Rev. Kortering is a Protestant Reformed minister-on-loan to Singapore.
Obviously, this is a big subject and needs refinement. We have been asked to focus on this part of the world because of our ministry in Singapore. The Evangelical Reformed Churches, among whom we labor as minister on loan, rejoice in that they also have contacts in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, and Myanmar: We will focus on Singapore for this series and begin in part one to consider a general picture of the society and culture, and then say a few words about its religious makeup. In part two we will consider what kind of people this culture has produced, and tell a few of their stories. Then in part three we will discuss how this particular setting affects the way the gospel is brought to God’s people.
Flying in and out of Singapore has become somewhat routine for us. Nevertheless, I am moved in my soul every time the plane circles the island city-state in preparation for landing at Changi Airport. The comparatively small island of 23 miles by 10 miles holds almost three million people. It is not as I had anticipated, arriving for the first time, that the island would be one mass of high-rise buildings and cluttered streets. From the air you see parks, reservoirs, tree-lined boulevards, even undeveloped land. What attracts attention is the expansive oil refining industry on the western part, the huge container shipment industry on the southwest as row upon row of the world’s largest vessels await unloading, and the ship refurbishing business on the south and north. The business district is attractive because it is literally circled by some of the world’s tallest hotels and is skirted on the east by the financial district, which includes banks from all over the world.
The rest of the island is made up, as you guessed, by housing. There is some landed, private property, which is sold by the government on a bid basis. This makes it very expensive, for there are plenty of people who have the money to out-bid those who have less. A small, single-dwelling bungalow, starts at one and a half million U.S. dollars. Most people live in government housing, which they buy from the government with a 99-year lease. The average cost of such a flat now is about US$125,000.00. These blocks (they go up, instead of stretching out on a street) are between 12 and 28 stories high. They are built-in estates, much like cities. Today the government is working harder at making them varied in height, with attractive designs and more fanciful architecture.
Even though autos are expensive to own, the streets are filled with autos, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, and lorries of every size and shape. The government purposely controls the number of available licenses, places a huge tax on just the right to own a car, adds a sizable tax to take it on the road, and charges high prices for petrol in order to control the number or cars on the road. If we wanted to spend about US$50,000, it would hardly buy a used car on the level most of you drive in the States. Singapore offsets this with an excellent public transport system of both buses and trains.
If you would join us in taking the bus to our flat from the airport, the first thing that might attract your attention is the variety of people. This is increasingly true throughout the world. The races and nations are mixing continually. Here in Singapore this has been going on for many years and is entrenched within the culture itself. The big difference we notice is that; while in most countries different races and cultures live alongside each ‘other, separate from one another, in Singapore there is more complete -integration of the races and cultures than I have seen anywhere else. There is, for example, a real mixture of the races in public transport. In the specially reserved seat for the elderly (right by the door) sits a grandmother. She still dresses in her old-world attire, dark-colored high-neck blouse with black slacks. Probably sitting next to her is a young career woman on the way to the office. She is carrying her black leather case and is smartly dressed in a business suit with miniskirt. A few seats over is an Indian gentleman, literally wrapped in what looks like a white bed sheet, called a choti. Sitting next to me is a Muslim woman with her children. She could be wearing a scarf and sarong and her children playing in their jeans. This is not a special holiday, this is every day. We are literally surrounded with such displays of dress and culture.
If we take note of the schools that we pass, we would notice that there are some separate schools for Chinese, Indians, and Malays (Muslim); but most of them are integrated. The children do not wear their own culturally distinct clothes to school however. They all wear the same uniform, which was designed for their particular school. For the children, it is shorts and shirts for the boys, and skirts and blouses for the girls. School is operated on two shifts, one group of students attends morning class from about 7:30 A.M. – 1:00 P.M. and the afternoon group follows till about 6:30 P.M. Families which have children in both shifts have children in school for about 12 hours a day. Imagine what that does to family and church life.
