So much of what we do is shaped by what we believe, but why do we believe what we do? How has a philosophy so convicted us that we choose to abide by it for the rest of our lives? Perhaps it is more than a theory, more than a set of rules and regulations. Maybe it was an event, or a series of events, that proved its credibility when it was put to the test. Or was it something that defies logic? An experience that surpassed understanding and resounded deep within?
Even the absence of a subscription to divinity is doctrine itself. Faith is an odyssey that takes a lifetime to explore and one where its certainty can only be guaranteed at the end of it. With the existence of other faiths, centuries-old and revered by nations, which gospel spells truth? What pushes that stance further into a full devotion? If a span of life can validate eternity, wouldn’t you want to be able to look into the soul?
At a glance:
- Christianity by Senior Pastor Yang Tuck Yoong.
- Buddhism by Venerable Phra Goh.
- Islam by Ustaz Mizi Wahid.
- Hinduism by Maharaj Washdev Sharma.
- Humanism by Cheng Chee Hoew.
By Yang Tuck Yoong, senior pastor of Cornerstone Community Church
I grew up in a Taoist background for much of my early life until my mother became a born-again Christian. God touched her very powerfully during what was known as The Charismatic Renewal movement in Singapore when He poured His Spirit upon the mainstream churches. I saw how her behaviour changed dramatically when she got saved, and I thought to myself, “If this is what Christianity can do for someone, I really want this.”
So when my aunt had the opportunity to share the Gospel with me for the first time when I was 16, I immediately said yes and said the salvation prayer with her. The next thing I knew, I was filled with this unbridled joy and peace inside. I knew everything was different.
Not long after my conversion experience, my dad passed away. Something snapped in me and I went into a tailspin—into a life of sin and decadence. Several months later, a friend invited me to a Christian meeting when a guest preacher was in town. I had never heard a man preach like that. I felt like my heart was on fire. During worship, when he said: “The Holy Spirit is here”, I saw people falling to the ground. I knew God was in the place and said: “Lord, my life is so messed up right now. If you can touch me, I’ll give my life to You.” I don’t know what happened in those few moments, it was like there was this divine transaction.
I felt raw power flooding me and my legs became like jelly. I didn’t want to fall so I held onto the pew in front of me, but I couldn’t move. Electricity. Fire. It was a beautiful experience. When the power gradually lifted, the residue was a joy so incredible that I could not explain it. I was afraid to sleep that night because I didn’t want to lose that feeling and emotion. But I woke up the next morning still with that overflowing joy and realised that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just touch you and walk away. He comes to abide in us.
These experiences reaffirmed to me that God was real. Faith is not just a cognitive decision, it’s also experiential.
I attended Bible College during the vacation of my first year in university and it was there that I had a burning desire to serve God. I wanted to drop out of university to do that full-time, but my mother wanted me to finish my degree first. I prayed and felt the Lord telling me to listen to her. After I graduated, I ended up working for six years. Each year, I’d say I was ready to go full-time, but God would tell me I wasn’t. This went on for a few more years, and I did well in life.
Then one day I heard Him say: “Quit your job.” It was a struggle for me at that stage because of the financial risk involved. But He assured me that He could provide for me so I obeyed and quit my job. I’ve now been serving God full-time for almost 30 years and I can say that God has kept His promise to me and answered all my needs beyond my wildest dreams. I’m still so grateful that He called me to a full-time ministry.
Singapore is a multicultural, multi-religious society and I do not disparage any other religions. In fact, we’re on very good terms with leaders of other faiths. Everyone has the full liberty to believe what they do. But for me, I know this faith is true because of my personal journey and experience. Jesus is so real to me. CS Lewis said that when you read the Bible, you’ll come to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was either a lunatic, the greatest liar who ever lived or He really is who He said He was. Everything He has said is happening or has happened, so I never doubted.
I think that people’s perception of religion has to do with what they watch on TV and in the movies. The cathedrals and churches—that’s not Christianity. True Christianity is full of power, life, joy and peace. The youth are exposed to a lot of differing views in social media that affects their perception of what true value is, but it doesn’t diminish the message of the Gospel. Truth is truth, there’s nothing relative about what the Word of God says.
Everything we know; all wisdom comes from God. We now have breakthroughs in the field of physics, medicine and so forth, but God is the source of all wisdom and understanding. The Creator helps us better understand the world He created. God is more relevant than we can understand. Five seconds after we die, we’re going to be completely aware of the fact that we’re fully alive and life has just begun. This life is only probationary, a dress rehearsal if you will; a parenthesis in eternity. We’re spirit beings prepared for our eternal destiny.
