Guided walks focused on Singapore's racial and religious diversity to be launched

Guided walks focused on Singapore's racial and religious diversity to be launched

The National Heritage Board has introduced Harmony Walks, a new intiative that highlights the commonalities among Singapore's various religions and communities. Vanessa Lim reports.

SINGAPORE: A church with lotus carvings on display. A Hindu temple that is home to a relic of the Buddhist goddess Guan Yin. 

These one-of-a-kind religious institutions, just a stone's throw from one another, form the lineup of a new programme launched by the National Heritage Board (NHB). 

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Called Harmony Walks, the initiative is a series of three guided tours that highlights the commonalities among Singapore's various religions and communities.

The first will be launched on Saturday (Nov 23) and takes participants through seven religious institutions along Queen, Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets, including the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd and Kum Yan Methodist Church. 

Inside the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
Inside the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, one of the religious institutions featured in the guided tour. (Photo: Hani Amin)

Seventy-eight tours, each able to accommodate up to 25 people, have been lined up until November next year, although NHB is prepared to conduct more tours based on the response. 

Throughout the walks, participants will learn about how the communities interacted and helped each other despite their cultural differences. 

For example, several Hindu cooks are behind some of the Kosher meals served at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, a place of worship for the Jewish community. 

Maghain Aboth Synagogue
Maghain Aboth Synagogue along Waterloo Street, where several Hindu chefs are in charge of cooking Kosher meals for the congregants. (Photo: Hani Amin)

Along Waterloo Street, the Hindu Sri Krishnan Temple and the Buddhist Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple have co-existed side by side peacefully since the late 19th century. Participants on the tour might be surprised to find out that the Sri Krishnan Temple even houses the statue of the Buddhist deity Guan Yin.

This came about after the temple's caretakers noticed that many of the Chinese devotees at the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple would also stop by to pay their respects, said Sri Krishnan Temple's chairman Mr P Sivaraman during a media preview of the tour. 

At first, the Hindu temple placed an urn outside its premises for the devotees to place their joss sticks, but subsequently they installed the Guan Yin statue as well at the request of several visitors. 

The statue is even taken out and placed on the temple's ceremonial swing during certain Buddhist functions, he added. 

Sri Krishnan Temple ceremonial swing. (Photo: Hani Amin)
Mr P Sivaraman, Chairman of Sri Krishnan Temple, explaining the use of the temple's ceremonial swing. (Photo: Hani Amin)

The tour also takes participants past Masjid Bencoolen, Singapore’s second oldest mosque that dates back to 1825, and several churches. 

At the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, participants will be able to spot a couple of lotus figures on its roof. As the church was originally built to cater to the growing Chinese and Indian congregants, it decided to incorporate several cross-cultural elements into its structure. The same lotus motif can be seen on the external wall of Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. 

Church of Saints Peter and Paul
The lotus motifs can be seen on the pitched roof of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. (Photo: Hani Amin)

Besides pointing out the different religious institutions' architecture and the area's history, the tour will cover some of the similar practices found across different spiritual traditions, and how these institutions have engaged in interfaith and social work. 

Mr Alvin Tan, the deputy chief executive of policy and community at NHB, said the idea for the tours came about after his team felt it was timely for younger Singaporeans and new citizens to learn how "racial and religious harmony are really already a part of our daily living", and not to take this cross-cultural rapport for granted. 

Unlike NHB's heritage trails which delves into a precinct's history, the Harmony Walks programme focuses specifically on how different communities co-exist and work together, he said. 

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The two other guided walks under the programme will cover Telok Ayer and South Bridge Road. They are expected to launch in mid-2020 and the second half of 2020 respectively.  

Mr Sivaraman said that such a programme is "great" as it will raise awareness among Singaporeans and new immigrants about religious harmony and the temple. However, such programmes must be sustained in the long-term, he added.

Ms Anne Markey, the co-leader of the Cathedral's heritage ministry. (Photo: Hani Amin)
Ms Anne Markey, the co-leader of the Cathedral's heritage ministry. (Photo: Hani Amin)

Calling Harmony Walks a programme that will "help interfaith understanding", Ms Anne Markey, the co-leader of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd's heritage ministry said that the tours offer participants opportunities to encounter differing beliefs and points of view.

She said that she hopes the walks will increase the participants' "understanding and appreciation of their fellow Singaporeans". 

Source: CNA/rp