Miracles we miss

[Taoist, Malay and Hindu shrines side by side at Loyang Tua Pek Kong.]

The extraordinariness of ordinary things becomes immediately apparent when you see them through fresh eyes. I recently had the privilege of appraising Singapore’s religious diversity from the vantage points of journalists from different parts of Asia.

As part of their conference on Reporting Religion, the visiting journalists were taken on a tour of religious places conducted by Geoffrey Benjamin, an eminent sociologist. I helped to organise the tour.

The highlight of the tour was probably our visit to the Loyang Tua Pek Kong temple, where the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) co-exists with Hindu and Buddhist statues and a Muslim shrine. We watched Singaporean devotees walking seamlessly from one altar to another.

All this probably looked like nothing short of a miracle in the eyes of journalists from societies where religious differences have been extremely politicised, making it hard to share space and build bridges.

The visitors peppered the temple officials with questions about how the temple came about and how it was managed. We were informed that it started as an organic and unplanned village phenomenon. Nowadays, however, the management is very conscious about the temple’s unique place on Singapore’s religious landscape. The temple is committed to respecting the different traditions represented and celebrating the various holy days in style. As a relatively wealthy institution, the temple also donates money to less well-off religious institutions.

Loyang Tua Pek Kong isn’t the only institution with a firm belief in inter-faith cooperation. The visitors were also welcomed by Jamiyah, the Muslim Missionary Society of Singapore. Over a sumptuous lunch, they were briefed about Jamiyah’s almost 80-year history of cooperation with other religious communities in Singapore.

The journalists’ curiosity about these groups was like a prism through which I, as a Singaporean, was able to break the light of Singapore’s religious harmony into its spectral components. It made me think about the different factors behind my country’s religious peace.

Perhaps the most important one is the government’s firm stand that Singapore is a secular state where people of various religious persuasions can live their highest principles without colliding with one another.

Another key factor could be the government’s leadership in promoting a culture of tolerance. For example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has pushed a “live and let live” approach.

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong promoted the idea of people’s identities as overlapping circles – while not giving up our unique identities, Singaporeans should try to cultivate common spaces as well.

Structures such as the Inter-Religious Organisation (the world’s oldest existing inter-faith NGO) and the government-initiated Inter-Racial Confidence Circles have helped to promote dialogue among Singaporeans of different beliefs.

In fact, reminders about the importance of religious harmony are so incessant that they can start to sound like a meaningless drone to Singaporeans. Our religious peace is sometimes taken for granted, brushed off as a cliché by those who have been lulled by decades of calm.

The visiting journalists’ curiosity about Singapore’s diversity made me realise that such peace is precious. It may go unnoticed when present, but would be sorely missed once lost.

Richard Philip is a Singaporean freelance journalist.