Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

'Hinduism' and 'Taoism' in Singapore: Seeing Points of Convergence

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

'Hinduism' and 'Taoism' in Singapore: Seeing Points of Convergence

Article excerpt


In Singapore today, the labels 'Hinduism' and 'Taoism' are official, administrative census categories denoting named and differentiated religions as well as markers of individual religious affiliation. Yet, these terms also have complicated histories that take them beyond the local context, and connect them to the development of religious thought and practice in India and China, respectively. In the history of colonial British Malaya, racial and religious categories had served to classify and profile a plural and segmented population, facilitating the task of governance and administration. The label 'Hinduism' was used in colonial discourse in such a manner, both in India and in British Malaya. However, the label 'Taoism' is a relative latecomer, having being introduced into local religious discourse only in the 1980s. By now, in the multireligious yet secular context of the Singapore nation-state, they are firmly embedded in everyday discourse and consciousness as two religious options that Singaporeans use to signal their religious identities. The local multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic scene is still defined by attention to racial and religious differences, important as primordial attachment and as a policy of governance.

The argument of this paper unfolds thus: I begin by documenting the meanings the labels 'Hinduism' and 'Taoism' carry locally and highlight the complexities and ambiguities in discussions that invoke them. I then turn to the organisational domain to document how 'Hindu' and 'Taoist' institutions have talked about their respective religions in the public sphere; how they both face pressures to modernise in order to be relevant, tracking the routes the two communities have taken to achieve their goals. Such a focus allows me to demonstrate overlaps in the articulations and efforts with respect to the future of these two religious traditions and to reflect on the sociological implications of the noted parallels and convergences.

Contextualising the labels 'Taoism' and 'Hinduism'

The first census of independent Singapore was held in 1970, when the sociocultural dimension of the population was captured via data on ethnic groups, dialect groups and languages spoken, but with no data on religious affiliation. The next census of 1980 is historically important for a first-time religious profiling of Singaporeans. (1) Data on the size and strength of religious communities, including rejection of religion and thus shifts in religiosity have become a regular feature in population censuses since then. The 1980 census is further marked by its boldness in providing a set of concepts and definitions of 'religion' and seven religious options under this category. 'Religion' is defined as the faith or spiritual belief as stated by the person regardless of how faithfully he practises it. (2)

The seven choices for respondents aged 10 years or more are listed as: Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Other Religions and No Religion. (3) For present purposes, I refer only to the offered definitions of 'Taoism' and 'Hinduism'. The former is defined thus: 'This refers to persons who state that they believe in the philosophy of Confucius, Mencius or Lao Zi. Those believing in ancestor worship and in various Chinese deities are also included in this category.'

The 1980 definition of religion continued in the 1990 and 2000 censuses and the seven options remained; interestingly, the reports no longer carried their definitions. In 1990, a notable change is that the description 'Chinese Traditional Beliefs' is pegged to the category 'Taoism'. The timing of this double-barrelling exercise merits notice, given that it coincides with a strong wave of reform Buddhism signalling its presence on the island. The expanded category of 'Chinese Traditional Beliefs' / Taoism is an effort to delimit its boundaries and, more importantly, differentiate it from a new kind of 'Buddhism' which distances itself from such elements as ancestor worship, aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese folk beliefs, worship of spirits and deities, spiritmedium cults, mystical, superstitious and ritualised practices - all of which would constitute a syncretic mix of 'traditional Chinese religion'. …

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