Bakhita Fung (SFS’23) is an international economics major in the School of Foreign Service. On campus, she is involved in the Hong Kong Students Association, Club Singapore, Chapel Choir, and Catholic Women at Georgetown. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she appreciates affordable Asian food and efficient transport systems. This led her to a study abroad program with the National University of Singapore during her senior year at Georgetown. She is curious to learn more about one of the most diverse societies in the world and how religion intersects with Singaporean culture, politics, and society. She is part of the fall 2022 cohort of the Doyle Global Dialogue.
During my study abroad at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I had the opportunity to reflect on the intersection of religion, society, politics, and culture. Through my experience at NUS, traveling in Southeast Asia, and daily interactions with locals, I realized that Singapore’s institutions and culture reflect the religious practices of Singaporeans while maintaining a separation of religion and politics. At the same time, although it is religiously and ethnically diverse, it is still a place that I have struggled to fit in. My own experience of being a foreigner in Singapore makes me more open to engaging with difference and being more inclusive to those who are different to me.
One common theme throughout my time in Singapore was its institutional sensitivity towards various religious and cultural practices. For example, in every hawker center (a food court), I found tray return stations separated by “non-halal” and “halal” sections, an important practice for the many Muslims who constitute around 15% of the Singaporean population. At the same time, most public bathrooms have built-in bidet showers, largely used by those who follow Islamic etiquette. Growing up in Hong Kong and attending college in the United States, I have never seen either practice followed ubiquitously across all districts and areas. The inclusion of religious practices in food and sanitation reflect Singapore’s sensitivity towards its diverse population. This observation made me reflect on the challenges that Muslims face in other places where there is a limited halal food industry or minimal awareness of Muslim practices in general. I noticed that in Singapore, government intervention plays a large role in ensuring that members of a religion feel comfortable and included in society. Perhaps this is due to the large population of Muslims. On the other hand, in the United States or Hong Kong, Muslims only constitute 1.1% and 4.4% of the population, respectively. This allowed me to realize the unique challenges of being a minority religion in a country. Some religious practices may have to adapt to the institutional constraints of a country.
Although its institutions are sensitive to religious and cultural practices, the Singaporean government makes an active effort to separate religion and politics. Hence, though people may feel comfortable practicing their religion in Singapore, religious leaders are not allowed to exert any political influence. For example, a friend once told me that large advertisements for religious groups are banned in Singapore. I think the government tries to strike a fine balance between acknowledging religion’s role in the lives of its people with managing the influential (and potentially marginalizing) role it could have on politics. As such, political parties are not allowed to use religious sentiment to garner support—which is quite different from the nation’s neighbors and my own experience in the United States. For example, the recent Malaysian election was partly fought on religious and cultural lines, with the Islamic party securing a significant number of votes. Similarly, in the United States, Christian nationalism has been on the rise. Hence, even though Singapore’s system places limits on religious freedom, some may argue that it is “in the public’s interest” to separate religion and politics. As Singapore continues to be a high-trust society that actively pursues a paternalistic approach to politics, this kind of policy does not face significant criticism.
My experience in Singapore has enabled me to better understand different religions and cultures, whether through food, daily practices, or interactions with people. Having never lived in a Malay or Muslim country, the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people gave me a glimpse of what various religious practices entail. At the same time, there were many moments where I distinctly felt like a foreigner, even in spite of Singapore’s ethnic and religious diversity. For example, many news articles talked about how foreigners were taking jobs from local people, and I definitely received strange looks when I did not speak Singlish (an informal, colloquial form of English that is used in Singapore). In particular, exchange students at NUS have a poor reputation: when I first petitioned for a class, the administrator asked me if I “knew that I had to attend a final exam” and that I would have to “participate in tutorials.” I wondered if she would have thought differently of me if I had spoken in Singlish. My challenges in assimilating into Singapore’s culture has made me more open to receiving the differences of others, whether it is in my home city (Hong Kong), or elsewhere in the world. I am extremely grateful to those who have seen past such differences and integrated me into their family and friendship circles, and I hope to learn from them as I finish up my final semester at Georgetown.