Religions in Singapore
By Rekha Guruswamy

If you are new to Singapore, one of the first things you will notice about the country is how diverse its citizens are. As a multi-religious nation, Singapore is a rare but living example of how people from diverse ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds can co-exist peacefully, while practicing their own religion. In fact, freedom of worship is enshrined in Singapore's constitution as one of the nation's top priorities.

From a very early age, Singaporean children are nurtured to participate in harmony outreach programmes and understand each other‘s customs and practices. Mdm Adeline Tso, Principal at Praiseland Childcare and Learning Centre said, "We encourage our children to see, hear, taste and experience the essence of our Singaporean culture." Everybody looks forward to Deepavali, Hari Raya, Vesak Day and Christmas (major festivals celebrated here) with equal fervour.  

Singapore is home to 10 religions, with Buddhism/Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity as its principal religions. Sikhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Baha'I, Jainism and the non-religious form the minority cluster. It is common to see people accepting more than one faith. Mdm Ying Neng York, a donation volunteerand Buddhist by faith, is one such person. When asked why she lights incense sticks outside the Hindu temple every day, she said,"I have a lot of faith in this temple. It brings me good luck."

Etiquette to observe at places of worship in Singapore:

  1. Remove footwear before entering mosques and temples
  2. Hindus wash their feet and hands at the entrance area
  3. Some mosques and Sikh temples provide robes and scarves for female visitors. Hindu temples expect women to wear long attire below the waist
  4. Buddhists and Hindus bring along flowers and fruits as offerings for gods, and burn incense sticks or lamps
  5. Benches are provided for sitting at the prayer hall in churches, while temple and mosque goers sit on mats placed on the ground and kneel down for prayer.
  6. Taking photographs is allowed unless specified otherwise
  7. Eating and drinking is usually prohibited
  8. Some devotees sponsor free food to fellow devotees on special occasions

Major religions here
More than three-fifths of Singapore's population subscribe to Buddhism. The Chinese Mahayana Buddhism is the most prevalent form here. Followers of Buddhism practice teachings of Morality, Concentration and Wisdom. Fengshui, which is the art and science of evoking positive energy, is all part of this religion. The largest Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temple in Singapore is the Kong Meng San Phor Kar See Monastery. Buddhism in Singapore is regulated by the Singapore Buddhist Federation. Other organisations such as the Pu Tuo Monastery help people set up businesses such as vegetarian restaurants, art galleries, gift shops, and specialist Buddhist shops offering religious artefacts. Others like Tzu Chi and Kwan Im Welfare Society and The Metta Welfare operate free mobile clinics and other services all over the island to serve the elderly.

Followers of Taoism adhere to the teachings of the ancient Chinese religious philosophy of Lao Tzu. It believes in respecting heaven, worshipping ancestors and being compassionate to all under heaven. Devotees make regular offerings of food and burn joss stick/paper in memory of those who have passed away. The concept of Yin Yang is derived from this religion. Thian Hock Keng, or the Temple of Heavenly Happiness, was built in 1842 in honour of the Sea Goddess Mazu. It is the one of the oldest Taoist temples in Singapore.

The most important Chinese festivals are Lunar New Year, Qingming Festival, Vesak Day, Hungry Ghost Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival. 

Followers of Islam profess to the teachings of Allah conveyed by Prophet Muhammad from the scriptural revelations of Quran, which contains wisdom of the past suitably blended with pointers for the future.

Sixteen percent of Singapore's population believes in Islam, with the majority being Malays. The Majlis Ugama Islam Singapore (MUIS) is the supreme Islamic religious authority in Singapore. Other than building and administering mosques and coordinating the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, it looks after all the religious, social and welfare needs of Singaporean Muslims  Masjid Sultan is one of the oldest mosques in Singapore. The most prominent Islamic face of Singapore is Mr Yusof bin Ishak, the first President of Singapore, whose portrait is imprinted on currency notes that are still widely used today.

Christians follow the teachings of Jesus, the Son of God. The life of Jesus, his message, suffering, death on a cross and resurrection are recorded in the Bible. Believers accept Jesus as their Messiah. The Armenian Church, the oldest Christian church in Singapore was completed in 1835. Christian churches of all denominations including Catholics and Protestants can be found in Singapore. Services are conducted in many languages during the day for the benefit of various nationalities.

The Roman Catholic population in Singapore comprises of Eurasians, Chinese, Peranakans and Indians. There are about 30 Catholic churches around the island. The Catholic Church is under the jurisdiction of the Holy See in Rome, and runs several schools and special homes. Protestant churches also hold many counselling services and anti-drug abuse programmes.

Followers of Hinduism – the oldest religion in the world – believe that the supreme God takes various forms as ‘Brahma' the Creator, ‘Vishnu' the Preserver and ‘Shiva' the destroyer. The most popular manifestations of God worshipped in Singapore are Ganesha, Rama, Krishna, Murgan, Hanuman, Durga, Mariamman, Lakshmi. The style and medium of discourse here is South Indian. The bulk of 30 temples is managed and administered by the Hindu Endowments Board and the Hindu Advisory Board. Sri Mariamman Temple, established in 1827, is the oldest temple in Singapore. Every day, holy priests perform rituals at temples and chant ancient Vedic scriptures. Major Hindu festivals are Deepavali, Thaipusam, Navratri and Tamil New Year.

There are about 15,000 Sikhs and seven Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in Singapore. Jews number around 300 and have two synagogues.

Important religious occasions
Lunar New Year
The Lunar calendar is based on a combination of lunar-solar movements. It begins on the first day of New Moon after English New Year and ends on the full moon 15 days later. Family, friends and companies exchange cards and gift items of symbolic meanings, such as mandarin oranges and hong baos (red packets) to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

On the eve of Lunar New Year, families usually gather for the reunion dinner. Every dish or food consumed has symbolic meaning. It is believed that staying awake all night will bring longevity for your parents. Auspicious colours such as red and gold are popular during the Lunar New year period. White and black are best avoided. Hong baos  are given to children containing even amounts of cash. It is also generally considered inauspicious to mention words like ‘death' during Lunar New Year; instead, words like ‘prosperity' and ‘wealth' are preferred.

Hari Raya Haji
The festival of pilgrimage or Haj is probably the most important journey in the life of a devout Muslim. The fifth tenet of Islam requires all Muslims to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. Hari Raya Haji is celebrated on the tenth day of the Zulhijjah month to commemorate this religious occasion, and to honour pilgrims who have completed their Haj to Mecca.

Hari Raya Puasa
Hari Raya Puasa is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, which is the Muslim month of fasting and alms-giving. During the month of fasting, the Muslim community here attends carnivals at the Geylang Serai area, where stalls sell traditional Malay food and clothes.

Vesak Day
It is the day that the Buddha was born and 35 years later rose to self-awakening. The most important festival of the Buddhists comes on the first full moon day in May, except in a leap year when the festival is held in June.

The Festival of Lights marks the victory of good over evil when Lord Rama returned home after emerging victorious from defeating demon Ravana.  During Deepavali, the entire Little India district is colourfully lit and decorated. Bazaars are crowded with stalls selling greeting cards, traditional food and drinks, home decoration articles, traditional wear, sparklers, oil lamps, incense, statues of deities and other paraphernalia for altars.

Christmas is the celebration of the birth of God's son, Jesus Christ, and is celebrated on 25 December as a ‘day of peace'. Today, Christmas is no longer a festival celebrated by only Christians as Singaporeans generally embrace the spirit of giving at this time of the year. Traditions of having turkey for Christmas dinners and singing Christmas carols are practised by many, while Christmas trees and elaborate decorations can be seen at most shopping malls every year.