Discovering the Spiritual Heart of Singapore: A Guide to Places of Worship
Updated: Apr 20
Singapore is a multicultural and multi-religious nation with a diverse array of religious traditions and customs. Singapore has a distinctive and vibrant blend of religious beliefs and practices that have evolved and coexisted through the centuries, with its multicultural population made up of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures. To fully appreciate Singapore's distinctive character as a religiously diverse society, it is essential to understand the history and influence of these various religious traditions.
Singapore is a diverse country with a rich cultural and religious heritage. According to the latest census of population conducted in 2020, the population of Singapore is approximately 5.69 million people, and the religious breakdown is as follows:
Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion in Singapore, with a large proportion of the population identifying as Buddhists. Christianity and Islam are also significant religions, with a considerable number of Christians and Muslims living in the country. Two closely related traditional Chinese faiths, Taoism and Confucianism, are also commonly practiced in Singapore, especially among the Chinese community. The primary religion of the Indian community in Singapore is Hinduism. Apart from the major religions, there are also smaller communities of Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, Baha'is, and others in Singapore.
The country is known for its religious harmony, and the government has made efforts to promote interfaith understanding and respect. Interfaith dialogues and events are held regularly, and religious organizations are encouraged to work together to foster greater understanding and appreciation among the different faith communities.
Explore some of the most unique and interesting places of worship in Singapore!
1. Sultan Mosque
Also known as Masjid Sultan, the mosque is located in Kampong Glam, and is one of the oldest mosques in Singapore. Built in 1824, this Islamic place of worship was built for Sultan Hussian Shah, the first sultan of Singapore. It is a must-see if you are in the district as it is considered the national mosque of Singapore and was also designated as a national monument in 1975.
Its architecture is a blend of Islamic and Malay influences, and it is an important symbol of the Islamic faith in Singapore. The founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raflles, gave S$3,000 to the construction as well. The main prayer hall can hold up to 5,000 worshippers while the mosque’s dome base was formed out of hundreds of glass bottles. These glass bottles were donated by lower-income Muslims as Denis Santry, the designer, wanted all Muslims to contribute to the re-building of the mosque.
2. Sri Mariamman Temple
This is Singapore's oldest Hindu temple, located in Chinatown. The temple's colorful gopuram (tower) and intricate carvings make it a popular destination for visitors, and it is an important center of Hindu worship in Singapore. Built in 1827, the temple is dedicated to Goddess Mariamman, known for her power in curing epidemic illnesses and diseases.
Also known as Mariamman Kovil or Kling Street Temple, the building was established by Mr Naraina Pillai, a clerk from the British East India Company, who have accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on his second visit and was known as the leader of the Indian community. Originally a wood-and-attap structure, it used to house “Sinna Amman”, a small deity. The original three-tiered gopuram wasn’t added until the late 1800s, with it only being replaced by the current elaborate five-tiered gopuram in 1925. It is managed by the Hindu Endowments Board and was gazetted as a national monument in 1973.
3. Thian Hock Keng Temple
This temple is the oldest and most important Hokkien temple in Singapore. It is located in Chinatown and is a must-visit for those interested in history and oriental culture. The temple is a beautiful example of traditional Southern Chinese architecture, with intricate carvings, sculptures, and murals.
Built in 1839, this Chinese temple is dedicated to Mazu (媽祖), the Goddess of the Sea and early immigrants would come here to give thanks for their safe voyages as it used to be the shoreline of Telok Ayer Basin. Other deities installed in the temple include Baosheng Dadi (保生大帝, invoked as the God of Medicine and Health), Guansheng Dijun (关圣帝君, worshipped for spiritual protection), Confucius (孔子, a favourite among students and their parents), and the Goddess of Mercy (观音菩萨).
Constructed in the Fujian temple architecture style, the main halls are of single-storey beam-frame structures with brackets supporting curving roofs with wide eaves. The roofs of the entrance hall and main hall are decorated with dragons and other decorative motifs while the side entrances are decorated with coloured tiles that symbolises good luck, eternity and immortality.
4. Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator
Referred to locally as the Armenian Church, it is the oldest Christian church in Singapore and is located at Hill Street in the Museum Planning Area. Described as “one of the most ornate and best finished pieces of architecture” in early Singapore, it was designed and built by G.D. Coleman, a colonial architect, in 1835. The church's neoclassical architecture with a few eclectic influences and serene atmosphere making it a popular destination for visitors and locals alike.
In 1936, the church was dedicated to St Gregory the Illuminator, the first Patriarch of the Armenian Church. This church is a tribute to the once-influential Armenian community in Singapore and were one of the first Christian communities to erect a permanent, brick-and-mortar place of worship in Singapore. It was also one of the first buildings in Singapore to have electric lights and fans installed.
5. Maghain Aboth Synagogue
This is Singapore's oldest Jewish synagogue and is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Built in 1878, it is one of the two synagogues in Singapore and has been around to witness the significant contributions from the close-knit Jewish community.
The synagogue's architecture is a blend of traditional Jewish and colonial influences, and it is an important center of Jewish worship and culture in Singapore. Boasting a simple neoclassical façade with an entrance arch big enough to accommodate horse carriages, the interior design is made up of a Neoclassical and colonial-style architecture hybrid that does not show much decoration or images. The hall also has a second-storey U-shaped balcony for women that was added in the later years.
6. Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery
This is the largest Buddhist monastery in Singapore, located in the north-eastern part of the island. The monastery is home to a large complex of temples, pagodas, and other buildings, and it is a popular destination for visitors looking to learn more about Buddhism.
Founded in 1921 by Venerable Sik Zhuan Dao as a place for Buddhist practice, share the Dharma, provide lodging for monks and many Sangha members who came to Singapore, it is also one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the country. Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery is one of the first traditional Chinese forest monasteries in Southeast Asia and is equivalent to the size of almost 11 football fields. The large bronze Buddha statue located in the temple’s Hall of No Form is one of Asia’s largest Buddha statue.
These are just a few examples of the unique and interesting places of worship in Singapore. Each of these places has its own historical and architectural significance, and they offer visitors a glimpse into the diverse religious and cultural heritage of the country.
What religious festivals and events do we celebrate in Singapore?
Singapore is a multicultural and multi-religious country, and there are several religious festivals and events celebrated throughout the year. Here are some of the most significant ones, along with their dates, descriptions, customs, and who they are celebrated by:
1. Chinese New Year - January/February (date varies based on the lunar calendar)
This is one of the most important festivals in the Chinese calendar, and it is celebrated by the Chinese community in Singapore. Also known as Spring Festival or Lunar New Year, the festival is marked by feasting, fireworks, and the exchange of red packets (envelopes filled with money) between family and friends.
It celebrates the beginning of a new year on the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar. In Singapore, a massive celebration is done for it, with the festival running from the last day of the final month in the Chinese calendar and ending on the 15th day of the first month. The tradition of wearing red, lighting fireworks and the lion dance during the new year began with the legend of Nian, an ancient beast that terrorised villagers.
2. Hari Raya Aidilfitri - May/June (date varies based on the lunar calendar)
This is the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The festival is celebrated by the Muslim community in Singapore and is marked by prayers, feasting, and the exchange of gifts. Also known as Hari Raya Puasa, it is the time to forgive, with families coming together to remember loved ones who have passed and for the younger ones in the family to offer apologies for any wrongdoings committed over the past year, asking their elders for forgiveness.
It traditionally falls on the first day of Shawwal, the tenth month of the Islamic calendar and Muslims will greet each other with sayings while their homes and mosques are decorated in decorations including oil lamps, colourful string lights, ketupat ribbon and more. Green packets containing money are handed out to children and the elderly.
3. Vesak Day - May/June (date varies based on the lunar calendar)
This is the Buddhist festival that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. The festival is celebrated by the Buddhist community in Singapore, and it is marked by processions, prayers, and the release of caged birds and animals.
Also known as Buddha’s Birthday, it memorializes three major events in the life of Siddhartha Guatama: his birth, enlightenment and nirvana, and his passing. In Singapore, Vesak Day falls on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar and its festivities begin at the crack of dawn. Main rituals include decorating temples with flowers, raising the Buddhists’ flag, bathing Buddha and chanting praises.
