From Baha’i to Zoroastrians, Jews to Jains: Keeping the faith amid COVID-19
Most religious communities in Singapore have had a date of significance fall during the circuit breaker measures. This is how believers adapted their practices – and even found new meaning in their faith.
SINGAPORE: For the first time, Muslims in Singapore have, instead of going to mosques for prayers to mark the end of Ramadan, commemorated it online with live-streamed prayer calls and sermons.
They are not the only ones who have had to mark dates of religious significance differently this year, as a result of the COVID-19 circuit breaker measures from Apr 7 to Jun 1.
These are snapshots of how some folks of 12 faiths have adapted the commemoration of key festivals or dates – and how devotees and religious leaders, in finding innovative ways to modify their practices and rituals, have reinforced their faith and family bonds.
In alphabetical order:
BAHA’I – RIDVAN (APR 21–MAY 2), DECLARATION OF THE BAB (MAY 22-23)
This year, instead of gathering in homes and community spaces for meals, praying and story sharing during the 12 days of Ridvan, the Baha’i of Singapore marked their most important festival remotely.
“We tried to carry on in the same spirit, though we could only see each other via video,” said Baha’i follower Katyana Melic “I think everyone still tries to maintain the dignity and spiritual sanctity of these holy celebrations, even though we can’t physically group together.”
The Bahai faith is one of Singapore’s official religions, and followers believe in the essential unity of all religions and humanity, and in the divine plan for the advancement of civilisation. Ridvan marks when the prophet Baha’u’llah, founder of the faith, declared his mission to the world.
On Friday and Saturday, adherents also marked the event when Bab, forerunner of Baha’u’llah, announced his mission to prepare people for the coming of Baha’u’llah.
Katyana said the community came up with a quiz challenge – Amazing Race style, but entirely online – to engage people. Families had to search for anecdotes and stories about the Baha’i community online.
Being confined at home has not just made Katyana more aware of the importance of daily prayer. A key tenet of Baha’i teachings is the recognition that everything is interdependent – so she has made it a point to reach out more and connect with people virtually.
This period “has helped me reflect on this essential concept of how tests help us to grow,” she said. “And that a human being needs to go through these tests in order to know what our true capacity is.”
BUDDHISTS – VESAK DAY (MAY 7)
Vesak Day, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha, usually sees huge crowds flocking to temples to partake in rituals. Nearly 20,000 turned up in past years at the Singapore Buddhist Federation’s celebrations at Ngee Ann City’s Civic Plaza, according to its president, Venerable Seck Kwang Phing.
But this year, everything had to go online. “They could still listen to the talks by various monks, participate in the offering of lamps to the Buddha, and post questions,” he said.
Instead of volunteering at temples for the occasion, as they usually do, Danry Lim, 23, and Michelle Trisno, 22 – co-founders of memor.co, a group which aims to make Buddhist practices more applicable to young people – this year helped plan an online countdown to Vesak Day. It featured collective prayers and sharing sessions from frontline healthcare workers, for instance.
“It feels strange because we’re not able to do our usual practices,” said Michelle. “But it’s really a perfect opportunity for us to look inwards, and also, to package Vesak in a different way. So it’s weird, but exciting too.”
With added time and solitude for reflection, Danry said the COVID-19 situation has strengthened his faith. “I have realised that the things taught in Buddhism, such as impermanence, the need for kindness, peace and to be settled, are directly applicable in the real world,” he said.
Buddhism, in general, is independent of things like physical temples, The real practice is when we are with ourselves.
The Buddhist Thai and Burmese communities in Singapore also celebrated their new year in mid-April. But instead of the usual live performances at the Burmese Buddhist Temple, said Mi Mi Thein from Myanmar, home-based performances by artistes were live-streamed online instead.
CATHOLICS – HOLY WEEK, GOOD FRIDAY AND EASTER (APR 6-12)
Parishioner Adrian Tee remembers being “very sad” the day the Catholic churches decided to stop all services. It was just at the start of Holy Week – a week of prayer, church services, and most key of all, an Easter vigil marked with a candlelight service.
