Singapore’s religious landscape from Census 2010

While I was working on the previous article Religiosity and income inequality, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile taking a look at the Census 2010 data. I didn’t expect it to have any information about religiosity — the topic of the earlier post — but at least it would have numbers about religious affiliation.

Indeed it had. The religious landscape did not change dramatically from 2000, the year of the previous census.

The syncretic mix of Buddhism and Taoism that is characteristic of the Chinese remains the leading religion. In 2000, adherents made up 51 percent; in 2010, they formed 44.2 percent. Yet within this mix, the percentage who called themselves Buddhists declined significantly, while those who called themselves Taoists increased. A lot of questions immediately surface. Did people shift identity? Did people’s understanding of the terms change, such that while their beliefs remained more or less the same, they way they labelled themselves changed?

An intriguing possibility is the impact of immigration. Perhaps native-born Singaporean Chinese had, prior to 2000, come to see Taoism as old fashioned and chosen to label themselves Buddhists, while new immigrants from China — many arriving post-2000 —  do not see the issue the same way. I suspect the census used the colloquial term “Bai shen” in the question, which literally becomes “Do you worship the gods?”. If the new immigrants, not having absorbed the idea that Taoist beliefs are unfashionable, said “Yes, I worship gods” in response, then the numbers of Taoists recorded by the census would increase.

But at this point, it’s just my speculation. Still, it’s important to remember that surveying people for their religion is prone to all sorts of communication difficulties. How religion is defined, what associations each label has, is culturally specific. Therefore, use the numbers with extreme care.

Recall also a point I made in the earlier post. Religiosity is a different thing altogether from religion. The census merely asked people to categorise themselves based on the individual’s own and sometimes idiosyncratic understanding of the various terms. Religiosity, on the other hand, is the degree that a person abides by the teachings, beliefs and lifestyle requirements of this religion. This degree or intensity can vary immensely from one individual to the next, even if they both use the same label to describe themselves. Religiosity is not a measure captured in the census. So once again, use the numbers provided here with extreme care.

Moving on, two other groups showed significant increases in the percentage of adherents:

1.  The Christians (Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox together) increased from 14.6 percent to 18.3 percent. Interestingly the percentage of Catholics increased more than the that of Other Christians (predominantly Protestants), despite the headlines about the growth of mega churches. The question, much like that for the Buddhists and Taoists, is: Is the growth in the number of Catholics due to conversion or immigration? For example, if plenty of Filipinos became Permanent Residents in the decade leading up to 2010, it would impact the number and percentage of Catholics.

2. The “No religion” group increased from 14.8 percent in 2000 to 17.0 percent ten years later.

The percentages are shown in the table above, and represented in the bar chart below.

You will also notice an increase in Hindus, albeit that the total numbers are still relatively small. This one is almost surely due to immigration from India.

* * * * *

Evidence from other societies suggest that the better educated and higher income group would contain more people with no religion. Is this true in Singapore too? Yes it is, and very clearly too. The table below says it all. The percentage of those with “no religion” increases as educational attainment increases, reaching 24 percent among university graduates.

This being the case, the Humanist Society of Singapore has a bright future.

Anecdotal evidence also suggest that here in Singapore, the elite and upwardly mobile tend towards Christianity. Unlike secularism, this trend is quite specific to Singapore.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any table from the census report crossing religion with income bands, so the next best thing would be too look at the table crossing religion with dwelling type, which one can use as a rough surrogate for income level.

A table containing the data can be seen by clicking the thumbnail at right. For the purposes of pie charts below, I have classified our population into four groups to keep things simple.  The size of the pies vary proportionately with the size of the groups, the largest being those living in 4-room public housing (34 percent of citizens and Permanent Residents aged 15 years and above). Those in 5-room or executive condominiums constitute 28 percent, while those in 3-room flats and those living comfortably in private properties constitute 20 and 18 percent respectively.

