New immigrants add to diversity within religions but present challenges
By Yen Feng
IN THE last few years, the impact of immigration has been felt deeply by average Singaporeans: in rising housing prices, and more crowded trains, buses and shopping malls.
But not much attention has been paid to how immigration is changing the social and religious fabric of life here.
This is where the recent census gives a good snapshot, as well as shed light on an emerging trend of greater diversity within religious groups.
Overall, the census shows a Singapore society that remains fairly stable in both its racial and religious composition.
All four main ethnic groups - Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others - kept within two percentage points from 2000 figures.
The religious composition of residents in Singapore - 'residents' comprising Singapore citizens as well as permanent residents (PRs) - also held relatively steady.
The only group to see a sharp drop were the Buddhists, who fell from 42.5 per cent to 33.3 per cent of the total resident population over the 10-year period. The fall was made up for by a slight rise in other religions, and in the number who said they were non-religious.
Scratch a little deeper and you can trace the way immigration and the influx of people from different nationalities and cultures - and faith practices - is changing Singapore.
Take, for example, Christians. This group formed 14.6 per cent of the total resident proportion in 2000. Last year, it was 18.3 per cent.
But the rise in the number of Christians was sharper among permanent residents here than among citizens. In 2000, 16.9 per cent of permanent residents were Christian. Last year, the figure was 23.4 per cent.
Among citizens, the proportion who were Christians also rose but less sharply: from 14.4 per cent in 2000, to 17.5 per cent last year.
Among citizens, the proportion of Hindus remained stable at 3.4 per cent. Among PRs, however, the proportion of Hindus rose from 9.7 per cent to 14.8 per cent over the last decade. Foreign-born Hindus now make up nearly half of all Hindus here. Ten years ago, it was one in four.
What this means is that there is now greater diversity within particular religious and racial groups, as a result of immigration.
Singaporeans have grown up understanding that Singapore is a multivariate society and that people here must be tolerant of those of different races and religions. But as the census figures show, the influx of new immigrants is adding another layer to the tapestry of multiracial and multireligious Singapore.
It is no longer enough to be tolerant of different religions; it is now also important to be accommodating and tolerant of those with the same religion, but who hail from different lands.
There is thus a need to introduce a new multicultural lens through which to view Singapore, on top of the usual multiracial and multireligious lens.
This requires religious leaders here not only to work hard to foster harmony among those of different faiths, but also to strive to foster harmony among those within the same faith. Differences within religions have become as pertinent as the differences between them.
Already, the talk among religious and community leaders these days is not whether Hindus and Muslims can get along, but whether Hindus from India, and Hindus from Singapore can.
It is about whether Muslims from countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt can integrate with Singapore-born Muslims, given the differences in cultural norms such as food, dress and language.
In 2009, the Hindu Endowments Board held a priests' meeting to standardise rituals in all temples across Singapore. There were reports of growing disagreement over how long prayers should be held. New Hindus from different regions in India had different views.
That same year, Mr Alami Musa, the president of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), urged local Muslims not to take a 'dogmatic, fanatical or intolerant attitude' towards Muslims whose practices and views may differ.
Catholic masses are now said in languages ranging from Bahasa Indonesia and Tagalog to French and Korean.
Faith leaders need to be tactful in fostering dialogue between newcomers and existing religious adherents. They also need to be creative in offering new services to meet the needs of newcomers, but in a way that does not turn them into self-contained ghettos. Most of all, both leaders and members of the flock have to take the initiative to integrate newcomers into their faith groups.
Singapore is not alone in grappling with the dilemmas posed by immigration. Neither is it alone in pondering just what it means to be a multicultural society.
In Europe, the conclusion is negative. The lesson there - from France to Germany to Britain - is that benign neglect is no solution to integration.
In the United States, a country founded by immigrants, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll described a sense of 'status anxiety', as 'a traditionally white, Christian, essentially Protestant culture in the US sees itself as losing hegemony'.
Similar anxieties can be felt among Singaporeans, though many know that immigrants boost the population and the economy.
Singapore cannot afford to make the mistakes of European countries by refusing to acknowledge the need to integrate those of different cultures and nationalities.
This country was founded on the ideal and the practice of multiculturalism. To be Singaporean is not to be bound up with one's ethnicity or faith, but to be accepting of many.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in his new book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, declared openness to others the defining trait of a Singaporean: 'My definition of a Singaporean, which will make us different from any others, is that we accept that whoever joins us is a part of us.'
And that should mean not only welcoming your new neighbour from China, but also accommodating your fellow worshipper from India at the temple or having a meal with the fellow Muslim from Turkey at the mosque.