Shifting Values And The Search For Meaning In Singapore


Singapore is one of the most diverse multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. A 2014 Pew Research study ranked Singapore the most religiously diverse nation in the world. No one religious group is in the majority; official 2020 census data recorded diverse religious affiliations of Buddhism (31.1%), Taoism (including Chinese traditional beliefs) (8.8%), Christianity (18.9%), Islam (15.6%), Hinduism (5.0%), other religions (0.6%) and no religion (20.0%).

As a cosmopolitan city-state, highly connected to an increasingly globalized world, Singapore has been marked by rapid economic development from “Third World to First” since its Independence in 1965, and is among the countries with the highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in the world. Correspondingly, her values landscape is showing change as well.

Shifting Values

While Singapore society remains largely conservative on moral values, there have been significant shifts in recent years, especially in relation to sexuality. 

Between 2013 and 2018, the Institute of Policy Studies conducted a survey of attitudes towards social, moral and political issues. It found “distinct shifts on issues surrounding homosexual rights”, especially so among respondents aged between 18 and 25. 

On the issue of “gay marriage” (the term used in the survey), the number of respondents aged 18 to 25 who thought that gay marriage was “always wrong” fell from 44.2% in 2013 to 23.9% in 2018; a large number within this group (42.0%) thought that gay marriage was “not wrong at all”. This was in contrast with those aged 46 and above, of whom a majority thought that gay marriage was “always wrong”. 

These growing rifts in moral attitudes between older and younger generations existed even within faiths. There were also marked differences in attitudes between Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Islam which traditionally do not accept homosexual activity on one hand, and other faiths or the non-religious on the other.

Table: Respondents’ views towards gay marriage, by religious background and age (figures in black: 2018; figures in red: 2013)

(Extracted from Mathew Mathews, et al. “Religion, Morality and Conservatism in Singapore” (May 2019) IPS Working Papers No. 34, Table 23)

Similar trends were observed in relation to attitudes on issues such as pre-marital sex, homosexual sex, and “adoption by a gay couple” (the term used in the survey). 

Simultaneously, the official 2020 census among the resident population in Singapore found an increase in those with no religious affiliation compared to a decade before, where 20.0% professed “no religion” in 2020 compared to 17.0% in 2010. The census also found that younger residents were more likely to have no religious affiliation compared to older residents. For example, 24.2% among those aged 15 to 24 reported having “no religion” in 2020, as compared to 21.0% a decade earlier.

However, there was no liberalization of attitudes towards marital infidelity. Between 2013 and 2018, there was in fact a slight increase in the proportion of people aged 18 to 35 who categorically rejected marital infidelity. 62.3% of respondents aged 18 to 25 said that infidelity was “always wrong” in 2018, as opposed to 58.9% in 2013. Similar shifts were recorded among respondents aged 26 to 35. 

These statistics suggest that there has been a distinct shift in sexual ethics away from traditional mores and towards norms based on consent, commitment and, especially, mutual trust. 

Connected But Alone

Such data is illuminating, especially when read with “The Connected Generation”, a 2019 report published by the Barna Group and World Vision. These organizations had conducted a survey of 15,000 adults aged 18 to 35 in 25 countries (including Singapore) and 9 languages. Its key findings concerning these young adults, summarized in its report, were as follows:

  • Connected but Alone. Despite being a hyper-connected and globally minded generation, many young adults say they feel lonely.
  • Spiritual Openness. There is a general (and, at times, surprising) openness toward spirituality and religion, but less so among those who have left their faith.
  • Age of Anxiety. Worry and insecurity, often tied to finances and vocation, are prominent traits among a generation that has come of age in a chaotic, complex time.
  • Looking for Answers. Human suffering and global conflict are among the top issues that raise spiritual doubts for 18–35 year-olds.
  • Longing to Make a Difference. When young adults engage with community, they’re looking for concrete teaching, opportunities to fight injustice and friends to join them along the way.

