Exploring the ongoing popularity of Feng Shui in Singaporean society

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Darnelle Tay Mei Ying
Darnelle is a 23-year-old student from Singapore Management University. She loves watching movies and her hobbies include enjoying coffee and going on evening power walks to finish the day.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Singapore, like many other countries, entered into a period of fervent mask-wearing, home lockdown, and very limited social interaction. The concept of travel soon became a distant memory. Working and studying from home, once an alien concept, soon became a norm, and life adjusted accordingly to these new demands.

I had never actually made walking downstairs a part of my routine, and could count on one hand the number of times I had stopped to soak in what was in front of me. When restrictions eased in July 2020 and we could step out of the house for non-mandatory purposes, taking a walk in the Central Business District (CBD) felt very refreshing. It was not my first, but being able to go outdoors (albeit with a mask on) was something new after a two-month-long circuit breaker stuck at home.

Singapore night-time view from the rooftop of Marina Bay Sands
Singapore night-time view from the rooftop of Marina Bay Sands

In downtown Singapore, Marina Bay Sands stands at the background of the low-lying Art Science Museum. It has been said that these two structures exhibit the harmony of Feng Shui – The infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands allows dragons to ‘play and drink’, while the museum is shaped like two hands in a cupping formation, ready to receive energies from the above skies.

Daytime View of Marina Bay Sands and the Art Science Museum (centre right)
Daytime View of Marina Bay Sands and the Art Science Museum (centre right)

These theories paint Singapore like a Feng Shui city. Head down to Collyer Quay at night time, you will see the Merlion sprouting water back into the Singapore river, with skyscrapers in the near distance. It is said that this merlion is spouting good fortune into the Singapore river, creating a continuous flow of fortune. That is Singapore for you: A patchwork of modern and ancient beliefs.

As someone who grew up here, I realise that the way Feng Shui is embedded in the city’s architecture does not seem to make sense. After all, this is Singapore, an economically-advanced metropolis. When you consider land value, these low-lying structures do not seem to be in line with some form of economic planning that seeks to maximise per square foot use. The belief of Feng Shui is rather systemic in Singapore, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it is the true driver of decision-making here.

To understand more, I spoke to Mr Tan (not his real name), who strongly believes in Feng Shui, and regularly seeks consultations from his Feng Shui Master. He is also the CEO of a logistics operations and supply chain solutions provider based in Singapore. In the course of his work, he heads the company in strategic, investment and business decisions. I asked Mr Tan about the role of his deep belief in Feng Shui in his daily life. Somewhat surprisingly, he said it has quite minimal impact, except for decisions such as choosing a new house, deciding where to place the study room, or where to place his house plants.

A fiddle leaf fig plant placed in Mr Tan’s home
A plant placed in Mr Tan’s home

Plants are closely associated with Feng Shui. Many households have a money plant, which symbolises wealth. Not only are they thought to bring affluence to the household, but they are a pleasant sight. In fact, a study published by the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that interaction with indoor plants has the ability to reduce ‘psychological and physiological stress’ in young adults – particularly important, perhaps, considering the increased mental exhaustion from work-from-home arrangements, with increased workload and blurring of the lines between work and rest being a common phenomenon.

I asked Mr Tan why, since there is no scientific proof of Feng Shui, did he still believe in it? He told me it was due to its history, and because of its place in Chinese culture. Feng Shui has quite mysterious origins – in fact, no one can really give a definitive answer to the origins of Feng Shui, but it is undeniably very old. Some say its name is a literal translation from a passage of a lost book, with its influence in buildings and architecture preceding modern China. It is a somewhat surprising fact that the magnetic compass was first invented for us in Feng Shui.

After speaking to Mr Tan, I realised that the answer to why people in Singapore believe in Feng Shui might be simpler than I thought. I remembered taking a Cognitive Psychology class on human reasoning, where we were shown a video about American psychologist B.F. Skinner’s ‘Superstitious Pigeons’ Experiment. During the study, pigeons were rewarded with food at random, but it was found that the pigeons quickly began to look for links between their behaviour and the food rewards, developing complex patterns of movements in the hope of reinforcing the feeding rewards.

The key takeaway was that the pigeons seem to be acting based on what they thought would cause them to receive food, and not actually what was determining it: the random intervals determined by the experimenters. The experiment drew parallels between animal and human behaviour, and I began to see this kind of superstitious behaviour as key to what drives people to believe in Feng Shui. Feng Shui teaches that engaging in highly specific actions and practices leads to certain outcomes, when in fact things occur due to external factors and influences.

There is also loss aversion bias, where the pleasure of a gain is felt less strongly than the pain of a loss, even when they are at an equivalent value. It seems to explain the cognitive bias of humans, who focus more on limiting losses than actually appreciating their gains, and maybe this can also explain why people believe in Feng Shui. They do it to prevent an adverse outcome, and tend to look past other neutral or good outcomes that could be attributed to other factors.

These aren’t the only reasons that people are drawn to Feng Shui. At its core, it is mysterious, to the point of being esoteric. There are so many Feng Shui masters out there that one is almost spoilt for choice. However, to practically apply it to your life, you need to seek regular consultations, to access the knowledge and interpret it correctly, which makes the correct application of it so elusive. We are more drawn to things we have little or no knowledge of.

Secondly, the practice of Feng Shui is constantly being rejuvenated. It originated in ancient China, but still lives on today. It is fluid to the point that its philosophy can be changed to suit the audience. There are practitioners who tailor it to suit the new generation, but keep core concepts the same. Thierry Chow, a Feng Shui master hailing from Hong Kong, seeks to modernise it by incorporating modern designs into Feng Shui homeware.

Thirdly, it has some aspects that are common sense and practical. In Feng Shui, ventilation and good airflow are vital in homes. In a home that has more ventilation, one would certainly feel less stuffy. Feng Shui also talks about having natural light come into homes, which makes the area brighter, lively, and less dull. Given that some of its aspects align with things we know to be functional and practical, we can see why Feng Shui can seem so compelling – even if it’s claims of mysterious powers and control aren’t actually true.

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