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Buddhism attracting more young Singaporeans

By April Chong, The Straits Times, May 19, 2008

And they are not just following the faith but also taking up leadership roles

Singapore -- YOUNG, educated and holding a white-collared job: This could describe the average credit-card holder - but it also describes the growing breed of practising Buddhists here.

Radiation therapist Melissa Koh, 25, for example, started taking Buddhist classes a few years ago, just before she began working and needed 'spiritual help' to sort out what she wanted in life.

'I can apply the teachings of mindfulness, compassion and impermanence to what I do every day,' said the young woman, who has since moved on to volunteering with Buddhist groups and is organising a conference for Buddhist youth in August.

She is part of a groundswell of younger followers who mark Vesak Day today with Buddhists here and abroad. Temples, missions and meditation centres confirm that most new followers of this faith are around her age.

Buddhism is the main religion here, and fast growing: The number of people aged 15 and up who said they were followers jumped from 27 per cent of the population in 1980 to 31 per cent in 1990. In 2000, the last census, the figure was 43 per cent, or 1.1 million people.

That census also acknowledged a four-fold jump in Buddhists who were graduates between 1990 and 2000, a statistic fed by the jump in the number of younger people following the tenets of the faith.

The membership numbers of Buddhist youth groups are telling: The Kong Meng San Youth Ministry, which had 950 members in 2003, has almost 3,600 now; seven in 10 of their members have at least a diploma, said its manager Yap Ching Wi, 39.

At the Singapore Buddhist Mission Youth, membership jumped from 10 a decade ago to 200 members aged between 12 and 24 today, said committee member Alvin Yeo, 24.

And these younger people are not just following the faith in private. They are coming forward to take leadership roles in Buddhist groups, giving the top rungs new blood.

Ten years ago, less than a quarter of the members of Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong Temple's management committee of volunteers were under 50. Today, about half are, and most are working professionals, said the temple's ritual head Joe Lim, 42, who works in the information technology line.

So what is the draw?

Buddhist converts told The Straits Times that the religion offered comfort in the face of uncertainties and disasters, and a constant reminder to look beyond the materialism of the rat race and to attain calmness and happiness through meditation and reflection.

These were what pulled Hindu-born Tara Melwani, 43 and director of the retailing group Jay Gee Melwani, into the faith in the late 1990s, during the Asian economic crisis. She had then been picked to take over the family business, and felt that her life was in a shambles.

When a Buddhist monk she met overwhelmed her with his show of compassion, she decided that she, too, wanted to be 'free from confusion, hang-ups and anger'.

'Through Buddhism, I can be a better daughter, a better sister, a better friend and a better colleague,' she said.

The religion seems to have quite a large celebrity following. For example, actress Nadya Hutagalung, 34, born into a largely Christian family, became a Buddhist four years ago, sold on its philosophy of reaping what you sow.

Many young professionals encounter Buddhist teachings through centres and gatherings, and spread the word through e-mail, websites and even social networking sites like Facebook.

Buddhist groups have, on their part, evolved to attract younger followers: Most activities are now run in English, and even include programmes to hone leadership and personal development skills.

By making itself accessible and inclusive, the religion has reached out even to those of other religions.

Singapore Exchange chief Hsieh Foo Hua, 57, for example, is a staunch Christian who attends Buddhist talks, especially those by high monks.

He said: 'Buddhism is a very embracing and non- exclusive religion...I am fundamentally rooted as a Christian but I am impressed and influenced by Buddhist thinking, which has helped me in the uplifting of the mind and spirit.'



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