“The Catholic faith is a very tangible faith,” he explained. “So being physically present in church, being together with our community, is important for us – we cannot just live our faith at the spiritual level.”
He realised how much he had taken Mass for granted. “I attend every day, but is my mind always present?” he said.
The silver lining, however, has been that people who could previously never go for Mass due to age or ailments could now live-stream the process. Adrian himself has been attending Mass virtually in various parts of the world. “This is an excellent opportunity I would not get otherwise,” he said.
Indeed, with everything moved online, Father Joe Lopez said this year’s commemoration of Holy Week “may have been the most meaningful ever”. The incoming rector of St Joseph’s Church has been celebrating Mass online.
Being able to see the faces of his parishioners up close through Zoom has helped him “break the ice”, he said. Some reached out to him to have conversations.
Many people have told me that our prayers have become more genuine.
"Even in this situation, we stay faithful... That’s why for me, this has been more meaningful than ever.”
PRESBYTERIANS – HOLY WEEK, GOOD FRIDAY AND EASTER (APR 6-12)
In the Presbyterian church, Holy Week is usually commemorated by coming together for worship, said Pastor Keith Lai from Covenant Presbyterian Church, and culminates in a huge Good Friday service held at the Singapore Expo.
At his own church Easter Sunday involves a special service followed by a buffet lunch. Members are encouraged to invite their friends to the service, which is evangelical in nature, he said.
Having to take the commemorations online this year was a major shift, he said – but it was also an opportunity to introduce new practices to make the online gatherings and services more meaningful.
One example, said his wife Lai Mui Fong, was getting families and small groups to cook a meal with food that is white in colour.
“Some people cooked a lamb because the lamb of God took away our sins, but most of us voted to do a bowl of mee sua with an egg in it,” she said.
Pastor Lai also noted that cell groups, where members gather to study the Bible, have seen increased attendance of their online meetings; and the church has started conducting online guided spiritual retreats.
The circuit breaker is a good time to take stock of one’s life, he said.
It is a time of stripping away, decluttering … and asking ourselves, what is essential and what is not?
“This is a time of self-examination, removing things that are unnecessary, and basically, slowing down.”
CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS – EASTER (APR 12)
Instead of attending church services, Michael Ang spent this Easter studying the scriptures with his family at home and discussing the day’s significance.
While he admits to missing the fellowship and warmth of a church gathering, he said the time at home has strengthened his relationship with his family, as well as his own faith.
“We spent a lot of time studying the gospel together,” he said. “As a father, I’ve had the chance to share with them my testimony and what I’ve experienced, and I felt very happy and blessed to be able to do something.”
“I’ve had the chance to reflect a lot more, and realise that we can plan for a lot of things in life but we still need the tender mercies of someone mighty to help us,” he added.
“I felt like I became more humble, more aware, and more willing to exercise faith.”
Many in his church community have stepped forward to volunteer during this pandemic, for instance by sewing masks for migrant workers, “We always remind ourselves of this saying, that if you are in the service of your fellow men, you are also in the service of God,” he said.
HINDUS –TAMIL NEW YEAR (APR 14)
The Tamil New Year might not be as widely celebrated as Deepavali in October, but to Shima Arivalakan, it is equally important.
She, her husband and child usually mark the occasion with a visit to the temple for prayers, then to their parents’ and siblings’ places for a meal. “We couldn’t do all that this year,” she said, so instead they prayed at their own altar at home, and enjoyed a vegetarian meal followed by a video call to their parents.
“It was a bit hard because as grandparents, the only thing they wanted to do was to visit their grandson,” she said. “But I guess we just have to wait it out.”
Shima also misses visiting the temple at least once a week to pray and get some peace of mind, and “to just think about my faith”.
But she added that with a hyperactive toddler at home, it is still important for her to “have some faith”. “There are times when I get very stressed and I try to calm down,” she said.
“So, I still pray at home... We believe that our altar is also our temple, so we’ll use that to pray and keep our faith as much as we can.”
