Will God blue-tick me? Grappling with faith in an age of social media

#Faith in the age of social media

While more young Singaporeans are spurning religion, some are going online to reach out to others on matters of belief.ST PHOTOS: GIN TAY, JASMINE CHOONG, COURTESY OF NUR ATIKAH AMALINA MOHD ZAINI, DESMOND WEE

While more young Singaporeans are spurning religion, some are going online to reach out to others on matters of belief


APR 14, 2019, 5:00 AM SGT

Yuen Sin


As more people began to take to the Internet and social media to air their views in the early 2010s, Mr Shivanand Rai, then a student at Singapore Management University, began to see a lot of misinformation that was being spread by non-Hindus from abroad.

“They would bash rituals, (the fact that) we have many gods and call us superstitious pagans or non-believers. This was extremely painful to see as a person of a minority faith,” said Mr Shivanand, 29, a manager in an artificial intelligence company.

He and his university mate, Mr Janarthanan Krishnasamy, 29, who is equally passionate about Hinduism, felt that the community did not have a platform to address issues in society.

Though the Hindu Endowments Board organises major religious festivals and has social media platforms, it plays a more administrative role, as its primary mandate is to oversee Hindu religious and charitable endowments.

In 2014, the pair started the website, SgHindu. Besides blog posts on issues of concern to the community, the site also lists Hindu events here. SgHindu also runs a Facebook page with close to 2,000 “likes” and offers nuggets of information about Hinduism drawn from ancient sources and literary texts.

It also produces videos, including one in collaboration with Vasantham actress Malene Thani, exploring the question - “What do Hindus do?”

Hinduism, explains Mr Shivanand, does not contain a single book nor is it based on dogma. “Instead, think of it as a library. You are free to choose within that collection. It’s a open-source religion.”

Mr Shivanand Rai (left) and Mr Janarthanan Krishnasamy (right) started the website, SgHindu, in 2014 to provide information on the religion. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

The proportion of those aged between 25 and 34 who have no religious affiliation has grown from 19.9 to 22.4 per cent between 2010 and 2015.

Though statistics have indicated that more young people now have no religious affiliations, Mr Janarthanan believes that providing more information about Hinduism to them can bring about greater interest. “When there’s not much information about anything, involvement can’t follow.”

For instance, its Facebook page highlights how the Taoist festival of the Nine Emperor Gods and the Hindu festival of Navratri share similarities in ritual and take place at the same time every year. Navratri, interpreted as “nine nights”, is one of the most celebrated Hindu festivals devoted to Goddess Durga, symbolising purity and power.

SgHindu also frequently updates its followers on current affairs and does not shy away from highlighting controversies at home or in the region, such as when a Malaysian Hindu temple official was probed by an anti-corruption unit.

“We want our readers to bear in mind what’s happening around them in the world,” said Mr Janarthanan.

It has also weighed in on advocacy efforts by the community, such as when some had called for Thaipusam to be reinstated as a public holiday in 2015.

While Mr Shivanand supports the public holiday push, he said it was ironic that many did not want to pledge to abstain from smoking or drinking during the procession. “It’s like having your cake and eating it too. That is no way to negotiate with the Government.”

By pointing out such blind spots, he hopes that such advocacy efforts can take on a more pragmatic tone.

“We can’t have an honest conversation without the facts,” says Mr Shivanand.


The Thir.st team include (clockwise, from foreground) creative producer Joanne Kwok, assignments editor Wong Si Qi, writer and copy editor Gabriel Ong and editor Edric Sng. ST PHOTO: JASMINE CHOONG

If God is good, why did my grandmother have to die? Why am I taking so long to find a job. Did God forget about me?

Such questions about faith may not be easily addressed by a pastor from the pulpit or even comfortably discussed face to face.

To address this need, Mr Edric Sng, 39, quit his job as a supervising editor at Mediacorp’s digital news unit in 2016 to launch Thir.st, a digital Christian publication.

