IPS Working Paper No. 33 – Religion in Singapore: The Private and Public Spheres

28 Mar 2019

This working paper, titled ‘Religion in Singapore: The Private and Public Spheres’, was written by IPS Senior Research Fellow Mathew Mathews, Research Associate Leonard Lim and Research Assistant Shanthini Selvarajan. The paper analyses data derived from the Singapore component of a multi-country survey, conducted as part of the International Social Survey Program Study of Religion (2018). It examines the views of 1800 respondents on issues relating to religious beliefs and practice and the role of religion in the public sphere. The survey documents the consensus that Singaporean residents have on interreligious harmony, separation of state and religion, and the appropriate behaviour of religious leaders in the public domain.

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This paper analyses Singapore data from a multi-country survey conducted in late 2018 as part of the International Social Survey Program Study of Religion (2018) . The Singapore component of the survey, conducted face-to-face, examined the views of a random sample of 1,800 Singaporean residents on issues relating to religious beliefs, religiosity and the role of religion in the private and public sphere. The survey sample closely mirrored the general profile of the Singapore population.

In the midst of contradicting trends of both religious resurgence and a decline in religiosity in various parts of the globe, analysing the trends of religiosity in Singapore and its impact on perceptions, attitudes and beliefs is critical. Religion is an influential and powerful force that seeps into multiple domains of public and private life. Tracking the expansive reach and influence of religion is thus crucial in maintaining interreligious harmony and surveying public sentiment in public policy.

In Section 5.1, the paper captures trends relating to religious practice and beliefs in the private sphere. The study found high levels of religiosity among Singaporeans. About three in four Singaporeans said they followed a religion. Christian, Catholic and Muslim respondents were more likely to be steadfast (that is, unequivocal and clear) in their beliefs of God. The opposite was the case for younger and more educated respondents.

The majority of respondents were likely to believe in religious concepts such as heaven, hell, life after death and religious miracles. Even among those who professed no religion, there were substantial numbers who believed in some religious concepts or supernatural powers.

The level of religious practice among respondents differed by religious affiliation, though around half of the respondents in this study prayed at least every week. Hindus, Muslims and Christians were the most likely to pray at least once a day. There was increased piety (as reflected in frequency of prayer) among those who reported having a turning point in their lives where they made a commitment to religion.

There was some relationship between religious affiliation and respondents’ attitudes towards some moral issues. While most respondents believed that infidelity was always wrong (82.4 per cent), comparatively fewer viewed homosexual sex (67.9 per cent) or abortion (38.3 per cent) as always wrong. Religious affiliation was an important determinant in these moral beliefs with Muslims, Hindus and Christians most likely to find homosexual sex always wrong. Younger and more educated respondents were much more likely to not find such practices always wrong.

Considering the high levels of religious belief and practice especially among some religious communities and how this may have some relationship to moral beliefs, in Section 5.2 we report respondents’ beliefs about the role of religion in the public sphere. This entailed analysing perceptions of religious institutions compared to other public institutions, interreligious harmony, state-religion separation and the appropriate behaviour of religious leaders in the public domain.

The majority of respondents (52.8 per cent) expressed complete confidence or a great deal of confidence in religious organisations (similar to the proportion of respondents holding such views about Parliament). While the proportion of Muslims and Catholics who indicated a great deal of confidence in Parliament was fairly similar to that of some other religious communities, there were more among them who indicated greater confidence in religious organisations.

Most respondents (72.7 per cent) felt that people of different religious backgrounds can get along when living close together, indicating strong support for interreligious harmony. Muslims and Christians were more likely to feel this way. In the case of perceptions of people of different religious backgrounds, respondents were more likely to view Christians, Buddhists and atheists the most positively. There was a small group (15.6 per cent) of respondents who expressed that Muslims were threatening.

While there was near unanimous support (97.4 per cent) that it was unacceptable for religious leaders to incite hatred or violence against other religions, there was a sizeable number of respondents (26.8 per cent) who were open to religious extremists publishing their views on the internet or social media. Younger respondents were much more open to this, with nearly 46 per cent of those between 18 to 25 years indicating that they would allow for publication such extremist views that considered all other religions as enemies.

When it came to questions relating to state-religion separation, most respondents (76.1 per cent) agreed that a country’s laws should not be based on religion. Respondents were divided when asked about the hypothetical emergence of a law that contradicts their religious principles. About 48 per cent would follow the law while 35.6 per cent of them would follow their religious principles. Christians (67.6 per cent), Catholics (61.6 per cent) and Muslims (66.3 per cent) were the most likely to follow their religious principles over the law if they were to contradict.

Finally, the majority of respondents agreed that religious leaders should not comment on politics. However, respondents were slightly more accepting of religious leaders speaking up against laws that contradict their religious teachings (24.1 per cent). Around half of Christian and Catholic respondents were accepting of religious leaders speaking up against laws that contradict their religious teachings. Less educated and younger respondents were also more likely to be accepting of religious leaders commenting on politics/policies.

In order to better control for different demographic variables, several regressions were performed as detailed in Section 6. Ordinary least squares (OLS) regressions with moral liberalism as a dependent scale variable (constructed by combining and averaging the responses to several questions including whether homosexual sex was wrong or not wrong) showed that having a religious affiliation, having higher education, being married, and having children, were all significant predictors for being morally conservative.

Another OLS regression — to determine the demographics of those who are ambivalent towards people from another religion — found that those who are more religious are less likely to be ambivalent or distant. The dependent variable was a scale variable combining responses to the questions: “What is your personal attitude towards members of the following religious groups: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Atheists or non-believers?”

In Section 7 of this report we document the results from a cluster analysis which we undertook to distinguish between groups of Singaporeans based on measures such as moral liberalism/conservatism, religiosity, and warmth towards people from other religious backgrounds. We found four distinct groups which we have named Sacred Seculars, Friendly Faithfuls, Skeptic Scrappers and Tepid Traditionals.

As countries around the world, especially in Southeast Asia, grapple with increasing religious fervour on one end, and rising levels of atheism on the other, these issues will continue to dominate public discourse. On the whole the survey paints a favourable picture of religion in Singapore. Though there is a fairly large proportion of religious Singaporean residents, they appreciate the positive inter-religious relations here and recognise behaviours that are not in keeping with inter-religious peace. More research, including the use of qualitative methods, are needed to delve further into Singaporeans’ thinking on religion, religiosity, and the interplay between these and their attitudes to issues in the public sphere.

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