Modern Singapore was probably never completely religious. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and skeptics existed in Singapore long before these labels became popular.
Until the mid-20th century, non-religious populations across the world were not significant. Singapore was no different. Whether as a 13th century Malay kingdom, 16th century village or 19th century British colony, the island borrowed its culture completely from conquerors, passing traders and immigrants. But as modern Singapore prospered in the 1800s, schools were built and people started receiving a stream of ideas from around the world. Religious ideas, political ideologies, scientific expertise and business ideas flowed into the thriving city, creating a cosmopolitan outlook long before it became independent.
Early religious censuses in Singapore do not record the non-religious, although there was a tiny proportion of Singapore residents who did not state their religious affiliations in 1911.
After 1931, there were no more major censuses on religious affiliation until 1980. The colonial authorities did not think it was necessary because the information provided no particular value to the governing of Singapore as a colony. After Singapore’s independence in 1965, the government conducted its first population census in 1970, but religious affiliation was not included in the census.
The first census including the non-religious was done in 1980. By then, 13% of Singapore residents were non-religious.
The census of 2010 recorded 17% of Singapore residents as non-religious. Over the years, the government and sociologists have noticed a slow, subtle rise in the level of irreligiousity among Singaporeans, but they did not take much notice of it. Academic literature and government speeches suggest a deeper concern over inter-religious relations, the danger of extremism and State-religion relations.
Emergence of atheist, skeptic and humanist groups
Since 2004, informal atheist groups had organised social gatherings to discuss about religion and popular new books by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. One of them is Atheist Haven, formed by 3 Singaporeans in 2004. Social gatherings were occasional until 2009-10 and eventually ceased. Over the years, it changed its name to ‘Singapore Atheists’ and currently exists only as a Facebook group.
In 2008, the Singapore Humanism Meetup (SHM) was formed as a social network of secular humanists, atheists or agnostics. The network used the meetup.com website to organize social gatherings. Within two years, it gathered over 500 members, meeting in various locations across town to hold workshops, talks and book clubs. In 2009, the network also held the first Darwin Day in Singapore to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. From 2013, events became rarer due to busy work schedules of its organisers. The group ceased to exist in 2014. Read more about the group here.
Formation of the Humanist Society (Singapore)
In mid-2009, members of the SHM started discussing the formation of a registered organisation dedicated to humanism and the non-religious community at large. Applications were submitted later that year and in October 2010, the Humanist Society (Singapore), also known as the HSS, became the first humanist group to be gazetted by the government. In its first four years, it has organised a variety of talks, social events, community service efforts. It also took part in international atheist and humanist conventions. It has written several letters to the local and foreign press, to raise awareness of humanism and non-religious people at large. We also welcomed visitors from abroad, including Prof A.C Grayling in 2013.
In 2010, the HSS joined the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). In 2014, it joined a second international organisation: Atheist Alliance International (AAI).
Other existing groups
Drinking Skeptically SG was formed in 2010 as a gathering of skeptics. Gatherings are often held at the Public House. In 2012, the group launched Science Cafe SG (above), a free event every month where science professionals are invited to give talks. In 2010, the Singapore Philosophy Group was also started. In Sept 2014, the Sunday Assembly (below) launched an informal group in Singapore but it did not last beyond three gatherings.