God gives people the right to choose. Between heaven or hell after Earth, believing in Jesus is the only way. That’s what the Bible says. I don’t have to argue; I can’t change that. The Gospel is everlasting because everybody needs to be saved by the Blood of Jesus Christ. It never loses its power, it doesn’t tarnish. It’s as alive today as it was 2,000 years ago. That’s the beauty of the Message—it’s eternal!
By Phra Goh, Venerable at Palelai Buddhist Temple
Coincidentally, ‘Phra’ means ‘venerable’ in Thai. I was born in Singapore in 1985 and my grandfather named me Goh Chun Kiang. How did I end up becoming a monk? Here’s my story.
Like most Singaporean Chinese families, my grandparents and parents considered themselves to be free thinkers. They believed in traditional Chinese values and worshipped in Chinese temples, be it Buddhist or Taoist. However, I was sent to a Methodist nursery and kindergarten during my early childhood. There, I enjoyed reading The Illustrated Bible that was given to me at school. Even at home, my then Filipino maid would read those Bible stories together with me.
At that time, my parents encountered relationship issues and lived separately for a short period of time. Thus, I rotated between staying at my dad’s and mom’s. When I was at my dad’s place, I noticed he started to delve more into the Buddhist religion by reading Buddhist-focused books and taking up meditation classes. I followed him when he was practising meditation at home just for a short while and all of a sudden, a very interesting experience occurred.
It felt as though I was about to leave my body like an out-of-body or near-death experience. It was a mix of excitement and fear. Right after this spiritual encounter, I was totally fascinated about the big questions in life: Who am I? Why do I feel this sense of ‘I’ only for myself? Do others feel this ‘I’ as well? This was when the journey of self-discovery began.
Due to the lack of storybooks at home during my primary school years, I borrowed Buddhist books from my dad’s shelf to read during the school’s reading period while my classmates were reading books appropriate for their age. I had no idea what I was reading most of the time but got very interested in the stories, especially one which tells the life story of Buddha.
A naïve thought then struck me to become a monk as it seemed a very noble path to seek out life’s answers.
This aspiration came to a temporary halt when my mom learnt about it during a casual conversation over a popular television drama series, Journey to the West, when asked about I want to be in the future. After I mentioned I would like to be a monk like the one portrayed on television, she tried to dissuade me from it. To further solidify her points, she brought her relatives over to our place to back her discouragement. To appease everyone, I had to ‘declare’ an alternative dream profession such as a police officer or a soldier.
When I was in secondary school, life turned into a huge rollercoaster ride for me. While I topped my class grades-wise and performed well in co-curricular activities, a series of disasters came crashing in. My parents faced financial difficulties due to the 1998 economic crisis and we had to sell and buy flats often to cope financially. We either stayed in a rented flat or we moved in with relatives sometimes.
On top of that, my parents went through another period of ‘cold war’ and eventually divorced. Aside from my declining school grades, this incident made me re-evaluate the purpose of life and examine what was true happiness since I was influenced by societies’ propaganda that success in life equates to having a loving family and cash sufficient, which came and went right before my very eyes.
Throughout these troubling times, my dad went into another phase of religiosity and brought me along to attend Buddhist classes at Amitabha Buddhist Centre. We took refuge in Buddhism under the Tibetan tradition when I was in Secondary 4. There, I picked up several practices such as reciting 108 compassion mantras and 35 Buddha prostrations daily to direct my attention away from the negativity I was facing.
This set of practices, coupled with volunteer work with various Buddhist organisations and regular meditation which I learnt from a Sri Lankan tradition, transformed my mind from an emotionally depressed to a happier state. The role of religion in society for any troubled individual is so helpful that I never doubted in my faith ever since I went through this transformation.
When I was studying at Singapore Polytechnic for my diploma, I joined the school’s Buddhist Society. Due to the lack of membership, I was chosen to be the publications secretary when I was a freshman and was elected as the president the following year. This leadership role came right after recovering from a personal crisis and proceed to build a student club which is religious in nature and not popular to most students.
Although a rather challenging task, it was pretty rewarding as well. I acquired new skills such as playing Buddhist hymns on a guitar for fellowship activities and forged friendships with Buddhists from other Tertiary Institute Buddhist Societies (TIBS) and related Buddhist organisations. This soon developed from a small hymn singing group to a combined TIBS pop/rock band which we performed at major Buddhist events such as Vesak Day@Orchard, Buddhist Library’s Big Walk and Temple New Year countdowns.
During those years, I was pretty confident to let others know of my intentions of becoming a monk. It’s probably due to the divorce of my parents which led them to be not critical of me tying the knot like most people do. However, one of the toughest obstacles was to get parental approval for me to enter monkhood. My dad was pretty cool with my decision. It was my mom who required my consistent persuasion that took five years—throughout polytechnic (three years) and National Service (two years)—to finally get her blessing.
