The customs and festivals of the different ethnic groups in Singapore highlight the nation’s rich cultural heritage. Singapore’s people are largely descendants of immigrants from the Malay Peninsula, China, the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka. They have gradually acquired a distinct identity as Singaporeans while still retaining their traditional practices, customs and festivals.
In 2000, the total population of Singapore was 4,017,700 of which 3,263,200 are citizens and permanent residents. This is an increase of 2. 8 per cent over the decade. There are three main racial groups, with the Chinese numbering 2,505,400 (77 per cent of resident population), Malays 453,600 (14 per cent) and Indians 257,800 (8 per cent) . With 1,630,300 resident males and 1,632,900 resident females, the sex ratio was 998 males per 1,000 females. The median age of the resident population was 34.2 years in 2000, compared with 29.8 ten years ago. Residents below 15 years of age formed 21.5 per cent of the population. The proportion of residents aged 65 years and above was 7.3 per cent. Infant mortality rate was 3.3 per thousand resident live births in 1999, compared with 6.3 in 1989. The life expectancy at birth for resident males and females has increased from 72.9 years and 77.2 years in 1989 to 75.6 years and 79.6 years in 1999 respectively.
Most of the original inhabitants were Malays. Other early immigrants came from the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago, including the Bugis. The first Malays were mainly involved in agriculture or, before Raffles, were camp followers of the Temenggong( Defence Minister) of the Sultan of Johor.
The first Chinese immigrants came from Riau and Melaka ( Malacca) , many belonging to the distinct Baba community ( also known as Straits- born Chinese) . In February 1821, the first junk from Amoy, China, rrived and others soon followed. The Hokkiens from Fujian province formed the largest group. Others included the Cantonese from Guangdong; the nomadic Hakkas or Khehs from northern Guangdong; the Teochews from Shantou; the Kwongsais from Guangxi; the Hokchius from Fuzhou and the Hainanese from Hainan Island. Most were poor farmers, labourers or craftsmen.
The first Indians came from Penang and Malacca. Others migrated from the Coromandel and Malabar coasts of Southern India ( mainly from the present states of Madras and Kerala) . They also came from Gujarat, the Punjab, Sind, Bengal and Sri Lanka. The early Indians were soldiers or camp followers and a few were merchants. Indentured labourers were brought in later by the British for construction work. Others worked as clerks, teachers, traders and money- lenders.
Apart from the British, many Europeans came mainly as professionals. They brought their families with them and while many left for home eventually, others settled down and became citizens.
Other Ethnic Groups
These include the Eurasians, descendants of Europeans, mainly Portuguese, married to Asians. Also there were a few Arab families, who came as traders, and eventually married Malays.
Registration of People
A total of 66,500 peeople registered for identity cards with the Singapore Immigration and Registration Department in 2000. All lawful residents 15 years old and above are required, unless exempted, to register for identity cards. They are also required to re-register for identity cards when they reach 30.
Citizenship may be acquired by birth, descent, registration or naturalisation. Generally, a person is eligible to apply for citizenship by registration if he is 21 years old or above and has resided as a permanent resident (PR) for a period of 2 to 6 years.
Under the new family ties scheme, Singaporeans can sponsor their wives or husbands and children for Singapore citizenship if the family has means to support itself and the wives or husbands have been PRs for at least two years.
Language and Literacy
The official languages are Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English. Malay is the national language and English is the language of administration. Mandarin is being increasingly used among the Chinese in place of the main Chinese dialects Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese and Foochow. Besides Tamil, some of the other languages spoken by the Indians are Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu, Hindi and Bengali.
The general literacy rate of residents aged 15 years and over was 93 per cent in 2000. More residents were also multi-lingual. Among the literate population, 56 per cent were literate in two or more languages.
