Every faith has a community but what happens if you don’t have a religion? Tan Ding Jie, or “DJ” to friends, decided he’d help build a community for the non-religious, which includes humanists, freethinkers, atheists, even sceptics. Ten years on, the Humanist Society (Singapore) — which has a 6,000-strong following on social media — offers a space for members to exchange insights on science, humanism and ethics. In 2018, Tan took a sabbatical from his job as a researcher with A*STAR to launch Starter Culture, which specialises in food fermentation.
Why was it important to set up Humanist Society (Singapore)?
It’s generally considered that people who are non- religious don’t seek a community, but we believe there’s value in building one, especially since just under 20 percent of Singaporeans do not have a faith. This conviction was strengthened when Covid-19 struck and we wanted to keep the support system going. Since we couldn’t physically socialise, we organised virtual events such as panels and chats so members could stay in touch. Our conversations revolve around humanism, which affirms that humans have the right and responsibility to live an ethical life based on reason and free inquiry.
Most important lesson the experience has taught you about diversity and inclusivity?
I’m constantly reminded that since we are all human, we have the same human problems. We must remain open-minded about differences, instead of retreating to a camp and refusing to engage the other party. Conversation is so important, but even more so is the way we interact with others. That’s why at Humanist Society (Singapore), we have ground rules. We can agree to disagree in a polite manner. We discuss perceptions but we must never attack the person.
You say food is a good way to bring people together — spoken like a true-blue Singaporean.
Humanist Society (Singapore) provided me with many opportunities to interact with people with different backgrounds, values and nationalities. It’s made me more aware of biases and assumptions, and this has spilled over into the way I work as a food scientist. For example, I never label a food “strange” because it tends to paint a culture as exotic. Usually, we describe something as strange only because we have never seen or eaten it. I think we should try to understand the culture behind the food instead.
Most interesting food you’ve tried to ferment?
Durian, with salt. It tastes like what it is — salty durian [laughs]. I definitely won’t eat it on its own, but maybe cooked in curry or with other spices.
At Starter Culture, you help promote awareness of fermentation and how science can enrich our food culture.
I’m not a foodie although I like to eat. My interest in fermentation began when I was pursuing chemistry studies at the University College London and had to cook my own meals. I thought I could make my food taste better using techniques I’d picked up in the lab. After I returned to Singapore and started working as a researcher, I realised many were interested in fermentation but had no access to accurate information. Through Starter Culture, I want to help educate the public about food and science. By breaking down jargon and technicalities, I can make it more approachable for the regular uncles and aunties.
What do you find fascinating about fermenting food?
My first experiment was using red cabbage and saltwater to make sauerkraut. When I returned to it a week later, I was pleasantly surprised by its redcurrant aroma. It was as if I’d opened pandora’s box! Do I still like surprises? If I’m fermenting kimchi, I hope it doesn’t end up tasting like mushroom. Right now, I’m trying to upcycle bread waste into seasoning paste and I’m quite excited about it.
This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of A Magazine.