As you can see, the evidence bears out the anecdotal observation. Catholics and other Christians make up about 35 percent of the group living in private properties, the highest proportion out of four pie charts.

Yet, if you will recall, out of 24 new candidates introduced by the People’s Action Party prior to the May 2011 general election, twelve of them (50%) declared themselves to be Christian or Catholic. In other words, not only were they far from representative of Singaporeans as a whole, they weren’t even representative of the economic elite from which they were drawn. I think this remarkable skewing of political weightage is something we should bear in mind each time they open their mouths about Singaporeans’ “values” or the “tone of our society”.

33 Responses to “Singapore’s religious landscape from Census 2010”

  1. 1 yuen 6 August 2011 at 22:11

    I suspect the main reason Christianity gets a higher percentage of the educated people is because Christian clubs are more socially active in the tertiary institutions, thus capturing converts from freethinker types and other religions; for example, City Harvest started out as bible study groups in NUS (in fact, Kong Hee was my student, doing his major in the NUS computing school) and grew to 30000 members in 20 years. My guess is that, if you take out the numbers in these new type church organizations, the traditional churches have not grown much or might even have shrunk. The young new Christians would be more inclined towards the more liberal, less doctrinaire groups, as much social organizations as religious ones. Being better educated with higher incomes, the members were able to contribute tithes and donations to fund the growing organizations.

    • 2 Anonymous 7 August 2011 at 22:36

      In my university days, I had uni friends and acquaintances who attended churches solely to establish business and other connections with the elites and people of power.

      They could quote chunks from the Bible and assert different views and they’d no interest in the Church or Christianity. They only participated when it was beneficial for them.

    • 3 Fox 8 August 2011 at 14:33

      I did notice that Christian clubs are more socially active in NUS. However, I would not say that they are more liberal and less doctrinaire. The Campus Crusade for Christ in NUS were pretty hardcore at evangelizing. I remembered that they even put up a poster right outside a lecture theatre in the Science faculty asking for volunteers to go on missionary trips to Thailand to convert what they called ‘demon worshippers’.

      There was a Buddhist club in NUS and it was not much of a social club and somewhat more abstract in its philosophy. A more intellectual strain of Buddhism was and may still be more popular amongst Uni students. I suspect that there is an ongoing trend of conversion from folk syncretic Buddhism to the aforementioned type by more educated Chinese Singaporeans.

      • 4 Poker Player 8 August 2011 at 16:20

        >> to convert what they called ‘demon worshippers’

        To those who still doubt the virtues of secularism: they are now reduced to name calling. They used to wield the power of the state…

        Sticks and stones…thank god 😉 for modern secularism…

      • 5 yuen 8 August 2011 at 20:33

        to Fox: you cite Campus Crusade for Christ’s hardline attitude; not all the groups are “crusades”; as anonymous says, some “friends and acquaintances who attended churches solely to establish business and other connections with the elites and people of power.”

      • 6 Poker Player 9 August 2011 at 00:30

        >> not all the groups are “crusades”

        Who was making this claim? Not all parties of the left are communist.

        As an American teenager would say: Duh!

      • 7 Anonymous 9 August 2011 at 13:03

        Yuen, I don’t deny that Christian clubs in NUS were and still are social organization. Nonetheless, you can have a social organization of people who can be quite doctrinaire. There is no fundamental conflict here.

        From my time in NUS, I noticed that some of them were quite active at proselytization and definitely ‘doctrinaire’ in the outlook of their members, especially the converts. Some of them were offensively intolerant (of non-Christian Chinese Singaporeans) to the point of being semi-Jihadic. Thoses that I knew were perfectly sociable creatures. The in-group dynamics were more than palpable though. I especially did not feel comfortable with my Campus Crusaders acquaintances. I got the feeling that they expected others like them (English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans from a certain set of schools) to convert in order to ‘fit in’.

