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Religion is still a big deal in Singapore

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With growing numbers of youths identifying as free-thinkers and atheists, we asked why some still choose to turn to God.

Axley Thien once thought he had it all. 

He was happily attached, doing well in school, and lived comfortably. 

Yet, he still felt unhappy. 

He felt an emptiness inside, which lead him to depression and suicidal thoughts. 

"There came a point where I told myself, I can't keep up with this. Either I keep trying to satisfy all the missing areas in my life…or I try to commit suicide until I succeed," said the 20-year-old student. 

After being inspired by his Christian friends, who showed him what a meaningful life was like, Axley attended a church for the first time. 

The community in the church accepted him with compassion and grace. 

"I was fully expecting judgement from them because I've gotten that from people before. But that wasn't the case. They looked past my flaws and stuck around when I was at my worst," said Axley. 

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Besides being an active church member, Axley is currently training to be a youth leader in his own community. 
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AMANDA WONG 

Axley is one of the youths in Singapore actively practising their faith, amongst an increasing number of youths shunning religion.

Seeking comfort through religion 

Among the 13 youths Youth.SG spoke to, most shared that they turned to religion after experiencing a low point in their lives. 

Tamliikhaa Khamsani, 27, had his faith in God shaken when his younger sister died due to lupus in 2014. 

The young ustaz (religious teacher) recalled: "It was incredibly painful for me to process and I began to question God. I would ask, "Why take her away? She was so good, so pure.'" 

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Tamliikhaa's faith helped him cope with his personal loss. 
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/DEXTER LIN 

"I realised God took her away to stop her suffering. God works in ways that our mind cannot comprehend. 

"She led a kind and good life, so she is definitely in a good place in the afterlife," said Tamliikhaa, who is currently pursuing his Masters in National University of Singapore (NUS). 

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Ang Sze Yuan grew up in a Buddhist family. 
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AMANDA WONG 

Ang Sze Yuan, 25, started learning more about his faith when he was struggling with national service duties in 2012. 

"I was screwing up so often, like misplacing parts of my rifle and failing missions, that I was ranked last [93rd position] in the entire company," admitted the civil engineering graduate from NUS. 

After adopting several meditation routines, Sze Yuan found that his mental state and health slowly improved. 

Sze Yuan said: "The [Buddha's] teachings are all about training our mind in positive habits and instincts, so that it can become happier." 

His positive experience influenced him to invest his time in his faith. He stopped drinking and clubbing, and practised meditation every day. 

He also felt confident enough to become a youth leader in the Buddhist Fellowship Youth. 

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Sze Yuan (left, in red T-shirt) plans weekly volunteering projects and guides other Buddhist youths. 
PHOTO CREDIT: ANG SZE YUAN 

Likewise, religion has always been a part of Liyana Musfirah's life. 

The 26-year-old full-time ustazah (religious teacher) grew closer to her faith after experiencing post-natal blues for three to four months, shortly after giving birth to her second child in 2016. 

Liyana shared: "I had the support [from friends, colleagues and family] but I was missing something…I wasn't satisfied with the comfort that they were giving me. That was when I turned to God."

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Liyana grew up in a religious household and attended Madrasah Alsagoff Al-Islamiah from primary to secondary school. 
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/YASIRA HANNAN 

Finding company in God, Liyana gained the strength to overcome her post-natal blues. 

"As much as we have friends and family that can support us when we're facing challenges in life, I think many of us want solutions from a religious perspective," she explained. 

Giving back through faith 

Seeking solace from their faiths has also motivated these youths to give back to their own communities. 

To cope with her personal struggles, Liyana started sharing her thoughts on Islamic teachings on Instagram

After receiving encouraging messages from her followers, she started the Liyana Musfirah Network in 2017 to help others going through challenging moments. 

Through her network, which received over 12,000 visits within three months of its launch, Liyana shares about her upcoming courses and workshops about Islamic education and Muslim women issues. 

She recounted a particularly memorable encounter: "Once, a student of mine told me she was on the verge of committing suicide. She saw my post [on Instagram] and changed her mind. 

"I didn't even know her, but because I post random things on social media, I happened to save her life." 

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Liyana spends her days juggling between her duties as an ustazah, a boss of her own company, and a mother of three. 
PHOTO CREDIT: LIYANA MUSFIRAH 

Axley felt a desire to make a difference to the lives of others. 

"In the past, people would message me about how to earn money, how to ace polytechnic, or how to 'score' with girls. Now, people come to me, confiding about their struggles and asking questions about God. 

"I hope these daily interactions will impact them as much as I have been impacted," said Axley. 

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Axley (top row, centre) keeps himself busy through volunteer work (pictured) and giving back to the less fortunate. 
PHOTO CREDIT: AXLEY THIEN 

For Tamliikhaa, giving back is an opportunity for him to do good. 

This includes sharing Islamic teachings with the less fortunate, which he finds fulfilling and rewarding. 

"[To have] some of the people I preach to, coming up to me crying and saying thank you, it is very powerful. It makes me think, 'Wow, I'm really helping others'," said Tamliikhaa, who delivered a sermon at Changi Prison during Hari Raya recently. 

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Tamliikhaa aims to educate others about the peaceful way of living through his faith. 
PHOTO CREDIT: TAMLIIKHAA KHAMSANI 

Despite their different beliefs, what keeps these youths motivated to pursue religion while serving their own communities? 

"The presence of a community of spiritual friends was extremely helpful in encouraging me to maintain the Buddhist practice, which may get quite challenging at times," said Sze Yuan. 

For Axley, he felt a calling to help others when his life changed for the better: "The reason why I am motivated [to share about Christianity] is because someone loved me like God did, and the life I live now is too good to give up for anything else." 

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Liyana also gives lectures on topics such as self-motivation and self-esteem. 
PHOTO CREDIT: LIYANA MUSFIRAH 

Likewise, Liyana finds that her life feels complete when she focuses on her faith. "God completes my everyday life. Without Him, it wouldn't be as meaningful." 

This is a series exploring the different motivations behind youths and their religion. 

Also in this series: 

  1. Hindu youth 

WRITTEN BY AMANDA WONG, DEXTER LIN AND YASIRA HANNAN
BANNER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/AMANDA WONG, DEXTER LIN AND YASIRA HANNAN