In its country-specific reports, more respondents from Singapore felt connected to people around the world (92%) than the global average (85%). At the same time, they felt higher levels of uncertainty about the future (53%), as well as greater pressure to succeed (41%) than felt by the global average (which were 40% and 36% respectively). 

COVID-19 has brought fresh challenges. A government-led poll on Singaporean youth found that mental well-being was a challenge for over half of the youth population (52%) polled during the second half of 2020. The top stressors cited by youth were anxiety over the future (53%), stress over finances (41%), and worries about academic or work performance (39%).

A Deeper Longing? 

The data hint at a deep and growing desire for identity, intimacy and faithfulness on one hand, and a profound search for deeper meaning and purpose in the midst of life’s complexities on the other. Viktor Frankl famously called man’s search for meaning the “primary motivation in his life”, as opposed to a secondary rationalization of instinct.

These point to – in the words of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks – “the three questions that every self-reflecting human being will ask at some time in his or her life”: 

  1. “Who am I?” 
  2. “Why am I here?” 
  3. “How then shall I live?” 

The first is a question of identity and belonging. The second is a question of meaning and purpose, while the third concerns moral values, rights and duties. All three questions are interconnected, and the answers to the first two questions will logically answer the third. All religious worldviews provide comprehensive answers to these three questions (or at least a means of answering them), even as their answers differ. 

At the same time, the anxieties and uncertainties highlight a gap in the institutions of the twenty-first century, a time which “has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” In his book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, the late Rabbi Sacks wrote: 

“What the secularists forgot is that the Homo sapien is a meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.”

Religious-like Zealotry

When man’s deep desire for meaning is unsatiated, it searches for what nourishment it can find elsewhere. As Jordan Peterson wrote, “Under such circumstances, everything becomes contaminated with unrecognized religious urgings and promptings and produces a zealotry whose intensity and danger is disproportionate to its putative cause.”

One manifestation of this – in Singapore as with many parts of the world – has been the heated debates over contentious social and moral issues ranging from race and religion to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. (LGBTQ+) identities. These have prompted numerous cautions from the government against importing “culture wars” to Singapore, which has further observed how Singapore’s global connectedness has “created new forms of identity politics here”.

While milder in tone and approach than elsewhere, certain forms of activism over contentious moral issues have taken on religious-like zeal and conviction in Singapore, both in form and substance. 

For example, in January 2021, an illegal protest was held outside the Ministry of Education in Singapore following a controversy when a transgender-identifying student accused the Ministry of blocking the student’s hormone therapy and subsequently of “misgendering” the student in a Facebook post.

In a tweet, one of the protestors stated: “When I held my placard and remained standing on that spot, all I had was the weight of violent histories against Trans students on my head.” Such language evokes the Greek myth of the titan Atlas, who was given the burden of bearing the weight of the heavens on his shoulders.

It would not be enough to simply critique the flaws of certain ideas or behaviors. A compelling moral vision is necessary, both on a personal and a societal level…

Beyond the contention for affirmation of gender identities, such activism is driven by the pursuit of a particular utopian vision of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion on its own terms, which provides its ideological adherents with a moral purpose and duty to actualize its vision. In the words of another protestor: “We must rally together, both to challenge harmful policies and to model the transformative approaches we are urging the state to adopt. Our anger, when rooted in love, will be a force not just to resist oppression, but to manifest a different, tender and beautiful world.”

These developments present both a challenge and an opportunity for conservatives of any creed. While important, it would not be enough to simply critique the flaws of certain ideas or behaviours. A compelling moral vision is necessary, both on a personal and a societal level, and which gives space for legitimate differences of opinions, beliefs and practices.

Darius Lee
Darius Lee
Darius Lee is the executive director of Cultivate SG, a non-profit organisation dedicated to “growing the good, one conversation at a time”. He is also a trained lawyer and locum solicitor.

Share this article

Recent posts


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Recent comments