Singapore, the Most Religiously Diverse Country in the World

Chinese garden in Singapore
Chinese garden in Singapore.

 Ali Trisno Pranoto / Getty Images

Singapore, a city-state on the coast of Malaysia, is considered the most religiously diverse country in the world, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. Though the government recognizes 10 religions, Buddhism is the most widely practiced faith, followed by Christianity, and Islam. Religions that violate laws on public order, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church, are banned by the government.

Key Takeaways

  • Buddhism (33.2%), Christianity (18.8%), Islam (14%), Taoism (10%), and Hinduism (5%) are officially recognized by the government as majority religions.
  • Less than 1% of Singaporeans are affiliated with other religions, including Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, and Judaism, while 18.5% are not affiliated with any religion.
  • The government maintains strict regulations regarding religious freedom and tolerance, and breaking these laws typically results in detention or imprisonment. 

Singapore was first established as a small Malay fishing village in 1812, but by 1819 it was a bustling trading port and center of commerce for the British East India Trading Company. Over the course of the 19th century, Singapore experienced rapid growth because of its geographic location at the intersection of several maritime trading routes, and the need for labor drew in immigrants from China and across Southeast Asia. These immigrants brought their families and their faiths with them, establishing Singapore's long-standing religious diversity. 

Government and Religion in Singapore 

The constitution of Singapore guarantees the right of religious freedom for all people, so long as the religious activities do not violate laws on public order, health, or morality. Religion in Singapore is overseen by the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which is composed by at least two thirds of representatives of the five main religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism. Each registered religion also has an advisory board whose members are appointed by the government.

Buddhism 

Buddhism is the largest religious group in Singapore, practiced mostly by the descendants of Chinese immigrants who went to Singapore in search of work during the 19th century.

SINGAPORE RELIGION BUDDHISM
Monks leading devotees pray outside the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery (KMSPKS) during a ritual on the eve of Vesak day in Singapore on May 9, 2017. Vesak Day commemorates the birth, enlightenment of Buddha, and is celebrated by Buddhists in Asia. Roslan Rahman / Getty Images 

Three denominations of Buddhism are present in Singapore: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada is the most common denomination, associated closely with the ethnically Chinese community. Many Chinese descendants also practice Mahayana Buddhism, alongside people of Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Japanese origin. Vajrayana Buddhism, originating from Tibet, is practiced in Singapore mostly by ethnically Tibetan people.

Though Buddhists in Singapore are affiliated with different denominations, they cohabitate the city-state peacefully, often sharing religious spaces with each other as well as with Hindus. 

Christianity

First introduced by British colonists in the 19th century, Christianity in Singapore constitutes about 18.8% of the population, the majority of which is affiliated with Protestant denominations including Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. There are small groups of Roman Catholics, comprised mostly of Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians.

SINGAPORE RELIGION CATHOLIC CHURCH
This photograph taken on February 14, 2017 shows Archbishop William Goh Seng Chye performing Rite of Dedication at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd 120th anniversary in Singapore. Singapore's oldest Roman Catholic church was built by Father Jean-Marie Beurel in 1847. Roslan Rahman / Getty Images

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the True Jesus Church are registered and officially recognized as religious institutions in Singapore, but they are subject to restrictions and scrutiny under public order and morality laws.

Islam

About 14% of the population of Singapore is Muslim, and most of the Muslims in Singapore are ethnically Malay. Singapore was a coastal city in Malaysia until 1965, when the Malay government unanimously voted to peacefully expel the country. As a result, the government recognizes ethnically Malay people as indigenous Singaporeans and extends considerable religious freedom to Muslims.

Muslims Observe Ramadan In Singapore
Muslims offer prayers during the night of Layt al-Qadr at a mosque during the holy month Ramadan on July 24, 2014 in Singapore.  Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images

This extension of freedom includes limited practice of sharia law, particularly as it applies to marriage and divorce. As long as both parties were legally married as Muslims, sharia law applies to any divorce proceedings concerning property disbursement, custody of children, and inheritance, though this can be brought to the advisory board for further consideration. Under some circumstances, Muslim men are granted permission to practice polygamy, though only after the advisory board considers financial capability and the opinions of the existing wife or wives.

Taoism

Taoism is an ancient Chinese philosophy based on the teachings of Laozi that arrived in Singapore with the mass migration from China. Only about 10% of the population of Singapore claims to be Taoists, a number that has decreased in recent decades. However, the practice is often combined with Buddhism, meaning there are likely more Taoists in Singapore than the numbers indicate who are not registered or do not recognize their religious practice as Taoist. 

Hinduism in Singapore

SINGAPORE RELIGION Hinduism
Hindu devotees carry offerings of milk during a procession to celebrate the annual Thaipusam festival in the Little India district of Singapore on January 24, 2016. Thaipusam is celebrated during the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai and commemorates the birthday of the Hindu deity Murugan. Roslan Rahman / Getty Images

Though recognized as an official religion, only about 5% of the population of Singapore practice Hinduism. A majority of these Hindus are ethnically Indian, descendants of the migrant workers from India who moved to the trading community during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indian immigrants to Singapore often worked as indentured servants under the colonial British Empire. The working conditions were poor and the wages low, but the colonizers encouraged migrants to bring their families in order to guarantee a stable workforce. Hindus settled into Singapore and erected temples dedicated to different deities, establishing the community known as Little India. 

Restricted Religions 

In 1972, the government of Singapore banned Jehovah’s Witnesses on the grounds that the religion conflicted with laws of public order and morality. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not participate in military service, and national service is mandatory in Singapore without exception for conscientious objectors. Jehovah’s Witnesses also will not sing the national anthem or recite the pledge of allegiance.

The church fought the ban for two decades, and in 1996 the Singapore Court of Appeals issued a ruling that upheld the original ban. The ruling stated that Jehovah’s Witnesses could practice the right of religious freedom in the privacy of their own homes, but they were prohibited from publishing literature from the Watchtower Society and from proselytizing.

The Unification Church, which was banned in 1982, is prohibited from practicing the religion even inside private homes, as it is classified by the Singaporean government as a cult.

Sources

  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: Singapore. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019. 
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: Singapore. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.
  • Lee, Edwin. Singapore: The Unexpected Nation. ISEAS, 2008.
  • Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: An Introductory History. 11th ed., Allen & Unwin, 2013.
  • Pew Research Center. Global Religious Diversity. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2014. 
  • Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. Thames & Hudson, 2000.