“Singapore Saints,” Tambuli, Dec. 1990, 32
If you drive from north to south through Singapore City, a distance of approximately five kilometers, you pass a half-dozen luxurious hotels, eleven impressive shopping centers, several tree-filled parks, and numerous office and apartment buildings. The drive shows the modern nature of the island country of Singapore. Equally impressive is the fact that you also see five Muslim mosques, two Chinese Buddhist temples, three Indian temples—two Hindu and one Sikh—and six Christian churches on the same drive. Sometimes, several different religions are represented within a block of each other.
This circumstance points to two distinctive characteristics of the former British colony of 2,640,000: the diversity and the peaceful coexistence of so many religions and ethnic groups. For instance, in 1989, a local newspaper reported that Buddhism accounted for 28.3 percent of the population, Christianity, 18.7 percent, Islam, 16 percent, Taoism, 13.4 percent, Hinduism, 4.9 percent, and no religion, 17.6 percent. Many nations near Singapore experience tension between different ethnic and religious groups. But Singapore has avoided most of that. Even with the diversity, “it’s a national characteristic that races and cultures get along well,” says Ho Ah Chuan, Singapore District president.
That diversity and harmony are also reflected in the Church there. For example, when the new family history center opened last year, Brother Rajamohan, an Indian, eagerly took a seat at a microfilm reader to see what genealogical records were available. “I have many ancestors who lived in southern India,” he said. “I can finally start finding their records.” The woman who helped him was Chinese. She knew a lot about Chinese genealogies but almost nothing about Indian records. She did as much as she could, though, showing her friend how to use the readers and what records were available from India. When the first records showed on the microfilm reader screen, Brother Rajamohan exclaimed, “Oh no! They’re all in Hindi. Am I going to have to learn Hindi, too?” Most Indians in Singapore speak Tamil, a language common to southern India and Sri Lanka.
At the Mandarin Branch conference of the Singapore District, President Ho stands up to speak at sacrament meeting. He relates a Chinese folktale, substituting a branch president for the wise man: The branch president advises a man who complains about the crowded conditions of his one-room home to move his duck, pig, and cow in with his family. After a few months of pandemonium, the president finally advises the man to let the animals live outside, and the man is so grateful he never complains again. An interesting sidelight of the meeting is that President Ho, as well as his counselors, Tan Su Kiong and Francis Tan, who also speak at the conference, do not have Mandarin backgrounds, though they are Chinese.
The Chinese may comprise about 75 percent of the population in the island nation, but they speak many different dialects. In school, all Chinese learn Mandarin. Yet it’s still a second language to many. Living in friendly relationships with the Chinese are Malays, Indians, Indonesians, Koreans, Japanese, and expats—the term for Europeans and North Americans living in the country. All school students study English, the official language for all ethnic groups. Most of the Mandarin Branch members speak English well. (The other four branches in the district are English-speaking.) Besides English, the Malays learn Malay, and the Indians learn Tamil. Essentially, every Singaporean grows up speaking two or three languages—a necessity to blend such a diverse population group.
The Church in Singapore is small but strong. Elder Ezra Taft Benson dedicated Singapore for the preaching of the gospel on 14 April 1969. The Southeast Asia Mission, under President G. Carlos Smith, was formed on the first of November, with headquarters at Singapore. The greatest number of missionaries to serve in Singapore came that year, and in January 1970, the branch was divided. Many of the Saints date their membership back to that time. Francis Tan, for instance, met the missionaries in March 1969 and was baptized three months later.
In 1970, the Church bought property on Bukit Timah Road, and the first chapel was completed in 1973. Then, following civil and religious leaders’ criticism of the Church, the government restricted the number of foreign missionaries to two from each religious group. The ruling was relaxed in 1988 to allow ten foreign missionaries into the country.
Even so, the 1980s have been watershed years for the Church in Singapore. On New Year’s Day, 1980, the Singapore Mission was formed, and the district began to more fully implement Church programs. During the 1970s, a number of members had attended Brigham Young University at either Provo or Laie, Hawaii, learning firsthand how the Church operates on the ward and stake levels. President Ho, for example, earned his master’s degree from BYU. By the 1980s, there were numerous experienced leaders. More Singaporeans had begun to serve missions, too. In 1987, the Church was granted approval to buy additional property. Today, there are 1,142 members in five branches, meeting in three chapels. The cream-colored Church buildings in Singapore are especially attractive. They gleam in the sun as if they were just washed (it rains fifteen to twenty-five centimeters a month in Singapore, and the city always looks as if it has just been scrubbed). Even in a city of numerous high rise structures and beautiful modernistic buildings, the chapels are a source of pride for the members.
The two primary emphases in the Singapore District are reactivation and missionary work. The patience and love devoted to this work is perhaps the reason so many of the long-time members are active. Sometimes, members’ efforts have also resulted in baptisms. Ruby and Vincent Goh of the Singapore Branch are one example.