Initially, I was surprised that she finally allowed me to become a monk. When I asked her how she was comfortable with that, she said a fortune teller/medium from a Taoist temple had advised her to let me choose my own path. Upon hearing her reply, I felt a mix of joy and disappointment. Disappointed that she agreed with a stranger, who spent minimal effort, compared to listening to her own son who took years to convince her. But nevertheless, I was happy she agreed.
After a year of exploration, I was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk in the Thai Dhammayut tradition at Santi Forest Monastery in Johor in 2008. Life has been fruitful ever since as I can do my research and practice my religion full time, which laid the foundation for me to share deeper truths to those who seek and benefit from them spiritually. Lastly, may all beings be well and happy!
By Ustaz Mizi Wahid, CEO and founder of Safinah Institute
I was born into a Muslim family. My parents were ordinary people. By that I mean that when it came to faith, they were not very into it. My dad’s father was an imam (religious leader) at a mosque many years ago. I grew up seeing my grandfather, this imam, until I was about 10 or 11 when he passed on.
My parents became closer to Islam after I was born. I was raised in an environment that was evolving—I wouldn’t say it was already perfect— and they were learning constantly. I remember following my parents to many classes where they learnt from their respective religious teachers. So I was exposed to religious classes and teachings from then on. Then, my parents decided—I think this was in the midst of their journey towards transforming and trying to become better Muslims—to enrol me, their first child, into a full-time madrasah (religious school).
This was in the early ’90s. In fact, I was in primary one in 1990. This was also a time where there was a lot of skepticism towards sending your child to a full-time madrasah. And a lot of the negativity and the questions that came around were things like: “Why would you send your child to a madrasah?”, “What are they going to do when they grow up?”, “How are they going to earn a living?”
It warped my parents’ mentality. It made them rethink their decision. They almost considered taking me out. I was enrolled into the madrasah with my cousin who was of the same age. His parents were also bombarded with similar questions, so much so that they eventually pulled him out. My parents, somehow, pressed on and kept the faith, and I stayed on. That was the beginning of how I ended up being an ustaz.
Being in a full-time madrasah in Singapore in the early ’90s meant that I was to be in the same school for 12 years. That was the case for most students back then in the madrasah system. So that meant six years of primary school education, four years of secondary school education and two years of pre- university. I then went on to do my diploma in Syaria law in Malaysia, then my degree in Egypt’s Al-Azhar University (Islam’s most prestigious university).
There are many everyday issues that happen in our lives that make us ponder about how they all connect to a bigger picture. As long as we are wondering and pondering about the purpose of our existence, as long as we’re always questioning our existence, and how everything in our lives reconcile with the fact that we are who we are, we are where we are, and we believe in the things that we believe in, and the fact that we’re going to die at some point—when you think about all these things on a daily basis, when things happen in your life and then they get resolved, for example, there’s this tendency to try to put the pieces of this puzzle together.
That’s when you make sense of things, and if you ask the right questions, usually you end up thinking: “Wow. This is my faith manifested in front of my eyes”.
It’s through the healing that one goes through, or the people who have entered their lives, or the sudden presence of good energy, great opportunities coming in—these are some of the things that make you think that God is present, He thinks about me and He loves me still. And all these happen regardless of all the things that I’ve done, regardless of all the things that I didn’t do when I was supposed to do them.
I think everyone who subscribes to a particular faith, at one point in their lives, probably would have asked the difficult questions already. They have established themselves with that one religion. I’m sure everyone needs some form of personal conviction—through reading materials, things that were heard at a talk, or an episode in their lives where something happened.
I’ve never doubted my faith. I don’t think so. But I know a lot of people who have. Having moments when you doubt your own faith is not necessarily a sign of having weak faith. Sometimes, those moments happen because they are going through a rough time and waiting for answers that they are not getting. For example, there’s the hope to have a problem resolved but it’s still left unresolved, or the hope that an illness will go away but it’s still there. So usually it’s in these moments that our faith is a little bit weaker, but it doesn’t necessarily make us less of a believer or less of a Muslim.
Religion will forever be relevant. And I say this in reference to no one religion in particular because there have been, I would say, generations where people have turned away from religion. And then there will be phases where people are in search of religion as they search for meaning in their lives, as they try to make sense of all the problems that they’re facing, as they try to feel the void and emptiness in their hearts. People will tend to go towards spirituality and eventually fall on religion at some point and affirm that: “Yes. This is where my heart belongs.” Some people need that kind of certainty and they will find it in religion.