It is so named after the belief that God is the only one who can quench a person’s thirst in life, referring to a void or a search for a deeper meaning, says Mr Sng.

Since then, its personal essays and articles by young Christians across churches here have steadily chalked up an online following among teenagers and young adults with its sleek, colourful design and catchy headlines that come with a local flavour, such as “We can’t pick our cell groups like we’re buying cai fan (economy rice)”.

Sixty to 80 per cent of the content is from external submissions, while the team at Thir.st generates the rest of the content.

The site has 30,000 to 40,000 unique visitors a month - about three-quarters of whom are younger than 35 - and about 10,000 followers on its Instagram account.

It is funded by donations from “a handful” of churches and individuals, says Mr Sng. It is not affiliated to any church group, he adds.

Thir.st’s aim, says Mr Sng, is to foster “honest conversations about faith and life that need to be maturely handled in the online space… If the issues exist, but go unspoken, problems will start to take root and perpetuate”.

Popular articles include those on topics relevant to millennials, such as work, studies and marriage.

Issues such as sexual assault, mental health and evangelism are also addressed.

The team of six full-time staff, from various churches and mostly in their 20s, make it a point never to impose a single perspective through the essays, says Mr Gabriel Ong, 27, a writer and copy editor for the site.

Mr Sng says a top-down approach that imposes a view will not resonate with millennials. “It will force them into a place of rebellion and that is useful to nobody.”

An article addressing the question of whether unmarried couples should travel overseas together, for instance, does not furnish an immediate “yes” or “no”.

Rather, it probes deeper to get readers to reflect on what their intentions of asking the question in the first place are.

While it cautions them on the possibility of being tempted sexually to sleep together in such situations, it leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Questions are asked of the church and the wider church community from time to time.

But the site ensures that this is done in a constructive way by offering potential solutions, said Mr Sng, stressing that the site aims to unite rather than divide the church community.

For example, an article asked if churches are doing enough to guide young people in relationships, relating an incident in which church leaders said a relationship between a young couple from the congregation was not “covenantal” as they had no plans for marriage at that point.

When the couple heard the leaders’ counsel, the girl ended the relationship, though the young man was keen to discuss how it could grow and develop.

But the piece acknowledged that this incident could be uncommon and highlighted how other churches run workshops and provide guidance on relationships.

"We have come to an Internet-empowered age where you can search Google and hit a million websites.

“Not all of these will align with the values that our religion holds fast to, so our job is just to add to that broader conversation without which there is something missing,” says Mr Sng.


Ms Nur Atikah Amalina Mohd Zaini, in Mauritius in 2014. She talks about her faith and personal life on her blog and Instagram page under the handle, The Tudung Traveller. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NUR ATIKAH AMALINA MOHD ZAINI

When she embarked on her first solo trip after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend in 2013, Ms Nur Atikah Amalina Mohd Zaini, 28, was aware that some people in the Muslim community would brand her “wild” or “rebellious”.

After all, some Islamic scholars say it is not permissible for a woman to travel alone. Others say it is fine if she makes sure she stays safe.

For Ms Atikah, the two-week trip through Spain that she took during a six-month university exchange programme in Manchester, England, healed and empowered her.

“It’s also an opportunity to share Islam with other travellers. Most of the time, I was the first Muslim whom they had met,” says the diversity programme manager at a technology company.

She later began writing about her travels to other places, such as Australia and Mauritius, on her blog and Instagram page under the handle, The Tudung Traveller. She also writes about her mental health challenges.

Her honest views about her faith and personal life, including her struggles with anxiety and depression, have garnered more than 16,000 followers on Instagram. She has also been featured on the BBC and HuffPost.

Ms Atikah, who made it clear that she is not a religious authority, said she decided to voice her mental health struggles in the hope of helping others. “I was contending with the prevailing belief that if you have depression, you’re either not praying enough or God is angry at you and you need to build your relationship with God.”