Standard of Living
The standard of living is high. The resident labour force comprised 63 per cent of the resident population aged 15 years and above in 2000. In 2000, the per capita Gross National Product ( GNP) was S$ 42,212. About 86 per cent of the population live in Housing and Development Board ( HDB) flats. Singaporeans are able to live and work in a safe environment. The crime rate declined over the last decade to 1,005 cases per 100,000 population. For every 1,000 residents, there were 114 private cars and 347 residential telephone lines. In 1998, some 47 per cent of households owned personal computers while 58 per cent had air-conditioners. There were 731 persons per doctor and 332 persons per hospital bed in 1999.
The Registry of Marriages is responsible for the solemnisation and registration of civil marriages (except Muslim marriages) . In 1999, 21,561 marriages were registered, compared with 18,971 in 1998.
The Registry of Muslim Marriages approves and solemnises Muslim marriages under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (Chapter 3). There were 4,087 Muslim marriages in 1999, compared with 4,135 in 1998.
Advance data from the Population of Census 2000 show that the religious composition of adult Singaporean residents remained relatively stable over the last ten years.
Buddhism and Taoism, which were traditional Chinese religions, jointly accounted for 51 per cent of the resident population aged 15 years and above in 2000 compared with 54 per cent in 1990. The main shift had been from Taoism to Buddhism among the Chinese. The proportion of Muslims and Hindus remained relatively unchanged at 15 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.
The shift towards Christianity continued but the increase in proportion of Christians was very gradual – from 10 per cent in 1980 to 13 per cent in 1990 and 15 per cent in 2000. The increase was among the better-educated Chinese who were more inclined towards Christianity.
The religion of Islam is the complete acceptance of the teachings and guidance of Allah (God) as revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Islam stands for complete submission and obedience to God and peace.
Islamic Religious Council of Singapore
Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) – Islamic Religious Council of Singapore – is the supreme Islamic religious authority in Singapore. Established in 1968 to advise the Government on Islamic matters, MUIS looks after the religious, social and welfare needs of Muslims in Singapore. Its functions and responsibilities are set out in the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). Its main functions include building and administering mosques, madrasahs and wakaf (endowment) properties, co-ordinating family development programmes, collecting zakat (tithes), issuing halal certificates, co-ordinating the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and providing financial assistance or bursaries to needy Muslims.
An Appeal Board located within MUIS also hears appeals for decisions made by the Syariah Court or from the Registry of Muslim Marriages pertaining to divorce and marriage. The Family Development Department in MUIS helps build cohesive families, besides setting directions, monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of family development programmes.
Under the Mosque Building and MENDAKI Fund (MBMF) scheme administered by MUIS, working Muslims are required to contribute towards the Mosque Building Programme and MENDAKI (Council for the Development of the Singapore Muslim Community). The minimum monthly contributions are as follows: $2 for those earning $1,000 or less; $3 for those earning between $1,001 and $3,000; and $5 for those earning above $3,000. The money is remitted to MUIS through the Central Provident Fund Board. In 2000, $7.1 million was collected.
In Islam, charity is institutionalised through zakat, where Muslims are obliged to contribute a percentage of their earnings and wealth to improve the welfare of the Muslim community. In 2000, MUIS collected $14.7 million. The proceeds are allocated according to the Islamic law governing the distribution of zakat to eight asnafs (categories of beneficiaries) for the social and economic development of the Muslim community.
In 2000, 4,413 pilgrims performed the Haj pilgrimage. Their welfare and medical needs during Haj were taken care by doctors, nurses and Haj officers appointed by MUIS.
The Syariah Court hears and determines proceedings concerning disputes over marriage, betrothal, nullification of marriage, separation and divorces. It also enables Muslim couples with marital difficulties to undergo counselling. Where divorce is inevitable, the Court mediates to help couples resolve their post-divorce issues amicably. The Court only rules on cases where parties cannot come to an agreement or where complex decision making is required. In March 2000, the Court introduced video conferencing for mediation sessions and hearings for those detained in prisons or drug rehabilitation centres.