Ruby was baptized in 1969 with nine others in her family. But she soon slipped into inactivity. She says, “In 1973, I married a nonmember who led an active social life. One night, when I was driving home, a car swerved and hit our car. I was knocked unconscious. My husband died instantly. It took me about a year to recover from the shock. I began to think seriously about coming back to church.”
In 1979, she met Vincent Goh at the bank where both worked, and they were married in 1982. Meanwhile, in 1980, one of Ruby’s sisters arranged for home teachers to visit regularly. Ruby began to attend church occasionally, and Vincent accompanied her a few times. After their marriage, with the encouragement of her nonmember husband and friends in the Church, Ruby became fully active.
In 1985, however, Vincent faced a problem at his employment. “I knew that Church members could go to their leaders for help in resolving difficult problems. Though I wasn’t a member, I visited the branch president and explained the situation. He helped me gain the courage to resolve the issue. The problem was settled to everyone’s satisfaction. About that time, I read in a Family Relations manual about living by the Spirit. I decided I needed to make some changes and was baptized that year.”
Ruby describes her feelings: “At Vincent’s baptism, I felt the Spirit more strongly than I ever have. It seemed as if I were marrying a new man, even though we were already married. And I felt like a new bride. I couldn’t contain my happiness.”
Part of the members’ strength derives from the responsibility they have to spread the gospel. In Singapore, open proselyting—going house-to-house, tracting, street meetings, and so forth—is restricted. So the missionaries and couples, who volunteer their time to help the Church there, serve as support. They strengthen the members, contact the less active, and help where requested by Church leaders. Members are responsible for introducing others to the gospel.
The seminary and institute program has helped greatly to provide missionaries as well as strengthen members. Richard Ang, associate area director for the Church Educational System, reports that the students requested an everyday seminary program. In July 1986, thirty students began meeting at 5:45 A.M. Early-morning institute classes started in January 1988. Since public transportation doesn’t begin until 6:00 A.M., priesthood quorums take turns providing transportation and breakfast. The first seminary group graduated in 1987. All the local missionaries in recent years have come through the seminary and institute program. Currently, eleven Singaporeans serve in the country.
Barbara Hong, who was in the first early-morning seminary class, says, “My nonmember parents, like many others, weren’t very happy about the classes. They felt that early religion classes every day would detract from schoolwork. But we proved that the classes helped our learning. Our commitment increased. Teachers and fellow students were impressed. My parents soon began to encourage me to attend.”
One supposed obstacle to missionary work has actually proved to be a blessing. All nineteen-year-old men must serve at least two years in the military. Singapore stresses schooling, so most men also receive some college-level education. If they serve missions, the young men are twenty-three when they enter or return to college. That has not stopped them, however. The additional two years as missionaries have also not affected the possibility for admission into the nation’s colleges. The delay for military service has produced more mature, dedicated missionaries. This has been important, since many Singapore members have helped strengthen the Church in other countries.
The dedication of the Manila Philippines Temple in 1984 has also strengthened the Saints in Singapore. Edward and Lois Bacon, formerly Singapore Second Branch family history consultants, reported that the district has scheduled a temple trip every year. As understanding of the temple and its purposes has increased, attendance has increased. About twenty went on the first trip, the only one for the year. Now members go on two trips a year, each sponsored by a branch and each attended by twenty or more members.
The standard of living in Singapore is one of the highest in Asia. The island city is a center of commerce and manufacturing. It features a duty-free port—the fourth largest port in the world and first in terms of tonnage shipped. The international airport is rated by airlines as excellent. Though the round trip fare to Manila is high, a great many members have been able to make the trip. Dozens of couples have been sealed, and the Saints have begun to do work for their ancestors, too.
Though the public view of the Church has been negative at times, that is changing. The members are winning respect for the restored gospel by quietly maintaining their values in public service and work. Helen Ho, a branch Relief Society president, serves as chairperson of the women’s committee in the Yuhua Constituency (a district of over 50,000). The committee in each constituency organizes cultural and educational activities for women. The functions are usually held on Sunday. However, Helen’s committee, after she explained her beliefs about the Sabbath, moved most of their activities to Saturday. Helen is excused from attending those activities that are still held on Sunday.
One convert, Special Constable Frankie Png, joined the Church a little over a year ago. He says, “At first, my associates tried to make me feel uncomfortable. But I always try to be patient and encourage them to live better lives. I also encourage my Muslim friends to live their religion more fully. Most respect my beliefs now.” Because of his fine example, his mother and brother were recently baptized.
