097: Asia: A Colorful, Singaporean Model of Religious Harmony

This week, we’re in the midst of a special ASIA SERIES: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7. Here’s today’s Part 6 …

One amazing night in Singapore, I looked into the faces of many gods — and, even more importantly, into the faces of thousands of people celebrating their widely diverse faiths on a single narrow street in the heart of this island-nation’s famous Chinatown district.
    In that moment, I wished that I somehow could have packed all of our ReadTheSpirit readers onto airplanes and ushered all of you into this vibrant corner of Singapore — because this is a glimpse of what spiritual globalization could become if people welcome and carefully plan for this inevitable cultural wave.
    These thousands of people who had immigrated to Singapore from dozens of countries around the world had converged peacefully and joyously on this street where an immense mosque, a vast Hindu temple and a huge Buddhist shrine all thrive shoulder to shoulder amidst shops, restaurants and apartments.
    The night I visited this corner of the globe, the celebrations spilled into the streets. Hindu and Muslim pairs of shoes, left behind as worshipers stepped into their sacred precincts, were piled up along the sidewalk within sight of the brightly lit Chinese New Year’s decorations spread out along the same street by Buddhists.

    WANT TO SEE what I’m talking about? The video clip below is just one tiny moment in one house of worship: the towering Sri Mariamman Temple, a Hindu landmark in Singapore for nearly two centuries. The temple is the oldest of the Hindu temples in Singapore and is the spiritual home to immigrant families from India.
    In the online version of this story, CLICK on the video screen that appears below to watch a small portion of a procession that evening. (OR, if you’re reading this story via Email, CLICK HERE, and you’ll jump to YouTube, where you can view the video clip on that page.)



    THEN, in the next clip, you’ll glimpse just a few moments of a lengthy Buddhist service that evening. This gorgeously decorated Buddhist temple in Chinatown is fascinating because it’s so new. While the Hindu temple and the mosque are historic landmarks, the Buddhists felt sufficiently at home in Sinagpore’s diverse religious environment to build their own major new facility on the same narrow street.
    Because Singapore officially encourages religious and cultural diversity — from the government to the grassroots of the country — the opening of the temple last May included an elaborately decorated processional route through the streets. More than 100 brightly lit dragons were positioned along the two-kilometer-long route.

    FOR A GLIMPSE inside the Buddhist temple, CLICK on the video screen that appears below. (Or, if you can’t see the screen in your version of this story, CLICK HERE, and you’ll jump to YouTube to view it.)


    Now, if you know much about the island-nation of Singapore, you’re probably already saying to yourself: Yes, this may seem wonderful, BUT this kind of colorful community only exists because Singapore is virtually a dictatorship run by a one-party political system with strict government controls that Americans would never accept!
    That is one critique that observers have voiced about Singapore’s system. This isn’t the place to argue, in detail, about the island-nation’s political system — except to say that, yes, Singapore’s constitution allows far more top-down social-engineering by the government than would ever be allowed in the U.S.


    For example: The vast majority of families live in government-owned apartment complexes (like the one shown at right that’s decorated for the Chinese New Year). In these complexes, families purchase their flats from the government in an arrangement similar to American condominiums. However, there’s one big social-engineering exception in Singapore’s housing developments: The total number of flats in each apartment complex must be sold proportionate to the country’s ethnic mix. So, ethnic-Chinese families many of whom have Buddhist or Taoist traditions are required, by law, to live next to Indian-Hindu families and Muslim families who migrated from countries like Malaysia.
    In other words, by law, every neighborhood becomes a mini-United Nations.

    In addition, acts of ethnic bias are strictly discouraged, mainly by Singapore’s news media, where journalists are infamous for splashing violators’ names and photos across the front page. Plus, there’s more to fear than public embarrassment. Hate speech is illegal and is vigorously prosecuted.

    Official encouragement of cultural and religious diversity doesn’t stop there. Well-heeled government ministries produce countless programs to encourage diversity — including helping with the dragon-lantern launch of the new Buddhist temple last year. Beyond that, ministries produce gorgeously designed, full-color booklets that guide first-time visitors through various houses of worship. Performances and exhibitions are sponsored. And there’s even official funding to help groups that, in the U.S., would limp along with nonprofit status. For instance, there’s a growing “kindness” movement in Singapore that encourages this kind of diversity and is fueled in its efforts by government-funded publication of its inspirational paperback books.

    Obviously, the Singaporean system would never even be considered in the United States, where our constitutional protections prevent government meddling in religious issues. But, around the world, people are searching for new models of religious diversity and Singapore presents an example that appears more healthy than, say, military enforcement of religious segregation as happens in some countries.


    One remarkable result of the Singaporean involvement in religious life is that the government, while notoriously strict, takes a novel approach toward any religious zealots who may be convicted of crimes as serious as encouraging terrorism. In the U.S., anyone convicted of such a crime seems to be regarded as beyond rehabilitation. Our legal system tends to regard such people as so badly twisted in their outlook on life that there is little chance of reformation.
    In Singapore, the greater attention to religious social engineering has led the government to fund an extensive rehabilitation program, even for people convicted of encouraging terrorism. In Singapore, such a conviction now may be followed by a years-long process of counseling by religious scholars who work with both the inmate and the inmate’s family to try to turn around the twisted religious assumptions.

    While in Singapore, the small group of journalists traveling with the East-West Center had a chance to discuss these matters with George Yeo, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs — the equivalent to  America’s Secretary of State. Yeo granted us a lengthy audience and was eager to talk about these experiments. Originally, our meeting was “off the record,” as most such high-level briefings are for journalists. But, by the end of our long conversation, Yeo said that these issues were so important that we could quote him from the notes we had jotted during our meeting.
    Regarding the pioneering program of trying to rehabilitate convicted terrorist sympathizers and their families, Yeo said this idea arose because Muslim scholars argued persuasively to government officials that “these men had a very perverted sense of what Islam is.” That means they possibly can be turned around, Yeo argued. He declined to discuss specific cases, but he said these teams of Muslim scholars are “succeeding in only a few cases, not in all cases.”

    Nevertheless, the experiment is extremely important, Yeo said. “We could see that these were men possessed, so what should we do with them? … We recognize that this is a struggle for the hearts, minds and souls of individuals. We cannot reach every one, but if we can turn one around — he is worth more than a whole police department.”
    Yeo said Singapore’s governmental attention to diversity reflects a sophisticated vision of the social pressures building around the world as countries become more culturally diverse.
    “The kind of harmony we are talking about is not a natural state,” Yeo said. “It is something we must work on—on a daily basis, every day. … All the time, in everything we do, we worry about this concern. Any committee you form, any board you form, we pay attention to these issues.”

    At ReadTheSpirit, the 10th of our 10 founding principles is: “Peace is possible,” which means that we encourage the search for models that will foster peace in diverse communities. We believe that, eventually, it is possible for people to find models that will produce healthy, strong, peaceful communities with richly diverse religious cultures.
    Singapore’s model won’t work in the U.S., obviously, but at this point it’s an intriguing model whose many individual elements are worth exploring further!


NOTE: This series was published in early 2008 and continues to draw readers, years later. ReadTheSpirit online magazine has moved through several redesigns and expansions, in those years. Some of the typography and page design of this series may appear slightly askew, due to changes in online templates. However, the entire text of the series remains as published. Please email us at [email protected] with questions or comments.

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