Religion and Beliefs of Singapore
Religion is a fundamental component which binds together cosmopolitan Singapore and the leading religions, such as Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, flourish in harmony with one another.
The most followed religion is Buddhism, with 33 per cent of the resident population declaring themselves Buddhists at the most recent census compiled by the Singapore Department of Statistics in January 2011. The majority of Malays are adherents of Islam, with a substantial community of Indian Muslims.
Younger Singaporeans tend to combine traditional wisdom with religious beliefs introduced when the British colonized Singapore and brought workers from across Asia. Many areas of the city are multi-ethnic, for example, South Bridge Street is home to the Sri Mariamman Temple, a south Indian Hindu temple that was declared a national historical site in the 1980s, as well as the Masjid Jamae Mosque that originally served Chulia Muslims from India’s Coromandel Coast.
Mixed-race classes and social studies about respective religions helps foster interaction between students of different ethnic backgrounds and the celebration of religious festivals also helps to instill religious tolerance and understanding from a very young age.
This religious enlightenment is evident in the physical sense on the streets of Singapore through the abundance of temples, mosques and churches that provide a tourism opportunity to visitors keen to experience a wealth of religious history through interesting heritage trails that span the world’s great religions, all in the space of a short walk.
Prominent among these landmarks is the Armenian Church of Gregory the Illuminator, the oldest church in Singapore, which dates back to 1835. This was also the first building in Singapore to have an electricity supply when electric fans and lights were installed. Today, the church no longer holds Armenian religious services as the last Armenian priest retired decades ago. Nonetheless, the church and its grounds have been carefully preserved and various orthodox religious services are still held occasionally.
Most Singaporeans celebrate the major festivals associated with their respective religions. The Chinese are predominantly followers of Buddhism and Taoism with some exceptional agnostics. Malays are mostly Muslims and Indians are mostly Hindus but with significant numbers of Muslims and Sikhs from Indian ethnic groups.
Taoist, Confucianist, and Buddhist figures, together with ancestral worship, are combined into a versatile mix in Chinese traditional temples. These three religions have exerted their influence over Chinese culture and traditions since ancient times and it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart when examining Chinese heritage.
A significant sector of the population, specified as 17 per cent of Singaporeans in a 2010 survey, have no religious affiliation. Non-religious Singaporeans are found in various ethnic groups and all walks of life. The Singapore non-religious community itself is very diverse, with many calling themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, theists or skeptics. In addition, there are some people who decline religious labels but still practice traditional rituals like ancestor worship.
Visitors to Singapore will be able to discover monasteries and temples representing all three major branches of Buddhism in Singapore: Theravada; Mahayana; and Vajrayana. Most Buddhists in Singapore are Chinese and are of the Mahayana tradition. However, the Theravada branch of Buddhism has witnessed growing popularity among Singaporeans in the past decade. Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese Buddhist organization, is also followed by many Singaporean Buddhists, mostly by people of Chinese descent. Tibetan Buddhism is also making a slow inroad in recent years.
Nearly all Malays in Singapore are Muslims. According to the Singapore Census of Population 2010: 98.7 per cent of the Malay population was identified as Muslim. There are also Indian Muslims who make up to 22.5 per cent of the Indian population in Singapore.
Christian churches of most denominations have a strong presence in Singapore. They were mainly established after the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles soon after the founding of modern Singapore in 1819. The first Roman Catholic priest came in December 1821 to look into the feasibility of opening a missionary and celebrated the first Mass.
The colonial administration adopted an official policy of neutrality and non-interference regarding religion. Missionaries established churches and Christian ministries on the island. They also set up welfare organizations and many religious schools.
Local-born church leaders gradually took over the running of their ministries. Theological colleges were established to produce the next generation of leaders, and more churches and Christian organizations were set up, resulting in an increase in the proportion of Christians in Singapore today.
The early 19th century saw a wave of immigrants into Singapore from southern India, mostly Tamils, to work as labourers for the British East India Company. These people brought along their religion and culture from their homeland as well. Their arrival saw the building of temples throughout the island in the arresting Dravidian form of architecture, and the beginnings of a vibrant Hindu culture.
Though these workers were mostly responsible for introducing and preserving their religion in their new home, in later times, monetary contributions were made by richer Hindu merchants to upgrade the makeshift shacks that served as their places of worship. The temples also acted to hold the community together, being a source of comfort to those far away in a foreign land.
The first Hindu temple to be erected in Singapore is the Sri Mariamman Temple, which dates back to 1827, and was built by Narayana Pillai, a clerk to Sir Stamford Raffles. It was dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman.
Although Taoist temples and shrines are abundant in Singapore, it has nevertheless not been officially included as a major religion for a number of reasons. It was argued that its numbers had dwindled drastically from 22.4 per cent to 8.5 per cent between 1990 and 2000. This, however, may be accounted for by the unclear delineation between Taoism and Buddhism in popular perception.