        My mother comes from a devout, long-time Presbyterian/Anglican family (although her personal religious observance is much more relaxed with my father being a Buddhist), and I don’t remember her relatives being so enthusiastic about their personal beliefs.

  2. 8 Singa 6 August 2011 at 22:46

    Interesting article, especially the last paragraph.
    In multi-faith & multi-ethnic S’pore, it is not healthy if a very high % of policy makers are from the same faith or ethnic group.

  3. 11 Anonymous 6 August 2011 at 23:35

    This is why there is group-think in PAP.

  4. 12 Data 7 August 2011 at 00:57

    Fascinating analysis! I have to say that these data-driven posts are the most interesting parts of yawning bread, at least to me. I remember in yr last post on this topic, you mentioned a study that showed that religiosity increases as income approaches both minimum and maximum levels, thus supporting the relative power theory. Yr analysis of census data seems to suggest this isn’t the case in Singapore, since % no religion seems to increase secularly (pun intended) with size/cost of dwelling. Yet, % Christian/catholic does seem to increase with income in sg. Do you think that this suggests that Christianity, and perhaps the other abrahamic faiths, are more suitable to be used for relative power theory than eastern faiths?

    Also, your analysis touches on a rather strange feature of Singaporean statistics: their tendency to make strange cross tabs. It would be naturally to cross tab the major social variables, like race, religion, gender, income, age etc. But dept of statistics decides to do a cross tab of dubious value instead: religion by dwelling type. Why is the dept of statistics so concerned about dwelling type anyway? Of course, it would be ideal for dept of statistics to release their data tables in full, so that we can do our own cross tabs with the full range of available data! That is the most powerful feature of the US census, for example.

    • 13 yawningbread 7 August 2011 at 02:11

      You are doing exactly what I caution people not to do, which is to equate religious identification with religiosity. Just because a person declares himself to be an adherent of Religion X does not mean he has high religiosity. It is possible to declare a religion and yet have low religiosity. As far as I know, we have no data at all about religiosity in Singapore, so whether or not Singapore society exhibits a profile as described in the research (on religiosity and income inequality) is completely unknown. Nothing in the statistics here in this post prove or disprove.

      • 14 shornlock 7 August 2011 at 03:10

        Maybe the 12/24 Christian/RC candidates were low-religiosity conservatives (i.e. easy to fit into PAP profile). The point is that you are saying ‘this group is non-representative of the population at large’ without explaining the significance of that statistic. PAP politicians are not representative of the population at large. People earning $10k+ a month are not representative of the population at large.

        But from your pie charts, it would appear that the more expensive your house, the greater the correlative probability that a) you are a Christian/RC, and implicitly, b) that you earn more. This is also true of no-religion people. At the $10k+ level, the 50% proportion might fit the population profile.

        Here are some whimsical thoughts. Should Singaporeans thus deliberately vote for poorer candidates to balance it out? Or are the Christian/RCs actually blessed by their religious faith?

      • 15 resha 7 August 2011 at 16:38


        The thought that the christians are rich and successful because they are christians is potentially divisive.

        It worries me whenever my christian friends make comparisions and attributed their material well-being to their god. I do not know whether in their mind that they would believe that their poorer neighbours deserve it because they have a different or no faith.

    • 16 Sophia 19 August 2011 at 13:30

      I believe it has partly got to do with integration with elite schools – most of which hold Christian/Catholic values. To some people as they get older tend to be religiously apathetic. But I won’t deny the fact that there are a group of people who join the church mainly to be close to their elite friends and form a community, so that in future their children can be part of this elite sphere where the parents of these children tend to hold important positions. – In a nutshell, networking with rich/important/influential people could be the shift from religious apathy to being in a social-religious circle.

      • 17 Poker Player 19 August 2011 at 15:37

        ” To some people as they get older tend to be religiously apathetic.”

        But a dramatic upsurge in interest follows.