The Saints in Singapore have been tested, in ways common to all as well as peculiar to their circumstances. Joseph Goh, Bedok Branch executive secretary, has fought through two bouts of cancer, with the help of his wife, Jemmie, and his two children. In 1987, Joseph discovered a growth on his left leg. He relates, “I’d been playing soccer and felt some pain while walking. When the pain persisted, my wife insisted that I see our doctor. X-rays revealed a tumor. The doctor later said that he might have to amputate if the growth was connected to the bone. But we remembered the priesthood blessing I had received the night before. It had promised that I would walk again.”
The operation successfully removed the growth, then Joseph underwent radiation treatment for three months. “I had to relearn balance and walking. Our seven-year-old son, Kelvin, prayed every day for me and often held my hand to comfort me. I recovered in time to baptize him. I worried about falling during the baptism since I couldn’t put weight on the leg, but everything went smoothly.”
Then, in January 1988, X-rays uncovered white spots on his left lung. He underwent chemotherapy for six months, losing all his hair. Because his natural immunities were weakened, he suffered through several illnesses, including chicken pox. Eventually, all spots but one disappeared. The remaining spot is being monitored closely. Joseph was well enough by December for his family to travel to the New Zealand Temple to be sealed.
Jemmie, who serves as first counselor in the Relief Society presidency, says, “These experiences taught us how to pray deeply. I had never really known what sorrow was before, or joy. I learned a lot about faith from Joseph: he did not blame God, and he did not murmur. The second fight with cancer was very frustrating. But during one prayer, some words came to my mind, ‘I know what I am doing,’ and I realized that I must trust God.”
Joseph adds, “The problems drew us together. Through our testing, I learned of the love my wife and children have for me, and I loved them more. I believe the Lord wants us to learn to be more patient and to know how people suffer so we can be more compassionate and understanding.”
The story of Sukiman Abraham, who serves as Clementi Branch mission leader, gives us an idea of the challenges unique to Singapore. Sukiman belonged to a non-Christian religion. His parents, who were born in Indonesia, moved to Singapore before World War II. When young, Sukiman attended religious services with his parents and studied his religion.
Although his parents were devout, they allowed Sukiman to attend a school taught by Latter-day Saints. One Saturday, he was playing basketball with some Latter-day Saint players, who invited him to church. He attended the next day. He says, “I learned a little about the restored gospel and received a copy of the Book of Mormon. I started to read it on the way home. I began to take several lessons a week. My father scolded me and threw away my copies of the scriptures. My mother asked me to take some time. After one month, I decided to be baptized.”
Sukiman’s parents asked him to leave. For two months he had no home, until he joined the armed forces. After a while, his parents reconsidered, and his mother asked him to come home. He completed his military service, then worked in shipping. In 1982, his father died. “On his death bed,” Sukiman remembers, “he asked me to take care of my mother, though I was Christian. I became the main support for her and the rest of the family. I wanted to serve a mission, but in my parents’ faith, leaving one’s mother is unfilial. One night in 1985, the answer came to my prayer: ‘Just go, and I will take care of her.’ So I went. The Lord did provide for my family. They were all right when I got back.”
“My mother and I are at peace, and she visits me often. She knows that the gospel has made me a better man and a more obedient son.”
Singapore is definitely a microcosm of the ethnic groups, cultures, languages, and religions of Southeast Asia. Above all, what the members in this tiny nation demonstrate is that the gospel is for all of God’s children.
“The gospel gives us a better understanding of what life is for,” says Francis Tan. “It helps us become like our Father in Heaven. It helps us to realize our potential, to help serve and strengthen each other. We all give up some traditions when we join, but we become part of the universal church. We truly are no more strangers but fellow citizens. Singapore is a model for this banding together. Brotherhood and sisterhood is the drawing together of all into one household.”
Though Singapore is a tiny country, its influence in Southeast Asia is far-reaching. Because of its central location, its diverse population, and its economic and commercial strength, the nation serves as a gateway to many countries around it. Singapore thus provides a natural headquarters for the growth of the gospel in a large part of Southeast Asia. The Singapore Mission includes 20 percent of the world’s population. Besides Singapore, the mission includes India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Couples assigned to the mission travel back and forth between Singapore and other countries to provide assistance for Church branches and districts. President Robert W. Houghton, in particular, spends much of his time in other countries to conduct conferences and guide members. He travels to India four to five times a year, Sri Lanka four times a year, Malaysia every two months, and Indonesia two or more times a year. Following is a brief statistical breakdown of Church units in the mission:
India: 3 districts, 9 branches, 729 members. Leadership is mostly Indian.
Indonesia: 3 districts, 17 branches, 4,248 members. Leadership is Indonesian.
Malaysia: 1 district, 3 branches, 277 members. Leadership is mostly Malaysian.
Singapore: 1 district, 5 branches, 1,142 members. Leadership is Singaporean.
Sri Lanka: 1 branch, 135 members. Leadership is Sri Lankan.