JAINS – AYAMBIL OLI (MAR 31-APR 8), MAHAVIR JAYANTI (APR 6)
During the nine-day abstinence period of Ayambil Oli, devotees usually gather at the Singapore Jain Religious Society’s premises every day to break their fast with meals cooked by volunteers. ‘
This is partly due to the difficulty of preparing the meal, which must be made without certain ingredients, according to the society’s secretary, Hitesh Shah. “We’d usually prepare 20 to 30 types of food, and when you have 50 to 60 people gathering, it’s a different ambience,” he said.
But because of the pandemic this year, the society had to tell followers to stay home and prepare their own food.
The festival of Mahavir Jayanti, on the other hand, usually commemorates the birth of the 24th Tirthankar, founder of modern Jainism, with a gathering for singing, dancing and religious skits.
This year, it was brought online, with society members singing and celebrating on Microsoft Teams. Like the fasting, it felt different. “There is a kind of real energy that is a little bit missing when you’re at home just listening to somebody singing,” Hitesh said.
But, he said, being at home has given devotees the opportunity to revisit the three basic tenets of their faith: Non-violence, non-attachment to worldly things, and respecting other beings’ perspectives.
“Many of the things we have been doing in our daily lives are actually not required,” Hitesh said. And lately, “we’ve been living simpler lives, staying at home, not looking at what others are doing – so that kind of jealousness is not there anymore.”
JEWS– PASSOVER (APR 8-16)
Jews in general thrive on community life, with the synagogue “always full”, said the chief rabbi of Singapore’s Jewish community Mordechai Abergel – which was why having to celebrate Passover in isolation was “difficult to stomach”.
The bulk of the Jewish community here are expats, separated from family, he noted. “When you’re disconnected, there’s even more of a need to come together.”
The eight-day festival, which marks the Israelites’ exodus from ancient Egypt, is one of the main festivals in the Jewish calendar. Traditionally, it is marked with large family gatherings; and on the first two nights in particular, called Passover Seder, hundreds of people would throng Singapore’s two synagogues.
WATCH: Living as an orthodox Jew in Singapore (3:49)
This year’s edition of Passover, which featured an online session to train parents how to lead the Passover Seder, was “beyond subdued” in comparison, the rabbi said. “We had to rethink how we go about observing something like this, and make it meaningful even though you're in isolation.”
On the upside, retelling the story of the exodus has spurred parents to take on the role as educators of their children. “Part of the Jewish tradition is to fulfil the biblical command of ‘You shall tell it to your children’,” he said.
So while in isolation, the advantage is that we can invest time in our children... You can no longer subcontract this to somebody else.
MUSLIMS – RAMADAN (APR 23–MAY 23), HARI RAYA PUASA (MAY 24)
Over the past month, Rasimah Riduan has been trying to explain to her elderly mother, who lives with her, why her other children no longer visit.
“She accepts it in the moment, but will ask again in a few days,” said Rasimah. “Then we have to talk to her nicely and explain again that it’s the COVID-19 situation.”
This year’s fasting month of Ramadan and preparations for Hari Raya have been “very different”, she said. The family would usually gather for a reunion meal on the eve of Hari Raya. This year, they are relying on video calls.
READ: A different Hari Raya amid COVID-19 but ‘make it one that is still full of meaning’: President Halimah
READ: COVID-19: No mosques, bazaars or communal breaking fast, but Muslims will make do this Ramadan
In recent years the breaking of fast, or Iftar, during Ramadan has become “more than just a Malay community activity”, noted Deputy Mufti of Singapore Mohammad Hannan Hassan. “People of different faiths come to the mosque and break fast with us. That, people miss so much now.”
But he stressed that the “fundamental, ethnical foundation” of Islam was avoidance of harm, and protection of public interest. “Avoidance of harm means that we may not be able to visit our loved ones during Hari Raya,” he said.
“And then we want to protect public interest, not to further viralise this contagious virus.”
He is also heartened to how people have adapted to making their Zakat contributions. While online payment has been available for several years, there have also been other new initiatives springing up – such as the ground-up community effort #SGUnited Buka Puasa, which aims to feed people during Ramadan.
“Necessity is the mother of creativity,” he said. “So you have this necessary situation, and we see all these creative ways … people are coming forward fast and furious.”
