Increasing reports of insensitive evangelism have irked many Singaporeans and raised fears about a possible backlash.
STEREOTYPED as a society that only worships money, Singapore is surprisingly seeing a surge of religiosity – or simply put, too much religion.
This exuberance is, however, confined to a small segment of fundamentalist Christians, and appears out of line with most materialistic Singaporeans.
The Christian community makes up 17% of the people, while Buddhists and Taoists form a majority 51%, and Muslims, 16%.
But in recent years there has been a surge of born-again Christianity. These include bible-quoting evangelists who gather in city squares and MRT stations, persistently striving to convert the public, including followers of other faiths.
Others work in schools, polytechnics and hospitals, even among patients.
A major concern, however, is their targeting of schools, a melting pot of different cultures, races and religions, trying to convert impressionable teenagers.
Young men in their 30s, usually working in pairs, would approach students outside the school compound to talk about God.
The kids would be asked for their cell-phone numbers, and those who comply may find themselves harassed by persistent SMS invitations to attend services.
Another worry is the belittling of other religions, which could spark off friction.
A university lecturer who accompanied her mother, a dementia victim, received more than a blood test at a hospital, when the evangelising nurse asked about her mother's religion.
When she replied "Buddhist" she was told to go to church because "it'll be good for you".
In a recent high profile trial, a Christian couple were jailed eight weeks under the Sedition Act for distributing and possessing anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic tracts.
The two – SingTel technical officer Ong Kian Cheong, 50, and a Swiss bank associate director, Dorothy Chan Hien Leng, 46 – have appealed against conviction.
The intent was to convince Muslims to convert to Christianity by using inflammatory and misleading information, the court heard.
Bizarrely, they hit Catholics even harder, describing the Pope as Satan.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has named religious divide as potentially one of the biggest threats to social order.
"Don't mix religion with politics", warned Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng. He said that the Government would intervene if any activism threatens Singapore's social fabric.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has advised people to manage their differences, saying: "If you push your argument too hard, there'll be others who push back."
These comments came as emotions ran high over the failed takeover of AWARE, a social body, by members of a small fundamentalist church apparently in pursuit of their religious beliefs.
The vast majority of Christians work within the framework of this multi-religious society, conscious and tolerant of other ancient religions.
They attend church once a week and return home to their families without trying to convert followers of other faiths.
The increasing reports of insensitive evangelism have irked many Singaporeans and have worried the majority of non-activist Christians about a possible backlash.
Evangelism notwithstanding, Singapore remains a stable, tolerant society where any hint of extremism is deeply resented.
Some 85% of Singaporeans profess having a religion, probably including many nominal believers, while atheists make up the other 15%.
There is, however, an anomaly among the younger set.
Singapore is a tightly competitive society and a rat race for its citizens, from a very young age. The result is the emergence of youths who know very little about religion.
From comments in a survey, prominent educator Phyllis Chew said she was surprised to hear such comments about Islam – "their marriages take place in the void deck" – and Buddhism – "it's about filial piety".
It was conducted among 2800 students, aged 12-18. Chew said it showed that while 76% were tolerant of other religions, their idea of tolerance was "not talking about it".
"A lack of knowledge of different faiths is a potentially unstable situation," she said, calling for a revival of religious teaching in schools.
The recession, one of the worst in Singapore's history, appears to be making Singaporeans a little bit more religious, too.
"I pray harder in these times, although my job is not affected this time," said a 25-year-old Singaporean as unemployment rose to the highest in three years.
"I'm praying for my fiance, that his job is safe," she said. They were planning to wed and feared retrenchment.
Attendance in churches, temples and mosques has generally risen as Singaporeans turn more to religion for comfort.
"People might experience depression and socio-psychological problems worrying about work, Alexius Pereira, sociologist at the National University of Singapore," told Reuters.
"It is through such worries that they turn to religion."
How effective is modern evangelism? When it comes to numbers, it is the born again Christians who are proportionately the biggest gainers.
The reason is less their aggressive evangelism than the lure of educated youths by their glitz and modern church operations. The gain has, however, been slow and gradual.
Occasionally followers do switch, and it has nothing to do with educational levels. Neither are changes one-sided.
Chinese have switched to become Muslims, and Hindus to Buddhists. Only the Malays stay largely with their faith.
There is another reason why many adult Singaporeans – especially those who are ageing – turn to religion.
After accumulating sufficient money for retirement, Singaporeans – however materialistic – often begin to turn their thoughts to the after-life.
A bit is kiasuism may be at work, too.
I once asked a housewife who likes to play the jackpot machine, why she had not embraced a religion. Her reply: "I'm waiting till I am older and closer to death."
Sources and Relevant Links:
The Star Jitters over religion hard sell 20 June 2009