  5. 18 wikigam 8 August 2011 at 09:56

    To : Yuen

    Am i blind? You Quote :”…..inclined towards the more liberal, ….” . A religion organization : Church which command ” homosexual is sin” based on their “moral frame” to force on others. Is it you called : LIBERAL” ?

    I feel very sad when saw my christian gay friend admit to their sin as gay and should be punished by god in the way.
    I try help to freedom them from the “SIN”‘s world.

    In fact , no such species that “Born as SIN” in the biology world.

    • 19 yuen 8 August 2011 at 20:31

      no I am not blind; what about yourself? maybe you should go and learn more about City Harvest, New Creation and other new church organizations; the current scene is a lot more interesting than just attitude towards homosexuality

      • 20 Poker Player 9 August 2011 at 00:27

        You are missing the point. You can love cats, practice vegetarianism, etc but still not be liberal if you think homosexuality is a sin.

        I am sure some Shiv Shena leaders are vegetarian.

      • 21 yuen 9 August 2011 at 12:23

        that’s what is called a litmus test, like abortion with republican politicians: maybe to gays, someone’s attitude towards homosexuality is very basic; to most people, it is just one out of many things

      • 22 Poker Player 9 August 2011 at 15:42

        “to most people, it is just one out of many things”

        Yeah, at one time so too the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or closer home, the White Australia policy.

  6. 23 This is Anfield 8 August 2011 at 13:25

    “It worries me whenever my christian friends make comparisions and attributed their material well-being to their god. I do not know whether in their mind that they would believe that their poorer neighbours deserve it because they have a different or no faith.”

    It’s all to do with the “prosperity gospel” being preached by these new age churches like CHC and NCC that has made such thoughts so prevalent amongst them. They have no qualms about flaunting their wealth to others. Just take a look at how many of these people flock to the latest Pradas at Suntec City after their service at the Rock. Their message is : pray to my God, and you can be like me. Just like Jordan’s Nike ad.

    • 24 yawningbread 8 August 2011 at 13:35

      What is even more amazing is that the pastors associated with these churches love to mock folk religions like Taoism as practised by neighbourhood uncles and aunties, in their attempt to win converts or cement congregational loyalty. A typical line of attack would be to say that the uncles and aunties pray to idols such as the Chinese God of Fortune, etc, in the hope of gaining health, wealth and winnings at the lottery. Personally I find it hard to see any substantive difference between the prosperity gospel and what they make fun of.

      • 25 Poker Player 8 August 2011 at 14:29

        ” mock folk religions like Taoism as practised by neighbourhood uncles and aunties, in their attempt to win converts or cement congregational loyalty.”

        As a young boy, one of the highlights of the year was to help my grandmother prepare for the various confused and traditional Taoist, Buddhist and folk festivities/commemorations. She really took them seriously and my most treasured memories were of my time helping her.

        One of the greatest pains of my adult life was when the rest of the family turned Christian – and she, worried about how she was going to be buried, followed suit. The beliefs that comforted her for most of her life was abandoned for something alien.

        I didn’t see the point of abandoning one set of superstitions for another. At least the old one was not alien and was what she grew up with. Still pains me.

      • 26 Winking Doll 8 August 2011 at 15:57

        YB> “Personally I find it hard to see any substantive difference between the prosperity gospel and what they make fun of.”

        I agree with yawningbread’s observation. I call that the Christians’ hypocrisy, a symptom I noted specifically to born-again Christians from evangelical churches (both in Singapore and in Canada). I have close friends who are Christians (including those in evangelical denominations). However, I doubt we can ever agree in discussions on their religious interpretation of worldly events.

    • 27 Sophia 19 August 2011 at 13:34

      I stopped going to New Creation as I found it leaning too much towards materialism and socialness instead of the spirituality. Everyone is mostly in cliques, and then you find that their children attend the same school, same tuition centre, same piano lessons etc. Not all of course.

