Christian Identities in Singapore: Religion, Race and Culture between State Controls and Transnational Flows

Article excerpt

Christianity in Singapore is caught between the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand it is compelled (like all other religions practised in Singapore) to conform to the state's controls (most obviously in the form of the 'Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act', but also implicitly or explicitly spelt out in various policies on religious space and practices, multiculturalism, and even matters of financial governance and accountability). On the other hand, Christianity (unlike religions with a traditional racial association such as Islam with the Malays, and Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese practices with the Chinese) is also seen as a religion associated with 'outside' or 'Western' cultural influences, one which is obliged to grow its community of adherents at the expense of one of the other race-based religions. This positioning obliges Christianity in Singapore to constantly rationalize and adapt its processes on two fronts, simultaneously to locate itself within the nation as a rooted aspect of the national community, and also to capitalize on its global networks and its affinities to capitalist modernity. In this sense, it constantly has to undergo a version of what Aihwa Ong calls a 'flexible' positioning, creating (or at least appearing to create) a "modernity without deracination" (1999, p. 52). This paper examines some of the key characteristics of this positioning, particularly Christianity's establishment of the discourses and practices of national 'values' such as the Asian family, interfaith dialogue and concerned social development.

Keywords: Christianity; Singapore: race/ethnicity; cultural landscape; policy

State constraints on and regulations of religious practices in Singapore

In Singapore, religion and race are often very closely intertwined, so that the policy and governance affecting the one also, to varying extents, affect the other. As various scholars have noted, Singapore's multicultural policy works through "a process of simplification and symbolic representation" (Chua 1998, p. 190), through which "race becomes 'highly politicized' as an essential ideological category" (Clammer 1998, p. 49). The example that is often quoted is that of the 'mother tongue' language policy: students who are Singaporeans or Permanent Residents are required to study one of the three official mother tongues of Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, although students may appeal to substitute Urdu, Hindi, Gujerati or another such language in place of Tamil (Ministry of Education, 'Mother Tongue Language Policy'). The policy thus has the effect of reinforcing a simplification of race into the 'official' categories; racial identity is pegged on cultural practice (in this case, the learning and use of a 'mother tongue'), so that to be Chinese is to speak Mandarin, and to speak Mandarin is 'Chineseness'.

A similar type of symmetrical identification is obtained with regard to many aspects of the cultural practice of religion in Singapore, where according to the 2000 census of the population approximately 42% of the resident population is Buddhist, just under 15% Muslim, 14% each Christian and professing no religion, 8% Taoist, and 4% Hindu (Department of Statistics 2000a, p. 1). The 2000 census revealed "a strong correlation among ethnicity, home language and ... religion among the Malays and Indians", where "almost all Malay-speaking residents were Muslims while most Tamil-speaking residents were Hindus" (Department of Statistics 2000a, p. 7). Virtually all Malays were Muslims. While Indians practised three main religions--Hinduism, Islam and Christianity--there was a remarkable degree of stability in terms of the distribution of religions within the Indian community from 1980 to 2000, with Hinduism only changing from 56 to 55%, in that period, Islam from 22 to 25% and Christianity remained at 12% (Department of Statistics 2000a, p. 4). This type of statistical stability, where it is obtained, is reinforced by the cultural segmentation within communities: the consistency of Hindu Indians rests largely on the perpetuation of that religion in Tamil-speaking Indian households, who constituted 75% of Hindu adherents--a figure which hardly changed from 1990 to 2000. …