I was born Muslim. I grew up in a Muslim family. While my parents weren’t the most religious of people, my upbringing was very much Muslim. I went for Friday prayers at the neighbourhood mosques, was taught to read the Quran, and would visit the mosque during Hari Raya Puasa and Haji. As a young boy, I went to religious classes every Sunday morning, where we would learn about the different aspects of the religion- it’s history, the five pillars and how to speak Arabic. I attended all my religious classes diligently and even got a certification of completion by the end of it.
Religion for me at the time wasn’t so much about belief as it was about following my parents, because that’s just how it is. You follow the religion of your parents, because they’re your parents and you’re just a child. I did as I was told; No more, no less.
Losing my religion
When I was 14 years old, a friend invited me to a Christmas party. I had no idea it was an evangelistic event until we were an hour in. The pastor was speaking about the death of Christ and its significance. It was only then that I realized I was actually sitting in a sermon. At first I thought, “Shoot, I’m trapped.”, but since I was already there, I listened as the pastor preached about the essence of Christmas.
Maybe it was the music, the melody or the words of the worship songs, but somehow that all got me questioning things—questioning if there truly existed a god, because before then, even though I was Muslim, I’d never believed in a higher being; as far as I was concerned, God didn’t exist.
Eventually, my beliefs shifted to the point that I started believing in an actual god – the Christian god. I had been converted.
Secrets at home, judgement outside
My conversion to Christianity came with no small amount of fear. I had no idea what would become of me if my family were to find out. I was terrified, so I tried my best to keep a low profile. Among my friends, I was Christian—I even ate pork. But when I was home, I was a whole other person. I had to act the part of a Muslim. I couldn’t eat pork. When it was time to fast, I fasted at home but as soon as I was out of my parents’ sight, I broke fast. Part of the act was out of fear, but a big part of it was also out of respect for my parents and what they believed.
For about 5 years, I had to lie every Saturday in order to go to church. My mum would always ask me, “why you always go out on Saturdays?” It was lie after lie, last week it was, “I’m going out to study with my friends,” this week it’s, “I’m going shopping for new clothes.” There was always this paranoia that they would find out, and I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.
All my friends knew I was a Christian, but not all of them responded positively to this. While most of them accepted it, there were a handful that didn’t, and who would ask me why I converted just so they could shoot me down and rain criticism on me. In school, some of my closest Malay friends would keep their distance from me. They wouldn’t talk to me, which is why I have a lot more Chinese friends now than Malay ones.
About 6 years after I converted, when I was in NS, some of the people I knew would attack me because of my beliefs. One of my instructors that found out dragged me to one side after breakfast one day, while we were waiting to go back to our dormitory, and said to me, “Wah, if we’re not in Singapore, I would have killed you already. It would have been my duty to kill you.” I knew he couldn’t do anything, so I retorted, saying, “Yeah, lucky we’re in Singapore. You can’t do anything to me.”
Muslims judged me, Christians judged me, even friends I knew who were neither Muslim nor Christian had something to say about it. They would say things like “Eh, like that, aren’t you betraying your own family?” or, “Don’t you think your family will be upset?” This is because there is a Muslim law that holds your family responsible for your faith. If you betray the faith, it’s on your family as well, because it means they haven’t brought you up well.
And then my parents found out
Eventually, my parents found out because they found a bible in my room and that’s when all our problems began. I tried reasoning with my dad, explaining that he couldn’t force me to believe in something I didn’t believe in, and that even if I did follow him and “behaved” like a Muslim, he and I both knew that in my heart, I wouldn’t be one.
But still, he would keep saying, “cannot”, “cannot”, “cannot”. Things didn’t progress and it came to a point when things became violent. I didn’t want to fight back because my dad was already getting old, so all I could do was block him as he beat me. That day, I ran out of the house half-naked, with not even shoes on; all I had on were my shorts because my shirt had torn from the beating. I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t want to fight back, but at the same time, I was about to explode, so I ran.
My pastor—a Malay pastor who has also been through a similar experience—came down to talk to me and comfort me. He offered to open his home to me if things got worse, but he made it very clear that I should try all ways and means to make things right with my parents.
I was prepared to run away. I told my mother that if my dad beat me up one more time, I was gone. She told me to come back, to not talk about religion for the time being and promised to make sure my dad didn’t hit me again. From that point on, my family didn’t speak openly to me about religion anymore. Neither did my dad and I speak. That went on for about 2 years.
Today, 8 years on, I’ve made good with my family. They still refuse to accept the fact that I’m Christian, and from time to time, they still try to change my mind about Christianity. When news comes up on Pastor Kong Hee, they make a big deal of it, saying, “see, Christians are like that.” They raise the issue of rich pastors, and they do little things here and there to put down Christianity and lift up the name of Muslims.
The more I’ve grown in my faith as a Christian, the more they’ve seemed to grow in theirs as Muslims—my mum, my dad, and my sister. While I’ve been serving and being more active in church, my mum’s started to pray 5 times a day; my dad’s been going to the mosque every day; and my sister’s been going for more advanced religious classes. This year, my parents are going on a pilgrimage to the Middle East.
While there is not a war right now, I am fearful that it’s only right around the corner, like when I marry my Christian girlfriend. She might need to convert — at least according to Muslim customs — and I know for a fact that she won’t. Neither of us can fathom being of a religion we don’t believe in.
Other people may disagree with me, and they are free to do so. Maybe they’ll say, “I’d rather things be peaceful within my family, and I’ll give up my belief if that’s what threatens to tear us apart.” But for me, belief matters and I cannot easily give that up.
Religion in Singapore
No matter what happens in the future, I know I will stand by my beliefs. After all, I’ve already gone through so much to defend my right to believe it. Stories like mine are not all that rare. The details are different, but the struggle is the same. We face condemnation from all sides—those of the same faith as us, those of a different faith, those who know us, those who don’t, friends and family.
In Singapore, by right, no one can do anything to you based on what you believe. But there are still many ways people can hurt you. Your friends can ostracize you. Your family can beat you. Everyone is free to judge you.
From all I’ve heard and experienced, racial tolerance and religious tolerance are just how things appear on the surface. Sure, we can all live together, but if you strike out on your own and believe something different from everyone else—especially everyone else in your family—that’s when you realize how ugly things are, or how ugly things can get when religious differences are in the picture.
At the end of the day, religion and what you believe is a highly personal matter. It is not for others to decide for you, and it is surely not something you believe simply because your parents do. The best I can do is stand by my religious beliefs while respecting those of others, whether they be family, friend or stranger.