For Ms Atikah, this did not square with her experience. “I was praying and doing all these things and still, I was going through depression. If I believe my God is compassionate and merciful, then it doesn’t align with the narrative that I am being punished or that this is happening to me because I am sinful.”

She has attracted the notice of religious groups such as Safinah Institute, a centre for Islamic education, which invited her to share her views in 2017 to support those with mental health challenges.

The rise of Muslim personalities like her in the online sphere has caught the attention of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis). In recent years, Muis and its partner organisations have created more opportunities for young people to have casual conversations with religious leaders.

This includes the “Ask Me Anything” video streams on Instagram, hosted by millennial religious teachers such as Al-Islah Mosque’s Ustaz Khairul Anwar Mohamed Aznan, 33, and sites such as Muslim.sg, which discuss issues such as interfaith relations and women in technology.

“Youth may feel embarrassed to talk to religious teachers, but we want to make it more accessible to them. Especially in today’s climate (of religious extremism), it could be more problematic if they reach out to the wrong person online,” said Ustaz Khairul, who attended some workshops on creating engaging video content by YouTube channel Ministry Of Funny last year.

Moves like this have helped to open up discussions about contemporary issues such as feminism in Islam, said Ms Atikah.

While companies have offered her sponsorship deals of up to $500 a social media post, she has refused them so as not to compromise her credibility.

She also does not like being identified as an influencer.

“You may be able to get a lot more ‘likes’ if you start advertising things. But it goes against my purpose of using social media for social good.”


Venerable Seck Kwang Phing (second from left) with members of the Singapore Buddhist Federation Youth, (from left) Mr Lawrence Lee, Ms Candy Chang and Mr Tse Mun Hoi. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Most young people who identify themselves as Buddhists do not actively practise the religion, says president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation Youth (SBFY) Lawrence Lee.

“In a typical family, if you ask your mother or ah ma about things like why they always pray to Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, or why you can’t eat beef, they will often tell you not to ask so much and just follow the traditions,” said the 39-year-old property agent.

The younger generation, who are exposed to science and information, want to look for logical explanations, he said.

But Buddhism is also often seen by the young as a “boring” religion involving chanting, meditating and poring through books on dharma, the teachings of Buddha.

In the age of social media, youth rarely have the attention span to sit through such activities, added Mr Lee.

Last year, SBFY - the youth wing of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, an umbrella body of Buddhist organisations here, launched SBFY TV, a talk show on Facebook and YouTube that addresses frequent questions or myths about Buddhist practices. Four episodes have been produced so far.

These videos are casual and humorous, with SBFY media head Candy Chang, 24, and SBFY vice-president Jeff Foo, 24, performing short skits and posing questions to Venerable Seck Kwang Phing , 65, president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation.

A mix of Mandarin, English and Singlish is used, with subtitles in Chinese and English available.

When the concept for the videos was broached to Venerable Seck, he readily agreed.

He said: “People think the monk will always be speaking in a serious manner, but we must also keep up with the times. I should try to cut out the dogma and give examples that are to the point.”

Among their most successful episodes is the one addressing whether Buddhists can eat beef.

It has chalked up more than 800,000 views on Facebook and has been shared more than 18,000 times.

In the video, Venerable Seck explained that Buddhism does not have specific rules about consuming beef. However, some who worship Guan Yin may abstain from beef out of respect.

This is because Guan Yin is the Chinese version of the bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, who came from Hindu-majority India, where the cow is viewed as sacred, he explained. Other videos address questions such as what activities to do and avoid during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

The team plans to start producing live videos on social media and work more closely with the youth committees of other temples to produce videos.Though figures may show that more youth are shunning religion, Venerable Seck said he is not that worried.

“Though they may not subscribe to one religion, it doesn’t mean that they are not spiritually aware of issues such as doing good, not harming others and being righteous.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 14, 2019, with the headline ‘Faith in the age of social media’.


It is heartening to see these religious groups making the effort in education.
Kudos to them!