By Maharaj Washdev Sharma, with help from Tushall Washdev Sharma
My father was a Sindhi from Pakistan. Even though the majority of the population there were Muslim, our ancestors (predominantly Hindus) came from a long lineage of priests and seers who believed in Hinduism. My father charted out my life, saying: “You’ll have four kids, have fame and you must not alter the course of destiny by not having all of your children.”
Even though I was a skeptic, the line of famous ministers and personalities who came to see my father proved otherwise. My father was primarily famous for his palmistry and astrology skills, which made me curious. This was my first taste of faith—the faith others put in him and the faith my father put in his religion were alike.
Ultimately, I did have four kids and it wasn’t until some unexplainable events occurred that I started believing in a higher power. One such event happened during a Navratri festival (the celebration of Durga’s epic nine-day win versus Mahishasura). During that period, I performed prayers to welcome a new idol that we’d purchased. When I lifted the statue for the first time, I suddenly couldn’t move my entire right arm.
The doctor said my paralysis was due to a pinched nerve and required surgery to fix it. Returning home, I bowed down towards the statue of Goddess Durga, asking her to take away the pain. I felt warmth and the pain disappeared. I stood up; I was back to normal.
It was then that I looked at life differently and believed in a higher power beyond my comprehension.
Between the time my father foretold my future and my academic career, I promised him that I would take on his role and spread Hinduism. As Brahmins, it’s our duty to uphold the accurate dissemination of knowledge. My father’s natural fluency in astrology and other occult sciences made me wonder if I’d be able to do what he did: predict the past and future in a way that doesn’t alter one’s path.
Long after he had passed, destiny led me to my spiritual guru to help me understand astrology. There was a cadence in the flow of knowledge between us and I was able to learn from him at a pace that I was never able to from others. His influence also made me find my niche within astrology—matchmaking.
I never knew that would be my most successful endeavour. I’ve developed my expertise with 500 successful marriages. There are times when I turn down weddings due to mismatched birth charts only to discover that those who did not heed my advice saw their marriages dissolving years later. The heart wants what the heart wants and when faith in love is greater than the faith in the Almighty, we sometimes get taught a nasty lesson.
In today’s context, religion has been altered to either fit an ideology or a way of life. It’s said that a man of religion can never be a man of science, but I believe I’m someone who mashes both disciplines. In my view, Hinduism is perhaps one of the most scientific religions that’s reflective of scientific practices like astrology or astrophysics.
We call god different names, worship different statues or individuals and use various methods to pray, but we are all praying to the same supreme energy. I’ve never doubted my faith once—when things happen, they happen for a reason we cannot understand at the moment. Faith isn’t about overcoming a storm, but rather learning how to dance in the rain.
The human mind is programmed to be rational and make sense of the information we perceive through deduction. We’re all guilty of overthinking, imagining, obsessing—all natural reactions to human experiences. We often confuse religion with faith, even though both may seem intertwined—faith gives us a reason to believe in something, while religion provides a vessel for us to practice our faith. Admitting that we’re just cogs in a complicated machine gives us the faith to keep moving in the journey of life.
Cheng Chee Hoew, part-time actor and copywriter
My mother burnt joss sticks twice a day and observed Taoist festivals with food offerings and such. The first religion I came into contact with was Christianity. As a child, I attended my first Sunday school class taught by a young woman my brother was courting at the time. However, I found all the stories of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden unconvincing.
Later, I attended an Anglican secondary school. Back then the school wasn’t shy about proselytising to students. During my brief dabble with Christianity, all the hoping and praying brought no new or special spiritual insight; none of the religious education took hold and I continued as a freethinker. Until some new evidence comes along to change my mind, I have no reason to think that my rejection of supernatural deities or the afterlife is untrue.
There wasn’t a point in time that marked a crucial turning point in my beliefs.
In 2010, I chanced upon an article in The Straits Times about the founding of Humanist Society (Singapore) and their mission. Only then did I realise that I’d been a humanist all my life; while I only came to know of humanism then, I’ve largely adhered to its tenets all my life before this ‘discovery’.
I signed up online immediately, but only started attending their activities a year later. I met a diverse group of people, all wanting to be good without a higher power. I’ve been involved with the Society ever since and have served on the executive committee for the past five years. In as much as you can consider humanism a faith, this is how I came to be a humanist.
My childhood reading gave me a grounding in rationality and science. I never found any of the religions persuasive and I believe morality is a human trait that we developed to survive as a social species. Humanism isn’t a ‘belief’ that can be confirmed through revelation.
It is a position that I have come to accept as a life stance. I don’t think that humankind will be without religion anytime soon. For better or worse, faith will continue to guide a large segment of the world’s population. Hopefully, more of the good influences [of religion will] endure and the bad ones fade with time.
Additional reporting by Wayne Cheong, Asri Jasman, Derrick Tan and Ingrid Walker. For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.