Buddhism and Taoism
The early Chinese settlers brought with them their religious beliefs and practices. Different dialect groups set up temples to serve the religious and cultural needs of the community. Some of these temples are now national monuments, for example, the Thian Hock Keng Temple, the Siong Lim Temple and Hong San See Temple.
Buddhism is essentially centred on the ‘Three Jewels’ – Buddha, Dharma (teachings of the Buddha) and Sangha (monastic order) – which help to inspire and guide Buddhist practices. In Singapore, Buddhism is traditionally mixed with Taoism and Confucianism, and involves a range of beliefs, practices and institutions. The majority of Buddhists in Singapore belong to the Mahayana school; the rest follow the Theravada, Vajrayana and other schools. The different schools have been brought into closer co-operation through joint religious, cultural, educational and social welfare projects organised by the Singapore Buddhist Federation, the Singapore Buddhist Sangha Organisation and the Singapore Regional Centre of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.
The Indians brought their religion, culture and art to Singapore. The story of their early religion is told in numerous Hindu temples, built mostly in Southern Indian style, in various parts of the island. The temple is the focal point of many Hindu festivals and ceremonies. The life of the Hindu is profoundly influenced by religion, marked by its rituals. Most Hindu families have altars or prayer rooms in their homes.
There are 24 principal Hindu temples in Singapore today. Of these, the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road and the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road are national monuments.
The Hindu Endowments Board, set up in 1967 under the Hindu Endowments Act, administers and manages the Sri Mariamman, Sri Srinivasa Perumal, Sri Sivan and Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman temples and buildings and properties belonging to these endowments. The Board also organises major Hindu festivals such as Thaipusam (penitential kawadi procession), Thimithi (fire-walking ceremony) and Navarathiri (nine nights’ prayer).
The Hindu Advisory Board advises the Government on matters concerning the Hindu religion and customs and on matters affecting the general welfare of the Hindu community.
The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in Singapore dates back to the founding of Singapore in 1819. In 1821, a missionary in transit ministered to a community of some 12 Catholics. By 1829, there were about 200 Catholics. The Catholic community grew steadily and established a number of schools. In 1832, a boys’ school was started. It later became the St. Joseph’s Institution, which was built in 1852, and run by the La Salle brothers. Two years later, a girls’ school run by the Infant Jesus Sisters was built at Victoria Street. On 22 December 1972, the late Pope Paul VI decreed Singapore a separate archdiocese, distinct from the previous Malacca-Johor Archdiocese. By an agreement which came into effect on 1 July 1981, the Bishop of Macau handed over jurisdiction of his subjects in Singapore to the Archbishop of Singapore. Since then, the Catholic Church has been under the jurisdiction of the Holy See in Rome. There are 30 Catholic churches around the island. The Church runs 20 primary and 17 secondary schools, one pre-university school and one junior college, as well as the Mount Alvernia Hospital, Assisi Hospice, five homes for the aged and chronically ill, and one children’s home.
Raffles granted a piece of land to the London Missionary Society soon after he landed and the first Protestant missionary arrived within a year. In the initial decades, several different groups made distinctive contributions towards the growth of the Protestant churches in Singapore. These included the Western mercantile community, the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) community from Malacca, overseas missionaries and Christian immigrants from India and China. Seminaries and bible colleges were also established. In 1948, the National Council of Churches of Singapore was founded, followed by the Singapore Council of Christian Churches in 1956 and the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore in 1980.
The Protestant churches introduced social services to serve the community, such as Christian counselling in the prisons in 1953, the Christian Counselling Service and the Samaritans of Singapore in 1969 and the Christian Anti-Drug Rescue Endeavour in 1976. They also established welfare homes such as the St John’s Home for the Aged in 1956, the Lee Kuo Chuan Home in 1972 and Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens in 1983.
There are 16 registered Sikh religious and social organisations in Singapore. There are seven Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in Singapore. The Sikh Advisory Board advises the Government on matters concerning the Sikh religion and customs and the general welfare of the Sikh community. The important festivals of the Sikhs are the installation of Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak’s Birthday, Guru Gobind Singh’s Birthday, and Vaisakhi (creation of the Khalsa brotherhood).
Religious freedom and tolerance are practised in Singapore and many other faiths have followings here. The Jews have two synagogues in Singapore, while the Zoroastrians and Jains (followers of Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha) have no temples.
A potpourri of colourful festivals is celebrated in multi-racial Singapore throughout the year.
Chinese New Year
Every January and February, the Lunar New Year is celebrated. It is the major event in the Chinese calendar. Red pieces of paper, bearing good wishes in Chinese calligraphy, are pasted on doors and walls. The main celebration revolves around the reunion dinner on the eve and visits to relatives and friends on the first two days. After the reunion dinner, parents and other relatives distribute ‘hong bao’ (red packets containing money) to the family’s unmarried children as a gesture of good fortune.
In Singapore, Chinese New Year is celebrated mainly during the two public holidays. But the celebrations can last for half a month, involving much feasting and social interaction. The 15th day is observed as the close of the festive season.
The exuberant Chinese New Year Chingay Procession, held since 1973, increasingly reflects the cosmopolitan vitality of the country. Chingay, which means the ‘art of masquerading’, has evolved into a national event featuring not only local performances but foreign items as well.
Qing Ming and Yu Lan Jie Festivals
Qing Ming (meaning ‘clear and bright’), a festival in memory of one’s ancestors, is observed in early April. On this day, families visit ancestral graves. Rice, wine, lit candles and joss sticks are placed before the tombs to honor the dead. The festival promotes filial piety and a sense of gratitude to one’s ancestors. In mid-August, the dead are again remembered during Yu Lan Jie (the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts). Offerings of food, and burnt offerings of silver and gold paper money, paper houses, cars, clothes, and candles are placed at the roadside and open grounds to appease and honor the departed. Wayangs (Chinese operas) are also staged to entertain the wandering spirits during this period.
The Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, is also known as the Mooncake or Lantern Festival. Round ‘moon’ cakes with a variety of sweet and savoury fillings appear in shops, and paper lanterns of all colours, shapes and sizes are also sold. Several interesting legends are connected with this festival but, basically, the mooncakes signify unity and a cycle completed – traditionally, the end of the farming year and an abundant harvest. In Singapore, lantern competitions are held and the winning lanterns exhibited in a fairyland of lights and colour in the Chinese Garden.
Hari Raya Puasa
Hari Raya Puasa or Aidil Fitri is an important religious day of the year for Muslims. It is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and alms-giving. The celebrations begin with the birth of the new moon of Syawal, the 10th month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims usually attend prayers in the mosque in the morning and then gather with their families and close friends for a feast of thanksgiving. Hari Raya Puasa signifies ‘openness’ of both mind and heart, and in multi-racial Singapore, this is often expressed in the practice of inviting non-Muslim friends to share the Hari Raya festivities. It is also customary to seek forgiveness for wrongs done to family and friends, and to renew one’s sense of community.
Hari Raya Haji
Hari Raya Haji is celebrated one day after Haj pilgrims converge on Arafat in Mecca, the Islamic Holy Land, to perform the major rites of the pilgrimage. This falls on the 10th day of Zulhijjah, the 12th month of the Muslim calendar. The highlight of the occasion is the sacrifice of a goat or buffalo as a mark of gratitude to Allah (God).
Tamil New Year
The Tamil New Year begins on the day the sun enters the zodiacal house Medam (Aries), in the month of Chithirai (between April and May). To herald in the New Year, morning worship (puja) is held in temples in honour of Surya, the Sun God – the remover of all darkness and gloom. Orthodox Hindus rise early for a ritual bath and elaborate worship at the family shrine. The first meal is then taken at a predetermined auspicious time. Temple visits and visits to relatives and friends follow. The Hindu Almanac for the New Year is published at this time. It lays down in detail the positions of the planets and the stars at New Year, and gives a reading of the significance of these signs, pointing to what is auspicious.