Most striking to westerners who visit Singapore are the religious places of worship. They are everywhere on the island. Though there are mosques, temples, synagogues, and churches in almost every country, the significant difference in Singapore is that one cannot escape taking note of them here. Sure, there may be a mosque down the road from First Church in Grand Rapids, but how many even look in that direction? However, when the Muslims worship here in Singapore on Friday, you can hardly catch a bus near the mosque. The overflow of worshipers fills the sidewalk and even streets. A huge pile of slippers is mounted just within the compound next to the trough used for foot washing. If you go to Covenant with us on Sunday morning, we would pass through a narrow street with a large Buddhist temple. The whole area is filled with chanting so loud that the whole neighborhood hears it. The smell of incense fills the air; and it has happened that by the time my wife and I arrive at church our clothes smell of burning, and even flecks of black soot have to be brushed off. From time to time we meet Buddhist monks with shaved heads, dressed in saffron robes as they walk toward their temple. You cannot travel or live in Singapore without some interaction with the peoples of different cultures and religions.
Finally we arrive at our own place of residence. We take the lift to the 11th floor and walk down to the 10th. We pass along a narrow corridor along the outside edge of the building past two other residences until we reach our flat. You can be sure that you will be greeted by two little Chinese girls who will say, “Hi,” or “Bye.” They are our immediate neighbors. Whenever we ask the many questions, they don’t answer. Perhaps “Hi” and “Bye” is the extent of their English skills. Their parents work every day, and grandpa and grandma come to spend the day with them. Their parents are career oriented, speak good English, and are gone long hours. Their grandparents speak no English, only Mandarin. This is a typical Singapore family situation, one encouraged by the government. Our neighbors burn two joss sticks every morning, so the sweet aroma filters into our flat every day.
Right now, as I write this, I look out the front patio over against the block situated right across from us. There are 110 flats in that block. About 50 feet separate our two blocks. Both are 12 stories high. I counted the altars with offerings on them, which were within my view, and it came to 33. The altars are immediately discernible for their bright red and gold colors, auspicious for good luck. Besides that, there are the many joss-stick holders. That would give some indication of the preponderance of Chinese practicing their religion. We can pick out a few Muslim households by the writings about their doors. Hindus are harder to discern, for they have their own prayer rooms inside. The breakdown of religion in Singapore is about 53% Chinese religion (including Buddhists), 3% Hindus, 15% Muslim, 14% Christian, and the rest a mixture of other religions or people who are secular.
Since most of the people are Chinese and to some degree practice their own interesting mixture of religion, we should say a brief word about that.
True as it may be that the older Chinese people practice this religion, the fact remains that the Buddhists are working hard in the temples to indoctrinate the younger generation. When we visit the Chinese temples we see children worshiping. Also, we must remember that the Chinese Christians were almost all brought up in homes where this religion was practiced. This religion is not to be dismissed as of little consequence. It is pervasive and, even now, only the grace of God can deliver one from the lasting evil effects of it.
It would not be correct to say that what is called the Chinese religion in Singapore is the same thing as Buddhism. There are Chinese Buddhists here. In fact, they are growing in numbers. The religion of the Chinese contains elements of Buddhism, especially its concept of life after death. The soul leaves the body and goes into the spirit world. They even describe eighteen stages of hell. If paper money, autos, or houses are burned, a deceased person will have them available as he moves through the spirit world. Eventually the soul is reincarnated into the physical body of a man, plant, or animal, determined by how good a life a person lived and by the Law of Karma. The only escape from this endless cycle is to attain nirvana by enlightened meditation, and by abstaining from worldly desires. Out of the Buddhist writings come the mythological gods of the Chinese. These include the Monkey God, Dragon God, Kitchen God, Goddess of Mercy, and such like.
Confucianism is a philosophical system of thought. It too has had an impact upon Chinese religion. The impact of this philosophy is seen in its emphasis upon filial responsibility. This has tremendous over tones. Family and social responsibility come before individual desires. A parent loses face if a son should violate any of the five virtues: live a principled life, be faithful to friends, be loyal to the state, be honest in official duty, and be courageous on the battlefield.
Finally, there is the animistic element introduced by Taoism. This addition includes such things as occultism, astrology, mediums in the temple, communication with the dead, and mystical superstitions. My wife and I were struck with this when a young man stopped the entire process of trimming the tree behind our flat in Happy Mansion in order to build a temporary altar at the base of the tree, lest cutting its limbs would offend the spirits in the tree.
In our next article, D.V., we will examine in a little more depth how this affects the entire culture and society within which the gospel is being preached and also give some examples of how personal lives have been affected. Then we will be more appreciative of the gospel, which comes not in word only, but also in deed and in power (I Thess. 1:5).