Behind the Belief: Mormons keep the faith in Singapore

Elder Wendell Loh, 21, (left) is preparing to serve as a full-time missionary in Lyon, France for the next two years. Elder Thaddeus Ng, 22, has been serving in Singapore and West Malaysia for the past 19 months.

How much do you know about the diversity of faiths in Singapore? In this series, Yahoo News Singapore explores the lesser-known rituals and branches of religions in the country.

Not many people would warm to the idea of giving up an additional two years of your life after completing National Service. But that’s exactly what Elder Wendell Loh, 21, is gearing up for.

Loh, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), will be serving as a Mormon missionary for two years in Lyon, France. His family is steeped in the tradition, with his parents and elder sister also previously serving as missionaries for the faith.

“I guess you could say I was egged on to go on a mission,” said Loh, looking like a schoolboy in his neatly trimmed hair, spectacles and the ubiquitous short-sleeved white shirt, tie and name tag of Mormon missionaries. “I’ve had people telling me it’s a waste of time. But for me, it is the same way I viewed NS as an adventure.”

Loh has signed up for a tough, almost monk-like existence. He will be assigned a companion, who will be within sight of him almost 24/7. Among the rules: no TV, social media, secular music, reading the news or even swimming. Every single day will be spent almost exclusively in the study of scripture or proselytising.

For the likes of Elder Thaddeus Ng, 22, who has been serving in Singapore and West Malaysia for the past 19 months, it has been a test of faith. Asked if he had ever contemplated quitting, Ng took a long pause before saying, “There have been difficult times on missions where I have gone down on my knees and cried. But quitting, that thought never entered my mind. (God) gave me those trials and challenges for me to grow, that everything that happens is for my own good.”

There are currently 21 Mormon missionaries from Singapore serving in 15 countries. Four hundred have been sent out from the Republic in the last two decades, while the LDS Church here receives an average of 15-20 applications annually. According to LDS leaders, there are around 3,400 Mormons in Singapore currently.

While not compulsory, young people in the LDS Church are encouraged to serve as missionaries: two years for men, 18 months for women. They undergo a rigorous application and interview process, and their destinations are determined by prophetic inspiration. Their missions are self-financed, but the church does provide assistance via a global and local fund.

‘We prefer to be called Latter-Day Saints’

While Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is the founder of their church, the LDS Church was officially established in New York on 6 April, 1830, a date Mormons call the restoration of the church. The American Joseph Smith is considered the prophet of the restoration.

The present-day LDS headquarters, the Salt Lake City Temple, is located in Utah. The first Mormon missionaries came to Singapore in 1969 and established the first branch of the church in Singapore.

Elder Leonard Woo, 61, oversees the faithful in Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, West Malaysia and Singapore. He explained that in addition to the King James Bible, LDS members are also led by an additional Testament called the Book of Mormon. “The name Mormon itself refers to an ancient prophet who lived on the American continent and was instrumental in recording a lot of the events in the Book of Mormon. That’s why a lot of people in the world call us Mormons.”

The Book of Mormon, also known as Another Testament of Jesus Christ, claims to be an account of God’s dealings with the inhabitants of ancient America. It includes a visit by the risen Jesus to the Americas. It was written by Smith after he had a vision of the angel Moroni, who led him to golden plates with inscriptions that he eventually translated into the Book of Mormon.

There are also two additional scriptures: Doctrines and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, written by Smith and other Mormon prophets via divine guidance. Among other beliefs and practices, Mormons are forbidden from consuming coffee, tea, tobacco or alcohol.

It is an article of faith that the new Zion, or Jerusalem, will be established on the American continent. The dead can be baptised by proxy, but only in certain sacred venues. Contrary to popular belief, the LDS church no longer practices polygamy – it was stopped in 1890, though some fundamentalist branches still practise it.

A Sacrament Meeting at the LDS premises in Bukit Timah, on a Sunday morning in September. PHOTO: Nurul Amirah/Yahoo News Singapore

The Mormons of Singapore

On a Sunday morning in September, Yahoo News Singapore attended an LDS sacrament meeting, or service, at its Bukit Timah premises. There are some 3,400 Mormons in Singapore, attending services in Pasir Panjang, Sengkang and Bukit Timah. LDS leaders told us that it was the first time that reporters had been allowed to film a Mormon service in Singapore.

Wah, you all very good. We are not even allowed to film during weddings,” said Shan Khoo, 23, who joined the church 18 months ago.

While Mormons stress that they are not Protestants, the solemn affair was reminiscent of a traditional Protestant service. The auditorium was bare, with wooden pews. The congregation of about 60 were dressed in their Sunday best, and sang from a book of hymns that included “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem of the US, perhaps reflecting Mormon doctrine that America has a special place in God’s plan.

Leaders of the church – all men – sat facing the congregation. Instead of a sermon by a pastor – there are no professional clergy – selected members were assigned to speak on specific topics. And in deference to the founder’s word of wisdom against imbibing alcohol, the communion consisted of bread and water.

The faithful spend an average of three hours in church every week. Service is followed by Sunday school, as well as classes attended separately by men and women.

Elder Leonard Woo, 61, of the Mormon church. His four children are all serving as missionaries. PHOTO: Nurul Amirah/Yahoo News Singapore

Are Mormons Christians?

Mormons have much in common with mainstream Christianity, according to LDS leaders and members. They are guided by the Bible (the King James Version), believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and their values are largely conservative.

But the doctrinal differences are such that many mainstream Christians do not see them as co-religionists. For example, both the Catholic and Methodist Churches require Mormons who convert to be re-baptised. In Singapore, the LDS Church is not a member of the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS), the umbrella body for Protestant churches in Singapore.

Shan Khoo, a former national shooter, is now preparing to serve a mission in Scotland and Ireland. Asked what she thinks of other Christians’ views of Mormons, “I think that it’s very funny, to be frank, because Christianity has many denominations and I believe that they also say the same thing about the other denominations.

“Everyone who is in whichever they are in, they will think that everything else is fake or wrong, and I will always invite them to come and find out for themselves.”

Elder Woo said, “Because we have additional Testament, they (other Christians) thought that we have strayed from the Bible. That’s not true. The Bible is a very serious text to us. So I think when they critcise us, often it’s due to a misunderstanding.

The people who come to know about us [will] know that we are Christian right to the core…our lives are very Christ-centred, our teachings are very Christ-centred.”

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