SIKHS – VAISAKHI (APR 13)
The Sikh community usually celebrates Vaisakhi – which marks the formalisation and founding of the faith – by gathering at the Gurdwara, their place of worship, for prayers and activities like volunteering.
To Young Sikh Association Singapore president Sarabjeet Singh, it is also a chance to bump into “childhood friends I went to Punjabi school with”, he said. “There’s usually a lot that goes on that day.”
He remembers feeling a sense of loss and sadness upon learning that the festivities would have to be cancelled this year. But Sarabjeet, 36, has been heartened by the ground-up initiatives that sprang up online.
“Typically if you go to Gurdwara, it would be a day, or maybe a week of events. But the online situation has enabled a bit of an extension to the celebrations,” he said.
“Folks came together and recorded greetings for each other, and there was this family that launched a fun challenge to call at least five people in the community.”
The value of service is a core tenet of the Sikh faith, and Gurdwaras typically offer free meals to visitors as well as have meals delivered to the underprivileged. Since the start of the circuit breaker, Sarabjeet says the number of meals given out has significantly increased to more than 1,000 a day.
For Sarabjeet personally, the disruption of the circuit breaker has underlined another core tent of his faith – the idea of remaining in chardi kala, which means to always have a positive outlook regardless of the challenges.
“It has definitely reinforced the spirit of chardi kala for me and for the many others I know in the Sikh community,” he said.
No challenges are insurmountable, and we will overcome this together.
TAOISTS – QING MING FESTIVAL (APR 4)
The Qing Ming festival is one of the most important events in the Taoist calendar. Filial piety is a key tenet of the faith, and this is the period when people head to cemeteries and columbaria to pay their respects to their ancestors.
“Sons, grandsons, everyone in the family will go together and it is always very crowded,” said Singapore Taoist Federation president Tan Thiam Lye in Mandarin.
This year’s Qing Ming fell just before the start of the circuit breaker, so devotees were still allowed to gather at cemeteries and columbaria. But they were subject to safe distancing measures and limited numbers, so it was a more subdued affair than previous years.
READ: Observers of Qing Ming festival should exercise ‘socially responsible behaviour’ amid COVID-19 situation: NEA
The impact was even more visible at temples where, usually, large crowds would continue to gather for 10 days after the Qing Ming, with “lots of festivities”, Mr Tan said. This could no longer happen when circuit breaker measures kicked in.
But the temples have been adapting to the new normal. At Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong temple, a camera was set up facing the deities and turned on every day from 10.30am to 12.30pm, allowing devotees who wished to pray to view them on a live Facebook feed.
“You can see the deity, and the deity can also see you,” he quipped. A system was also set up to accept online donations.
It is important in this time, when people cannot come to the temple, to be flexible.
ZOROASTRIANS – COMMEMORATION PRAYER (MAY 1)
Zoroastrianism is the faith of the small Parsi community, which numbers about 500, in Singapore. The basis of the religion, according to Zoroastrian priest Percy Khambatta, is the importance of good words, good thoughts and good deeds.
In the past two months, the community has had no major events on the scale of a festival coming up in August celebrating Nowruz, their new year. But there were originally plans to gather at the Parsi cemetery to offer prayers on May 1, the anniversary of a Parsi man’s huge donation to the Parsi Association almost a century ago.
The new restrictions prevented the gathering, so for the first time, the community brought their prayers online. The community responded positively, Percy said – and the association then decided to bring the weekly Sunday prayers, suspended since March, online as well.
“A lot of people worldwide also joined in,” he added.
WATCH: Zoroastrians In Singapore: 5 Things To Know (3:54)
Being confined to his home, which he shares with members of his extended family, has meant time to think about life and the people around him.
“It is a time to reflect that what we took for granted can be taken away at any time,” he said. “So we should be happy and grateful for all the things we have in our lives.”
He also has more time with grand-daughter, he added: “When she sees me pray once she gets up in the morning, she will run to the prayer place. So that’s a good thing too – she’s starting to understand that if I see Grandpa, I have to go and pray.”
Watch the documentary special, Faith Over Fear: Religion In A Time Of COVID-19, next Saturday, May 30, at 9pm on CNA.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that white food symbolises the ascension of Jesus. This has been removed for clarity.