Religious Syncretism in Singapore:
Phra Phrom worship among Chinese Singaporeans.
Since the 1980s, there has been a growing popularity amongst Chinese Singaporeans who worship the Thai deity Phra Phrom (commonly known to them as the “Four Faced Buddha”) and making regular pilgrimages to temples in Thailand. (Hoon 2001) My research will seek to understand the historical, cultural and economic dynamics behind these practices. Such an exploration would enable a further understanding of Religious Syncretism as defined by Shaw and Stewart (1994).
By Foo Chek Wee
Matric number: U010010U
The Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology defines syncretism as the hybridization or amalgamation of two or more cultural traditions. According to Shaw and Stewart (1994), such a definition implies the “infiltration of a supposedly ‘pure’ tradition by symbols and meanings seen as belonging to other, incompatible traditions”. Shaw and Stewart (1994) exemplify this negative implication with the historical application of the word ‘syncretism’. They mentioned that the word ‘syncretism’ was used as an imperialist strategy in which “the Roman emperors, by appropriating the foreign cults of those they conquered, ‘would have all the varieties of mankind called in and restamped at the Caesarian mint’…Syncretism now becomes an assimilative weapon of that enemy.” Similarly, this pejorative understanding of the word ‘syncretism’ is used by scholars of comparative religion to condemn the adulteration of ‘pure’ religious traditions (e.g. Christianity). (Barnard & Spencer 1996:540)
Shaw and Stewart (1994) argued that despite the negative application of the word ‘syncretism’, ‘syncretism’ has been ascribed a neutral, and often positive, significance within anthropology. They asserted Herskovits’ (1941) earlier argument that the ‘culture-contact’ between two or more culturally distinct groups produces ‘cultural change’. Such a process of cultural change is of an “‘acculturative continuum’ that entails a concept of change as an automatic mechanism analogous to the blending of elements in a chemical process.” (Shaw & Stewart 1994:6) Accordingly, this ‘automatic mechanism’ assumes progressive adaptation whereby a person placed in a new cultural setting will “acculturate progressively along a continuum towards some ultimate completion.” The word “‘syncretism’, then, is not a determinate term with a fixed meaning, but one which has been historically constituted and reconstituted” (ibid: 6). This importance placed on the social and historical contexts in which syncretism is carried out is also put forward by Lang (2004) in his explanation of how Caodaism originated in Vietnam.
However, Shaw and Stewart (1994) counter-argue that such an adaptative process, which involves power relation between actors having consequential effects on this adaptive process and human agency (i.e. actions by people who are involved in the interpretation of this adaptive process), does not happen in any necessarily logical, progressive way in reality. The form in which ‘cultural change’ takes place depends on how people involved interpret what they are doing rather than upon the mechanical assignation of cultural traits. In fact, Mulder (1996), in his study of Southeast Asian religions, asserts that the locals within a particular Southeast Asian community actively select and utilize aspects of foreign religious tradition (localization). Furthermore, Mulder (ibid: 242) argued that the criteria in selecting which aspects of foreign religious tradition to utilize are highly dependent on the power relations of the people involved.
According to Shaw and Stewart (ibid: 7), ‘anti-syncretism’ is defined as “the antagonism to religious synthesis shown by agents concerned with the defense of religious boundaries”. As such, Shaw and Stewart (1994) take the stand that...