elaborate public rituals to feed and placate the potentially dangerous souls of those with no descendants to worship them; and the mid-autumn festival on the fifteenth of the eighth lunar month, an occasion for exchanging gifts of sweet round mooncakes and admiring the full moon. *

All Chinese temples held one or more annual festivals, marked by street processions, performances of Chinese traditional operas, and domestic banquets to which those who supported the temple, either because of residential propinquity, subethnic affiliation with a particular temple and its deity, or personal devotion to the god, invited their friends and business associates. To prevent the disruption of traffic and preserve public order, the government limited the length and route of street processions and prohibited the use of the long strings of firecrackers that had previously been a component of all Chinese religious display.*

Some festivals or customs that had little religious significance or were not practiced by the southeastern Chinese migrants were promoted by the government's Singapore Tourist Promotion Board for their spectacular and innocuous content. These included the summer dragon boat races, originally held only in China's Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River Valley, and the lantern festival in which paper lanterns in the shape of animals or other objects are carried through the streets by children or, if especially impressive, displayed in parks and temples. In China the lantern festival is celebrated in the first lunar month at the end of the New Year season, but in Singapore it is combined with the mid-autumn festival. *

Interest in Chinese religions is declining. Census figures revealed the Taoist share of the population plunged from 30 percent in 1980 to 22.4 percent in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2000. Three-quarters of those queried who abandoned Taoism said they felt disconnected to the religion or perceived a "lack of meaning" in following it, the report said. While Taoism and Buddhism are the traditional belief systems in Singapore, most people adopt them as a matter of birthright, rather than choosing to follow them as spiritual life codes. [Source: Earth Times, August 9, 2008]

Giant Candles, Joss Sticks Banned in Singapore for Polluting Air

In 1998, DPA and the South China Morning Post reported: “Giant incense sticks and candles used in Chinese religious practices have been banned by authorities. Officials said smoke from the towering objects could pollute the environment, and that some devotees had recently been trying to outdo each other by using bigger joss sticks and candles. Some had been using incense pillars as tall as a three-storey building, burning up to 25 giant sticks for more than 24 hours at a time. The huge sticks can cost up to S$3,000 each. [Source: DPA, South China Morning Post, February 17, 1998 /=/]

“Incense sticks are an important component of Taoist religious practice. Worshippers believe the smoke helps waft prayers towards their deities. But officials said competition for the biggest joss sticks went against the spirit of the religion, the Straits Times reported. "Some people forget about praying and religion and think it is like a contest now to get bigger and bigger joss sticks," Singaporean business owner Chang Seng Chye, 42, told the newspaper. The practice of using massive joss sticks is common only in Singapore and Malaysia - where the sticks are made - and not in mainland China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, the Straits Times said. /=/

“The Singapore Environment Ministry has set strict size limits on joss sticks and candles. The new regulations limit the size of incense sticks to two metres in length and 7.5 centimetres in diameter. No more than six may be burnt simultaneously at the same location. Candles are now limited to 60 centimetres in length, and only two can be burned at a time. Joss sticks and candles may not be burned within 30 metres of any building. Offenders can be fined up to S$2,000. /=/

Buddhism in Singapore

Canonical Buddhism was represented in Singapore as Sinhalese Theravada Buddhism. This form of Buddhism prevails in Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia and differs from the Mahayana Buddhism of China, Korea, and Japan in both doctrine and organization. Theravada Buddhism was brought by Sinhalese migrants from Ceylon (contemporary Sri Lanka), who also influenced the architectural style of Thai and Vietnamese Theravada temples. These latter were staffed by Thai or Vietnamese monks, some of whom were originally members of the overseas Chinese communities of those countries and served a predominantly Chinese laity, using Hokkien, Teochiu, Cantonese, or English. Singapore was also home to a number of Chinese sects and syncretic cults that called themselves Buddhist but taught their own particular doctrines and lacked properly ordained Buddhist monks. *

In November 2009, AFP reported: “A high-living Buddhist monk who ran one of Singapore's most well-known charities was jailed for 10 months for fraud, court officials said. Shi Ming Yi, 47, was handed the sentence after being convicted last month of conspiring with his personal aide, Raymong Yeung, 34, to cheat the Ren Ci charity out of 50,000 Singapore dollars (36,000 US). Yeung was sentenced to nine months for the crime Shi was the founder of Ren Ci — a charity that provides subsidised medical care to elderly patients — and had lived the high life, owning several luxury cars and properties in Singapore and Australia, before being caught. He had also owned a horse in Australia. [Source: AFP, November 20, 2009]

“In 2004, Shi, who was Ren Ci's chief executive at the time, made the unauthorised loan of 50,000 dollars from the charity's coffers to Yeung, who used the money to pay for a friend's home renovation in Hong Kong. The pair said the money was loaned to a shop affiliated with the charity, but external auditors found this to be untrue.” [Ibid]

Hinduism in Singapore

Hindus have been part of Singapore's population since its foundation in 1819, and some of the old Hindu temples, such as the Sri Mariamman Temple, were declared national historical sites in the 1980s and so preserved from demolition. Singapore's Hindus adapted their religion to their minority status in two primary ways — compartmentalization and ritual reinterpretation. Compartmentalization referred to the Hindus tendency to distinguish between the home, in which they maintained a nearly completely orthodox Hindu pattern of diet and ritual observance, and the secular outer world of work, school, and public life, where they did not apply categories of purity and pollution. Singapore lacked the tightly organized caste groups of communities found in India but replaced them in large-scale temple festivals with groups representing those of the same occupation or place of employment. The major Hindu holidays were the Hindu New Year, in April or May; Thaipusam, a festival during which penitents fulfilled vows to the deity Lord Subramanya by participating in a procession while carrying kavadi, heavy decorated frameworks holding offerings of milk, fruit, and flowers; and Deepavali, the Festival of Lights. Deepavali, a celebration of the victory of light over darkness and hence of good over evil, was a national holiday. *

On the visit of an important Kerala temple idol to Singapore, The Pioneer reported: A precious idol from the 5000-year-old Chakkulathukavu Shree Bhagavathy Amman Temple in Kerala has been brought to Singapore so that Indian worshippers could worship the deity. Singapore again blessed with the visit by the divine utsavar deity of Goddess Sree Bhagavathy from the famous Chakkulathukavu Sree Bhagavathy Temple in Kerala, India. The Temple is dedicated to Goddess Durga who is worshipped and fondly referred to as Chakkulathamma or Amma by her devotees. This Temple is well known around the world because of the many miraculous happenings here and the Temple is today a popular pilgrim centre in India. The main attraction of this Temple is the cooking and offering of “Pongala” to the Goddess by devotees who wish to wash away their grief, problems, confusion, etc. To enable all devotees in Singapore to receive the blessings of Goddess Sree Bhagavathy, various religious ceremonies are being organised by the Singapore Malayalee Hindu Samajam with the support of Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman Temple. [Source: The Pioneer, September 3, 2010]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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