Singapore’s zoning constraints shaping ways religious groups operate

Faced with space constraints in urban environments such as Singapore, religious groups are responding in flexible ways, writes Orlando Woods (Singapore Management University) in the journal Social Compass (March). Singapore represents an ideal case study for such observations. All religious groups are treated equally by an authoritarian government that has adopted a secular approach for managing religious pluralism. Due to the limited land supply in this city-state, land for religious and other purposes has been strictly demarcated. Parcels of land are set aside by the state for new religious buildings, each parcel being restricted to one religion. This leads to strong intra-competition among Christian groups, with their rapid growth, since demand exceeds supply. “Between 2000 and 2010, the size of the Christian population nearly doubled, from 588,000 to 930,000, yet only two plots of church land were released for bidding between 2005 and 2010,” Woods writes.

Thus many groups do not have access to religiously zoned land. The consequence is that Christian organizations, especially the newer ones, operate within secular spaces, where they compete with secular entities. This is the case for Singapore’s main megachurches, Woods adds, with one renting an auditorium for holding four Sunday services that are broadcasted to six other venues. But while this provides a solution—despite the challenges of “spatial impermanence”—it also means high rents and leads to a commercialization of religious practice in Singapore, for instance with the creation of business arms for financing expansion. Due to the need for stable locations, some megachurches partner with secular developers to build secular venues that can also be used for religious purposes. Woods’ analysis shows that this leads to a “desecularization of space” rather than its sacralization. Indeed, official guidelines forbid religious uses of such spaces to alter their secular nature, only allowing their use on a non-exclusive and limited basis. This shows that the shaping of urban environments by religious groups is only part of the story, and that the organization and operations of religious groups may also be shaped by the urban environment.

(Social Compass,