Friday, 15 August 2008

Singapore Does God

Creation of AdamUnlike Tony Blair's press secretary who cut famously short a questioner who asked if the Prime Minister's (Catholic) religion influenced his political decisions, Singapore does do God, in increasing numbers.

In 2000, 14.6% of Singaporeans claimed to be Christians, up from 12.7% a decade before. Taoist numbers are falling fast. In 1980, 30% of Singaporeans said they were Taoists, by 1990 it down to 22.4% and just 8.5% in 2000.

In terms of apostasy, Buddhists are holding strong with more than 80% who were born Buddhist staying Buddhist. The survey also claimed it is the fastest growing religion, although I don't immediately see the data for that claim. It does say Buddhism is the top choice among those in search of spirituality, gaining converts among those seeking "time out" from stressed lives. I can believe this: practical life management rather than preachy moral guidance.

If we assume the Muslim population of Singapore is stable (they take a very dim view of apostasy indeed), and Indians similarly, then all this religious chair hopping is going on in the Chinese community.

"There's a leakage from traditional Chinese religions, which don't seem to have the same appeal to younger people,"

according to National University of Singapore sociologist Alexius Pereira.

"Three-quarters of those queried who abandoned Taoism said they felt disconnected to the religion or perceived a "lack of meaning" in following it".

A strong, evangelical Christian attitude is often encountered with Chinese Singaporeans. It's not oppressive, but it has the heart-felt fervour of someone who decided their faith rather than inherited it by default so caution is required. Whether it's invites to parties (that turn out to be Church events), conversations on stock market investments (prayers to lift a sagging stock price), talking about illnesses (group prayer is offered with follow-up offers to join a bible study group), changing jobs (prayers for guidance) or anything sexual (where the good old standbys of gays & lesbians are dangerous topics).

Catholics and Protestants are split 1 third / 2 thirds. There's a Christian (Mormon) seminary near Novena MRT and you often see neat, polite and earnest young men wearing the uniform black trousers, white shirt and sensible tie on their way back to the dormitories at Woodlands. Mostly Americans with a refreshingly unabashed attitude to speaking to strangers on the train, something locals never, ever, ever do.

My favourite God conversation so far was with a near neighbour (Chinese) who declared she was "Catholic. Not Christian, Catholic.". It's somehow reassuring that in adopting Christian beliefs, locals have digested the full-fat version complete with inter-denominational prejudice and two millennia of schism.