The humanist movement in Singapore did not begin with the Humanist Society (Singapore). An older group, called the Singapore Humanism Meetup (SHM), was formed as an informal network in Dec 2008 and lasted 2-3 years. The Meetup based itself on the social media platform Meetup.com, hence its name. The Meetup.com provided a means to collate membership, organise events, debate on forums and even post photographs.
Atheists have been debating actively online and gathering at cafes for several years since 2001. Firstly, the Sept 11 attacks in the United States highlighted the dangers of religious extremism and Islamic militancy, prompting a new wave of authors, the “New Atheists”, to publish many books criticising dogmatic religious thinking. Secondly, the rise of the internet, blogs and social media platforms allowed atheists, humanists and sceptics to reach out to each other faster than before. Thirdly, with the rise of megachurches and the intensifying debate over LGBT rights in Singapore, conservative Christians have increased efforts to convert others and influence the public sphere. Many secular-minded Singaporeans, regardless of religious affiliation, felt threatened.
After the SHM was formed, online signups jumped to 500 within two years and included even small numbers of liberal religious people who served as facilitators and emcees. A team of organisers, previously strangers, were drawn together by common interests in exploring alternatives to traditional religion, protecting Singapore’s secular space from the religious lobby and finding like-minded friends to discuss philosophy and science. The SHM organised public talks, debates, social networking events and even took part in an interfaith gathering. In many ways, the SHM served as a prototype for the future Humanist Society (Singapore).
The SHM blog recorded SHM’s activities and photographs but has unfortunately been sealed. However, here are some of the most memorable events at its peak in 2009:
- Ethics and Humanism Workshop
- Debate over whether religion makes Singaporeans better off
- Emotional Intelligence Workshop
- SHM year-end gathering
- The first humanism workshop
- Astronomy trip at East Coast Park
Although they shared similar worldviews, SHM organisers eventually disagreed among themselves on how to take the humanist movement forward. The first group favoured a low-profile approach as an interest group, completely avoiding criticism of religion and focusing on science and philosophy. The second group wanted to formally register a humanist group with the government, proactively defend the secular nature of Singapore and provide a voice for the non-religious, even if it means some criticism of religion.
Under the leadership of Mr Paul Tobin, the second group eventually formed a group of 13 and registered themselves with the Registrar of Societies (ROS). This became the Humanist Society (Singapore). After the ROS’ approval on October 8, 2010, the newly formed Humanist Society initially cooperated with the SHM for one event, the Winter Solstice celebration in December 2010. Unfortunately, SHM organisers were not willing to work with the Society again and even demanded that the Society stop mentioning the SHM on its website.
The SHM has since closed down from the lack of activities. Nonetheless, it will be remembered as the predecessor and prototype of the Humanist Society. Today, the Society continues to lead the Singapore humanist movement, defend the secular space and speak up on behalf of the non-religious on important national issues.
An old SHM video at its first anniversary: