Singapore Religion and Ethnicity
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
In the 1980s, members of all ethnic groups lived and worked together, dressed similarly, and shared equal access to all public institutions and services. Religion, therefore, provided one of the major markers of ethnic boundaries. Malays, for instance, would not eat at Chinese restaurants or food stalls for fear of contamination by pork, and a Chinese, in this case, could not invite a Malay colleague to a festive banquet. Funerals of a traditional and ethnically distinctive style were usually held even by families that were not otherwise very religiously observant. The Community Associations and the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board encouraged the public celebration of such ethnically distinctive and appropriately colorful and noncontroversial festivals as the Chinese lantern festival and the dragon boat races.
The marriages, divorces, and inheritances of members of religious communities and the management of properties and endowments dedicated to religious purposes were of concern to the government, which interacted with some religious bodies through advisory boards dating back to the colonial period. The Hindu Advisory Board, established in 1917, advised the government on Hindu religion and customs and on any matters concerning the general welfare of the Hindu community. It assisted the Hindu Endowments Board, which administered the four major Hindu temples and their property, in organizing the annual festivals at the temples. The Sikh Advisory Board acted in the same way for the Sikhs.
The Singapore Muslim Religious Council (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura) played a very important role in the organization of Islamic affairs and therefore of the Malay community. Authorized by the 1966 Administration of Muslim Law Act, the council, composed of members nominated by Muslim societies but appointed by the president of Singapore, was formally a statutory board that advised the president on all matters relating to the Muslim religion. It acted to centralize and standardize the practice of Islam. The council administered all Muslim trusts (wafs); organized a computerized and centralized collection of tithes and obligatory gifts (zakat harta and zakat fitrah); and managed all aspects of the pilgrimage to Mecca, including registering pilgrims, obtaining Saudi Arabian visas, and making airline reservations. The council also helped the government reorganize the mosque system after redevelopment. Before the massive redevelopment and rehousing of the 1970s and 1980s, Singapore's Muslims were served by about ninety mosques, many of which had been built and were funded and managed by local, sometimes ethnically based, communities. Redevelopment destroyed both the mosques and the communities that had supported them, scattering the people through new housing estates. The council, in consultation with the government, decided not to rebuild the small mosques but to replace them with large central mosques. Construction funds came from a formally voluntary contribution collected along with the Central Provident Fund deduction paid by all employed Muslims. The new central mosques could accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 persons and provided such services as kindergartens, religious classes, family counseling, leadership and community development classes, tuition and remedial instruction for school children, and Arabic language instruction.
The government had regulated Muslim marriages and divorces since 1880, and the 1957 Muslim Ordinance authorized the establishment of the centralized Sharia Court, with jurisdiction over divorce and inheritance cases. The court, under the Ministry of Community Development, replaced a set of government-licensed but otherwise unsupervised kathi (Islamic judges) who had previously decided questions of divorce and inheritance, following either the traditions of particular ethnic groups or their own interpretations of Muslim law. The court attempted to consistently enforce sharia law, standard Islamic law as set out in the Quran and the decisions of early Muslim rulers and jurists, and to reduce the high rate of divorce among Malays. In 1989 the Singapore Muslim Religious Council took direct control of the subjects taught in Islamic schools and of the Friday sermons given at all mosques.
Data as of December 1989
NOTE: The information regarding Singapore on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Singapore Religion and Ethnicity information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Singapore Religion and Ethnicity should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.