4. Deepavali - October/November (date varies based on the lunar calendar)
This is the Hindu festival of lights, which celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The festival is celebrated by the Hindu community in Singapore, and it is marked by the lighting of lamps, the exchange of gifts, and the preparation of traditional Indian sweets. Deepavali’s public festivities are concentrated in the Little India area.
Although it is a festival celebrated by all Hindus, it is celebrated differently and differs from one region to another. The doorways are decorated with diya, little oil lamps with wicks, and kolam (also known as rangoli) which are intricate patterns made from coloured rice powder or grains. Hindus prefer to wear bright colours and typically avoid wearing black.
5. Christmas - December 25
This is the Christian festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. The festival is celebrated by the Christian community in Singapore, and it is marked by carol singing, the exchange of gifts, and the decoration of Christmas trees and homes.
In Singapore, there are tons of promotions and festive events organised for it. Most people would celebrate the event by going to Christmas Wonderland, walking along Orchard Road to view the Christmas light-up, gift exchanges and gift giving.
6. Thaipusam - January/February (date varies based on the lunar calendar)
This is a Tamil Hindu festival that celebrates the victory of Lord Murugan over the demon Soorapadman. The festival is celebrated by the Tamil community in Singapore, and it is marked by a procession of devotees carrying kavadis (ornate structures) and performing acts of devotion.
During Thaipusam, Hindu devotees in Singapore would seek blessings, fulfill vows and offer thanks. This festival would usually last 2 days and the ceremony starts in the early hours of the morning. Devotees would have to spend an entire month in spiritual preparation with a strict vegetarian diet to undertake the sacred ceremony (carrying spiked kavadis) without feeling any pain.
Historical overview of the different religious institutions in Singapore
Singapore is a multicultural and multi-religious country, and its religious institutions have a rich history that spans several centuries. Here is an overview of the different religious institutions in Singapore, along with their origins, development, and impact on the community:
Hinduism - Hinduism has a long history in Singapore, dating back to the arrival of Indian traders and settlers in the region. The earliest Hindu temples in Singapore were established in the 19th century, and today, there are several large and important Hindu temples throughout the country. These temples have served as important centers of worship and cultural identity for the Indian community in Singapore.
Buddhism - Buddhism was introduced to Singapore by Chinese and Indian immigrants in the 19th century. The earliest Buddhist temples in Singapore were small and simple affairs, but over time, they grew in size and importance. Today, there are several large and important Buddhist temples in Singapore, including the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, which is the largest Buddhist monastery in the country.
Islam - Islam has a long history in Singapore, dating back to the arrival of Arab and Malay traders in the region. The first mosque in Singapore, the Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka, was built in 1820, and today, there are several important mosques throughout the country. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) was established in 1968 to regulate and manage Islamic affairs in the country.
Christianity - Christianity was introduced to Singapore by European missionaries in the 19th century. The earliest Christian churches in Singapore were established by the British, and today, there are several large and important Christian churches throughout the country. These churches have played an important role in the education and social welfare of the community.
Sikhism - Sikhism was introduced to Singapore by Indian immigrants in the late 19th century. The earliest Sikh temples in Singapore were established in the early 20th century, and today, there are several important Sikh temples throughout the country. These temples have served as important centers of worship and community for the Sikh community in Singapore.
Both in terms of spiritual identity and cultural identity, Singapore's religious institutions have had a tremendous influence on the local population. The operation of schools and other social programs by numerous religious organisations has also played a significant part in social welfare and education. These institutions still play a significant role in Singapore's multi-religious and multicultural society today.
It is crucial that we comprehend and appreciate the diversity of religious views and practices in Singapore because it is a distinctive and valuable element of our society. Places of worship are crucial in forming our cultural identity because they provide a platform for people to express their religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and social ties.
We can create a more accepting and peaceful society that honours and respects everyone, regardless of their religion or cultural origin, by embracing and celebrating this diversity. Ultimately, we can create a more dynamic, resilient, and culturally rich community for everybody by recognizing and embracing the diversity of our society.
If you would love to bring your team or classes out for a fun day out to explore Singapore, feel free to check out our Outdoor Learning Journeys, Guided Walks and/or Guided Bus Tours! Do check out our previous articles on the Landmarks Of Singapore blog series as well if you are interested!