Thaipusam, a penitential festival in honour of Lord Subramaniam, is celebrated in the Tamil month of Thai (between January and February). Devotees go in procession from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple in Tank Road, carrying kavadi in penitence or thanksgiving. The traditional kavadi is a wooden arch on a wooden base, decorated with peacock feathers and supporting various offerings like fruits, flowers and pots of milk. However, some devotees carry heavy metal kavadi and practice self-mortification by driving sharp skewers through their tongues, cheeks and bodies. This form of devotion, like the annual fire-walking ceremony (Thimithi), is usually undertaken only after careful spiritual preparation involving prayer and fasting.
Thimithi, the fire-walking ceremony, is conducted at the Sri Mariamman Temple in the month of Aipasi (between October and November). Like Thaipusam, the devotees go in procession from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple to the Sri Mariamman Temple, led by a priest. After the priest has ceremonially walked on fire (actually a bed of burning coal), the devotees follow one by one, witnessed by thousands of people assembled in the temple.
Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, is an occasion of much rejoicing for Hindus and Sikhs. Like Thimithi, it is celebrated in the Tamil month of Aipasi. Because of its ancient origins, the festival is enveloped in a variety of legends, the most common one being that it marks the slaying of an oppressive ruler named Narakasura by Lord Krishna, symbolizing the victory of good over evil and light over darkness. It is also believed that the souls of departed relatives descend to earth during this time. Rows of tiny earthen oil lamps are lit to guide these souls on their return journey to the next world. The festival is celebrated in various ways by different groups. For certain northern Indians, it marks the beginning of a New Year, while some in the business community close accounts and ceremonially open new ones for the New Year. Deepavali is also an especially happy time for children, because of the social visits and sweet treats. Like the other festivals, Deepavali is one of Singapore’s national festivals that help promote goodwill, understanding and harmony among the people.
The Buddhists observe Vesak Day, which denotes perfection and commemorates the birth, enlightenment and Nirvana (liberation from earthly passions and desires) of the Buddha. Vesak falls on the full moon day in the fifth month of the year. The occasion is marked by chanting, recitations and offerings at shrines; the ritualistic bathing of Prince Siddartha’s (the earthly name of the Buddha) statue; the practice of vegetarianism; and the release of captive animals. Temples are also decorated with flags, lights and flowers, and vegetarian meals are served to those present.
The joint Vesak celebrations held by Buddhist organisations and temples are observed by the practice of dana (the virtue of generosity). Gifts in cash and kind are distributed to the poor and needy through charitable organisations, regardless of their race or religion. Buddhist youths participate in mass blood donation exercises held in hospitals. Some Buddhists also visit homes for the aged, drug rehabilitation centres and prisons to share the joy of Vesak with the inmates. Vesak celebrations in Singapore are also marked by mass candlelight processions, in which thousands of devotees participate to chant sutras (holy verses) and pay homage to the Buddha. The highlight of the festival is a mass religious and cultural gathering held at either the Singapore Indoor Stadium or a major public theatre.
Christmas and Easter
Christmas (from the old English Christaes maesse, or Christ’s Mass) is the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe to be the Son of God. To the Christians, Christ’s birth is an initiative taken by God to reconcile man to Him and to redeem man from sin. The event is marked by special Christmas services in churches. In the week prior to Christmas, many Christians visit homes to sing Christmas carols. Good Friday is a solemn festival which marks the trial and crucifixion of Christ.
Good Friday services include the holy communion, during which those who participate remember Christ’s sacrifice. Easter, which falls on the Sunday after Good Friday, is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. This is very important to Christians because they believe it signifies the victory of Christ over death, bringing the gift of eternal life to all who believe in Christ. Both Good Friday and Easter are festivals of remembrance and thanksgiving, marked by prayers and special church services.