Taoism in Singapore

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Thian Hock Keng is one of the oldest Taoist temples in Singapore.

Taoism in Singapore is the religion of 10.9% of the entire population, growing from 8% ten years earlier. The definition of "Taoism" in the city-state includes the Chinese folk religion. In general, nearly all adherents of Taoism in Singapore are associated with the mainstream Zhengyi school. Owing to the decline in religious knowledge amongst the younger generations, Taoists, like followers of other religion, focus on rituals with little or no knowledge of Taoist scriptures and cultivation.

The Taoist Federation of Singapore was established in 1990 to propagate the religion and to promote intra-religious and inter-religious relations in Singapore and Taoist organisations abroad. There are currently about 500 Taoist temples and organisations affiliated to the Taoist Federation.

History[edit]

Taoism first arrived in Singapore with the first Chinese settlers in Singapore. The majority of these settlers worshipped Mazu (妈祖) to guide them safely in on their arrival in a new foreign country. Taoist practice later flourished as an increasing number of Chinese merchants and coolies settled in Singapore.

Many Taoist followers worship bodhisattva as well as Taoism and Buddhism have traditionally enjoyed a peaceful coexistence, thereby leading to obscured delineation between the two religions. Subsequently with the rise of Buddhist activists in the 1980s, the pool of faithful who worship both Taoist deities and Buddha realigned to declare themselves as Buddhists even if they were primarily worshipping Taoist deities (defined as families which worship Taoist deities at home). This led to a statistical decline in the Taoist population in Singapore. However, any attempt to deny Taoism its right as a religion of its own is dubious owing to the substantially growing and unreported numbers of youngsters embracing the faith.

Role of Taoism in the Chinese community[edit]

Koo Chye Ba Sheng Hong Temple.

Taoism itself forms the nucleus of Chinese customs amongst Chinese Singaporeans, and many folk beliefs are also adopted by Buddhists. Deities, such as Guan Yu, Xuan Tian Shang Di, and the patron deity are some of the most popular deities among Taoist adherents and the local Chinese community. The yin and yang concept, being an orthodox Taoist principle, is, however, only anecdotally practiced by the common Taoist believers.

Taoist martial arts, notably Tai Chi, is practiced in community centres. The Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple, or the City God Temple, engaged Taoist priests from Mount Wudang to teach Tai Chi and more than 3000 students of diverse race and religions practice the Tai Chi daily at the temple.

One of the oldest Taoist temples is the Thian Hock Keng, built by the late wealthy philanthropist Dr Tan Tock Seng, which also serves as the root of the Singapore Hokkien Association. There are other notables temples such as the Soon Tian Gong in Geylang and the Guan Yin Temple in Waterloo Street.

Ancestor worship[edit]

Chinese ancestral worship is a Taoist practice by nature, practiced by a large number of ethnic Chinese in Singapore. Taoists and Buddhists practice ancestor worship.

In the past, Chinese families owned ancestral tablets with the ancestors' names inscribed on them. Such tablets are placed on ancestral altars and urns meant for placing joss sticks, and food offerings are usually placed in front of it. Ancestral tablets found in Chinese homes only state the names of patrilineal ancestors and their wives. With the advent of modernism, and perchance owing to the decline of traditional Chinese values reinforced through Taoism, filial piety and thus such practices have almost vanished. At most only Taoist or Buddhist altars are found in Chinese homes.

Families may choose to have their ancestors cremated or buried in columbariums and cemeteries respectively. Families would visit their ancestor's resting place, especially during the Qingming Festival. They would bring joss sticks, incense paper and food offerings to the ancestors.

According to Chinese custom and tradition, people worshipping ancestors at Chinese cemeteries or columbariums must first lay out their offerings and prayer items before burning the joss stick. The worshippers may then recite prayers before proceeding to place their joss sticks on designated areas. The worshippers then burn the incense paper and collect the food after worship.

Incense paper[edit]

Incense paper used for ancestor worship comes in several forms; each represents a present for the ancestor's spirit. Paper coloured yellow with a gold foil printed on it represents a gold tael; that with a silver foil represents a silver tael.

Another variant is single-coloured paper which is manufactured with a rougher surface on one side and a smoother surface on the other side. Such paper come in varying colours. Incense paper of this type is to be rolled up and snugged tightly at both ends. The smoother face should form the exterior surface. Incense paper of this variant is used to represent clothes for the ancestor. Paper with a soft and rough surface printed in brown recycled paper serves as cloth.

Hell notes of various sizes as well as kai chin are used to represent money. All of this incense paper is arranged and collected into a bundle known as yi bou in accordance to significance. The brown incense paper serves as the base. Usually, the base must have an even number of "cloth" papers, and one sheet will serve as the nucleus of the base. They are followed on by the bank notes, kai chin, clothes and taels, and the yi bou is gathered up, and burnt with a candle before throwing it into the urn. Joss papers manufactured into the shape of shirts and trousers are sometimes burnt together with the yi bou.

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