IPS Working Paper No. 34 – Religion, Morality and Conservatism in Singapore

2 May 2019

The research question for this working paper is, what are the evolving trends of Singaporeans’ perceptions and attitudes towards social, moral and political issues? This study analyses responses to the 2018 IPS Race, Religion and Language (RRL) Survey, and compares it with the results of the 2013 RRL Survey.

Overall, IPS researchers found that Singaporeans remain fairly conservative, though there have been distinct shifts on issues surrounding homosexual rights. This is especially so among respondents aged between 18 and 25, who were much more liberal about moral issues compared to respondents aged 65 and above. IPS researchers also found that being conservative towards various socio-political issues were significant predictors of being conservative on gay rights.

The authors of this working paper are Senior Research Fellow Mathew Mathews, Research Associate Leonard Lim and Research Assistant Shanthini Selvarajan. Fieldwork for the relevant sections of the RRL was conducted by IPS Social Lab.

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This paper documents and tracks evolving trends of perceptions and attitudes towards social and moral issues. These include respondents’ opinions towards homosexual sex and marriage, gambling, infidelity, freedom of speech, and the desired balance between personal responsibility and reliance on the state.

Data for this study relies on relevant sections of the second wave of the Institute of Policy Studies’ (IPS) Survey of Race, Religion and Language (RRL), which was conducted between August 2018 and January 2019. It also compares the relevant results from the 2013 wave of the same survey. Altogether, 4,015 Singaporeans and Permanent Residents were polled in this second wave on issues ranging from aspects of their racial and religious identity, and their attitudes towards social and political issues.

Overall, Singaporeans remain fairly conservative in their outlook, though there have been distinct shifts on issues surrounding homosexual rights. This is especially so among respondents aged between 18 and 25, who were much more liberal about moral issues compared to the respondents aged 65 and above.

For example, nearly 6 in 10 of those aged between 18 and 25 indicated that gay marriage was not wrong at all or not wrong most of the time, more than five times the proportion of respondents aged above 65 (9.6 per cent). This liberalism was also reflected amongst respondents who were more educated. Muslims and Christians tended to be more conservative towards moral issues.

The comparison of the two waves highlights shifts in attitudes towards moral issues in Singapore. The population has become less conservative, with the proportions who feel that various moral issues are either always wrong or almost always wrong falling, except for gambling. For gay marriage, 74.2 per cent felt this was always wrong or almost always wrong in 2013, compared to 60 per cent in 2018.

In another section, we compared cohort shifts in attitudes over the five-year period. In 2013, 17.8 per cent of 20 to 24-year-old respondents felt that homosexual sex was not wrong. In 2018, within this same cohort (who would now be between 25 and 29 years of age), the figure had more than doubled with just over 40 per cent feeling that homosexual sex was not wrong.

The survey also sought to ascertain how conservative or liberal respondents were in other areas related to the political, fiscal, and social spheres. Respondents were asked to indicate if they identified more with Position A or Position B, or were neutral. An example was picking between the “younger generation taking care of older generation” versus “each generation takes care of itself”.

Overall, respondents were neutral on many of the issues, but tended to be slightly closer to the conservative end of the spectrum on several issues. For example, while around 36 per cent were neutral between conservative and liberal sexual values, nearly half either strongly identified or slightly identified as conservative. In contrast, 14.6 per cent of respondents indicated that they slightly or strongly identified as liberal.

Finally, ordinary least squares regressions were conducted to determine the characteristics of those who were more conservative on gay rights. Demographic variables most associated with conservative beliefs on gay rights included being married and being older. We found that respondents who supported free speech, supported the adaptation of racial and religious customs to secular realities, and were accommodating of people of different backgrounds, were significantly less likely to be morally conservative on gay rights. Those who were more rooted in Singaporean values than global ones, who perceived governments as leaders of societal change, and who were financially frugal, were more likely to be morally conservative.

Overall, the paper’s findings affirm the general conservatism of Singaporeans when it comes to many moral issues, including homosexual marriage, homosexual sex and adoption by gay couples. Simultaneously, the results point to the thawing of attitudes towards these issues, and continued resistance towards infidelity and gambling. These results mirror those of similar longitudinal surveys conducted in countries such as the United States – little change in attitudes towards various moral issues over several years, but significant erosions in resistance towards issues surrounding homosexual rights in similar time periods.

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