By April Chong
The first Taoist College in Singapore is set to open on Dec 21 and plans are under way for it to offer a diploma programme in Taoist studies.
Such programmes are currently offered only by institutions in places such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With these courses, the Taoist community hopes to entice a younger generation to study the Tao and continue the practice of the religion, said the college's academic director, Professor Xu Liying, who hails from Xi'an, China.
The full-time diploma programme, which targets young people pursuing tertiary studies, will begin once the college moves to its own premises some time within the next two years. In the meantime, the college will conduct short courses for the public.
The school is temporarily housed at the San Qing Gong Taoist Cultural Centre in Bedok North and negotiations are being made to acquire the land behind San Qing Gong for the college building.
The diploma course - spanning two to 21/2 years - will include core and elective modules in topics such as history, literature and philosophies of Taoism, and comparative religious studies and policies. It will be conducted by visiting experts from the region and will be primarily in Mandarin.
Collaborations with Sichuan University in China, which has established expertise in this field, are also being worked out, said Prof Xu, who has a PhD in History from Northwest University in China where she specialised in Chinese religions.
Applicants for the diploma course need to have O-level qualifications or their equivalent and pass written tests on basic Taoism knowledge and the Chinese language.
The college expects the bulk of the applicants to come from other countries in the region, as the demand in Singapore is not expected to be large.
Successful applicants, expected to be between 20 and 30 for the first intake, do not have to pay for the programme and will be given meals, in-house accommodation and a small allowance. There is no bond attached.
'Taoism has always been passed down from parent to child and it is time to extend the religion's reach,' Prof Xu explained. 'It does not matter if the graduates do not remain to work in Singapore. The aim is just to spread the teachings in the region.'
The decision to build a Taoist college is a timely one. In the last population census in 2000, Taoists made up 8.5 per cent of the population, down from 30 per cent in 1980.
The course will also be a stepping stone for those interested in becoming Taoist priests. Most of Singapore's Taoist priests undertake their religious studies in China.
The Taoist College is funded by the San Qing Gong Taoist Cultural Centre and jointly managed by the Taoist Federation here.
'Hopefully, (the college) will be a centre of Taoist studies in the region,' said the federation's administrator Chung Kwang Tong.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on December 12, 2008.