|Singapore Table of Contents
Temples and Festivals
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.
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. These occasions included the lunar New Year (in January or February), a festival of renewal and family solidarity; Qing Ming (Ching Ming in Wade-Giles romanization), 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.
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.
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.
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 and Ethnicity
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.
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.
The Singapore Muslim Religious Council (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura) played a very important role in the organization of Islamic affairs and therefore of the Malay community. Authorized by the 1966 Administration of Muslim Law Act, the council, composed of members nominated by Muslim societies but appointed by the president of Singapore, was formally a statutory board that advised the president on all matters relating to the Muslim religion. It acted to centralize and standardize the practice of Islam. The council administered all Muslim trusts (wafs); organized a computerized and centralized collection of tithes and obligatory gifts (zakat harta and zakat fitrah); and managed all aspects of the pilgrimage to Mecca, including registering pilgrims, obtaining Saudi Arabian visas, and making airline reservations. The council also helped the government reorganize the mosque system after redevelopment. Before the massive redevelopment and rehousing of the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore's Muslims were served by about ninety mosques, many of which had been built and were funded and managed by local, sometimes ethnically based, communities. Redevelopment destroyed both the mosques and the communities that had supported them, scattering the people through new housing estates. The council, in consultation with the government, decided not to rebuild the small mosques but to replace them with large central mosques. Construction funds came from a formally voluntary contribution collected along with the Central Provident Fund deduction paid by all employed Muslims. The new central mosques could accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 persons and provided such services as kindergartens, religious classes, family counseling, leadership and community development classes, tuition and remedial instruction for school children, and Arabic language instruction.
The government had regulated Muslim marriages and divorces since 1880, and the 1957 Muslim Ordinance authorized the establishment of the centralized Sharia Court, with jurisdiction over divorce and inheritance cases. The court, under the Ministry of Community Development, replaced a set of government-licensed but otherwise unsupervised kathi (Islamic judges) who had previously decided questions of divorce and inheritance, following either the traditions of particular ethnic groups or their own interpretations of Muslim law. The court attempted to consistently enforce sharia law, standard Islamic law as set out in the Quran and the decisions of early Muslim rulers and jurists, and to reduce the high rate of divorce among Malays. In 1989 the Singapore Muslim Religious Council took direct control of the subjects taught in Islamic schools and of the Friday sermons given at all mosques.
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.
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.
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. The government restricted the activities of some Christian groups, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses who opposed military service, and in 1987 the government detained a group of Roman Catholic social activists, accusing them of using church organizations as cover for a Marxist plot. The charismatic and fundamentalist Protestant groups, though generally apolitical and focused on individuals, aroused official anxiety through their drive for more converts. Authorities feared that Christian proselytization directed at the Malays would generate resentment, tensions, and possible communal conflict. As early as 1974 the government had "advised" the Bible Society of Singapore to stop publishing materials in Malay. In late 1988 and early 1989, a series of leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, condemned "insensitive evangelization" as a serious threat to racial harmony. Official restatements of the virtue of and necessity for religious tolerance were mixed with threats of detention without trial for religious extremists.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress