Singapore is a secular country (i.e. there is a formal and deliberate separation between Church and State), although this is not to say that it is an irreligious or religiously intolerant society. In fact, the goal of religious cooperation has been enshrined in Singapore law with the enactment in 1990 of the Religious Harmony Act. The aim of the act was two-fold: to prevent political activity being conducted under the guise of religion; and to ensure that religious ill-will could not be created by the actions of aggressively evangelical groups (a growing problem throughout the 1970s and 1980s). The implementation of the Act has consequently seen three religious groups banned in Singapore: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Unification Church and the Divine Light Mission.
The world’s major religions are all practised in Singapore and so there is an abundance of places of worship and like-minded communities throughout the island. In round terms, the Singapore population’s religious affiliation is as follows: Buddhist 33%; Christian 18%; Muslim 15%; Taoist 11%; Hindu 5%; and other religions 1%. About 17% of the population classify themselves as being of no religious faith.
Although at the time of its original settlement Singapore was divided up into ‘ethnic’ quarters which still exist, at least in name, today, there are no religious boundaries in the city (although it is probably fair to say that religious adherence is still largely based on ethnicity). This means that you can find places of worship of all types – often side by side – in just about any district throughout Singapore (although this is not necessarily the case with the religions that are less widely practised) and that Singapore embraces all of the major religious festivals, so you can usually count on finding a religious celebration of some description taking place somewhere in the city at almost any time throughout the year.
Buddhism has had a long history in the region (from around the 7th century), while in more recent times many of the early Chinese immigrants to Singapore practised the faith, with the first Buddhist monastery being built in the city in 1903. In 1925 the influential Chinese Buddhist Association was founded and interest in the faith amongst the Chinese population continued to grow. The period after the Second World War saw an increase in the importance of Chinese Buddhism, particularly as a result of its many charitable and education projects during the rebuilding period. About a third of Singapore’s population today considers itself to be of the Buddhist faith (generally adhering to the Mahayana stream) and it is becoming increasingly important for many young people in the country.
The most significant Buddhist temple in Singapore is probably the Buddha Tooth Temple (288 South Bridge Road), home to many Buddhist holy relics including the somewhat controversial tooth of the Buddha, the veracity of which continues to be debated. Other important places of worship are the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple (88 Bright Hill Road) and the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple (366 Race Course Road).
Christianity has been present in Singapore throughout its modern history, and the first church was built in the city in 1836 (the Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator, now known simply as the Armenian Church, at 60 Hill Street). Protestant missionaries from Britain and the United States had begun working in the region at the beginning of the 19th century (an important part of their work being the establishment of mission schools, a number of which are still in existence), while Roman Catholicism in Singapore has its roots in the Portuguese in Malacca . As well as the Anglican and Catholic faiths, Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Assemblies of God, the Salvation Army, the YMCA and the Baptist Church had all established a presence in Singapore before the outbreak of the Second World War. After the war, the number of Christians in Singapore began to increase, perhaps as a results of the Christian churches’ increased emphasis on the use of vernacular language and the high public profiles of a number of Christians who had assumed leading roles in civic life. Today, around 18% of Singaporeans consider themselves to be of the Christian faith.
Currently, around 65 Christian denominations have places of worship in Singapore, totalling some 500 churches, while there continue to be many mission schools, kindergartens and child care facilities run by Church organisations. Other notable places of worship in the city include the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (Queen Street), the Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral (11 St Andrew’s Road) and the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church (235 Telok Ayer Street).
There have been Muslim communities in Singapore since the beginning of the 19th century, although the influence of Islam in the wider region can be traced back as far as the 7th century. The first mosque in the city was founded in 1823 by Muslim traders on Havelock Road, followed by the Sultan Mosque in 1826, both of which are still in existence today. The majority of Muslims in Singapore today are Malays, although there are also Indian, Arab and Pakistani Muslim communities as well. Like most other Muslim communities in the region, the majority of Muslims in Singapore are Sunni and adhere to the Shafi’i School.
The Sultan Mosque (3 Muscat Street) and the surrounding streets remain the focal point of Muslim life in Singapore (as has been the case since the time of Raffles), and during the holy month of Ramadan, Bussorah and Kandahar Streets are particularly enticing places to visit, as they are awash in the evenings with people and stalls selling a variety of exotic and local foods. Other significant places of worship include: the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque (41 Dunlop Street); the Al Abrar Mosque (192 Telok Ayer Street); the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque (4001 Beach Road); the Jamae Mosque (218 South Bridge Road); and the Malabar Muslim Jama-Ath Mosque (471 Victoria Street).
It is generally considered that Taoism first appeared in Singapore in about 1821, with the construction of Thian Hock Keng Temple, although its presence in the wider region is thought by some to date back to the 15th century. As the number of Chinese immigrants to Singapore grew during the 19th century, there was a rapid increase in the number of adherents to Taoism and a growing number of Taoist temples, and even as late as the 1980s Taoism was considered to be Singapore’s main religion. However, the numbers of Taoists has been falling fairly rapidly since this time, although it is thought that the official numbers provided by recent censuses are not accurate, as some Chinese do not make a clear distinction between Taosim and Buddhism. Currently, about 11% of Singaporeans define themselves as Taoist, although there is an active campaign by the Taoist Mission (Singapore) to promote the faith and the Taoist spirit as part of traditional Chinese values.
The most significant Chinese Temple in Singapore is Thian Hock Keng Temple (158 Telok Ayer Street) and it is also the most visually brilliant. It was built entirely from materials imported from China and Europe and without the use of nails, and features exotic carvings and stunning granite pillars. Example of the confluence in the minds of some between Taoism and Buddhism can be found in the Yueh Hai Ching Temple (30B Phillip Street) and Tou Mu Kung Temple (779A Upper Serangoon Road), where the influences of both faiths can clearly be discerned.
Hindu workers first established a community in Singapore in the 19th century, although it is thought that Hinduism was first brought to Singapore and the region by Indian traders over a thousand years ago. Singapore’s Hindu population might be relatively small, but its numbers have remained constant for a significant period of time and look to remain stable into the future. Although Tamils have traditionally been the most significant group within the Singapore Hindu community, other groups have nevertheless managed to maintain a presence in the city. The Singapore Hindu community is especially visible during the festivals of Thimithi and Deepvali (October/November), when colourful processions and fire-walking ceremonies take place, and bright lights are lit and displayed all over the city.
Singapore has twenty-four Hindu temples, most constructed and brightly decorated in the Dravidian style. The most significant of these are the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (141 Serangoon Road), built in 1855 and dedicated to the Goddess Kali; the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple (15 Tank Road); the Sri Srinivasa Temple (397 Serangoon Road); and the Sri Mariamman Temple (South Bridge Road), where the climax of the Thimithi Festival takes place.
Singapore’s Sikh population numbers around 15,000 and there are seven Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in the city, including the Central Sikh Gurdwara (2 Towner Road) and the Silat Road Sikh Temple (8 Jalan Bukit Merah). Singapore’s Jewish population of around 300 people is served by two synagogues; the Chesed-El Synagogue (2 Oxley Rise) and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue (24/26 Waterloo Street).