  7. 28 Singa 8 August 2011 at 15:11

    Agree with the last sentence in yawningbread’s post. With the influx of foreign PRs who bring with them a wide array of differing faiths & cultural practices into over-populated S’pore, it is critical that the political leaders keep a watchful eye on certain groups who, in their zeal to propagate their beliefs, may inadvertently upset the stability of multi-cultural/multi-faith S’pore. The Christian pastor who was called up by ISD for tea for insulting Buddhist practices, is still fresh in the minds of many S’poreans. Other areas the govt needs to be weary of is the aggressive prosylitization in public places by certain evangelical groups and the fair allocation of land for religious buildings.
    As this land-squeezed little red dot becomes more multi-cultural, it is critical to ensure that, like the GRC, there is a healthy balance of govt leaders from different faiths in the cabinet too. The reason is a no-brainer.

  8. 29 Fox 9 August 2011 at 13:12

    I do know of a few Buddhist converts during my NUS days. Their kind of Buddhism is more philosophical than the syncretic folk version and provided them with an intellectual, theological shield against the proselytizing influences of the Christian club. Converts of all kind usually start by searching for a belief system to make sense of their world. Had they not been Buddhists, I suspected that they would have made good Catholics. Organizations like Campus Crusaders, a broadly non-denominational movement shorn of any deep theology, do not really appeal to those people in university.

  9. 30 wikigam 10 August 2011 at 09:16

    What singapore need is self-responsibility to individual , family , Organization and Country.

    Fake regilions sense doesn’t make sense to the young.

  10. 31 wikigam 10 August 2011 at 11:28

    To : Yuen

    1)From Uganda , Kenya to Singapore , why christinity leading the anti-homesexual outside the europe country ?

    2)If only have one selection form MP , will MP choice to obey GOD or PM ?

    3)Is this a “christinity political agenda” force from western country to the Asia & Afica country ?

    The Uganda parliament recently considered an Anti-Homosexuality Bill, if enacted, would have broadened the criminalisation of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty for people who have previous convictions, or are HIV-positive, and engage in same sex sexual acts. The bill also included provisions for Ugandans who engage in same-sex sexual relations outside of Uganda, asserting that they may be extradited back to Uganda for punishment, and included penalties for individuals, companies, media organisations, or non-governmental organisations that support LGBT rights. The private member’s bill was submitted by MP David Bahati in Uganda on 14 October 2009, and is believed to have had widespread support in the Uganda parliament. Debate of the bill was delayed in response to global condemnation.

    4)will singapore become the another “Uganda” in the asia ?

  11. 32 The 11 August 2011 at 10:41

    /// The religious landscape did not change dramatically from 2000, the year of the previous census. ///

    This could be an understatement.

    Total population of citizens and PRs were 3,273,4000 in 2000 and 3,771,700 in 2010. The statistics on religion are based on those 15 years or older, but for this purpose we can ignore the cohort below 15 year old.

    Buddhism/Taoism remained static from 1,669,400 (51.0% of 3.27m) in 2000 to 1,667,100 (44.2% of 3.77m), a decline of 0.14%.

    Catholicism increased from 157,100 (4.8% of 3.27m) in 2000 to 267,800 (7.1% of 3.77m), an increase of 70.5%.

    Those with no religion increase from 484,500 (14.8% of 3.27m) in 2000 to 641,200 (17.0% of 3.77m) in 2010, an increase of 32.3%.

    This is a dramatic change in a space of ten years. Buddhism/Taoism is going no where, whereas Catholicism showed a dramatic 70.5% increase, aided in part by PRs from the Philippines as surmised by you.

    Those with no religion also saw significant increase of 32.3%, probably due to the fact that Singaporeans are getting better educated, those who are allowed to become PR are on average better educated and worship the religion of Lucre.

  12. 33 Peter 31 July 2013 at 14:24

    Pertaining to the last statement that the affluent are fast taking up Christianity as a religion, are you certain its not the case where Christians are becoming more affluent? That it is the fundamental relationships of Christianity that is causative, as your statistics show.

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