photos by Joshua Chiang and Terry Xu
It all started when the Hindu Endowment Board (HEB) guidelines for Thaipusam celebrations were made public this year. Those planning to participate in the festival were told that they had to refrain from shouting, playing recorded music, sounding gongs or drums, painting their faces and bodies, carrying banners, flags or postcards, and using a public address system.
Anyone caught breaking the rules risked being barred from future processions, as well as a fine of up to $5,000 under the Public Order Act.
“If you can't even tolerate a traditional Singapore festival for 1 out of 365 days (and it's not at 10pm, but 10am!), you shouldn't be living in Singapore,” a blogger wrote.
“How a person practices his religion is [for] him to decide so long it is within the framework of the law and without disturbing the other [people]. I am a Chinese but personally feel this Hindu celebration adds wealth to our national culture.” A commenter added on The Online Citizen.
But there were others who saw nothing wrong with the guidelines.
TOC reader S Ramamritham wrote that the Hindu religious event is being “put to ridicule particularly by some kavadi carriers and supporters with their improper conduct, behaviour and even dressing”.
The guidelines are there “to enhance and bring out the religious sanctity of the event”.
When the ST report on the rules first came out, some Singaporeans were quick to take offense – pointing out that they should also apply to other religious festivals, not just Thaipusam.
Since then, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam has clarified that the ST's report was inaccurate.
The guidelines, we’re told, apply to "all religious processions, not just Thaipusam". They’ve been around for 38 years, and contrary to what the ST had suggested, they were actually eased this year, to allow the singing of hymns.
But not everyone’s convinced. A shopowner at Little India who identified himself as "Mr Shan" told TOC, “Why all the while few years back, they never enforce the (ban against) musical instruments? Why this year they say want to stop? What reason they have to stop this?”
TOC understands that in previous years, Thaipusam festivities have been occasionally disrupted by unruly youths. Witnesses say they would show up drunk, sing obscene songs and make a nuisance of themselves.
Perhaps the guidelines are being enforced this year as a means of containing that sort of behavior.
According to the Straits Times report, noise pollution was another reason for the move.
Mr K. Kannappan, trustee of the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, said some residents along the procession’s 4km route from Serangoon Road to Tank Road complained about the noise last year. “So this year, we will be better neighbours,” he added.
("Thaipusam set to tone down volume", ST Jan 6)
But Mr Shan disagreed.
“Just tell me how many housing block flats. You can hardly count,” he said. “In Selegie Road you have a few flats and Upper Serangoon Road a few flats. That's all only. And all the way from Tank Road to Penang Road, there is no housing block flats. Only shophouses and some buildings.”
Regardless of reasons, Mr Shanmugam appeared to be taking a sterner approach this year, warning that anyone who persists in breaking the rules, not just during Thaipusam but at any other religious procession, will be "dealt with". However, he also added that police officers at the procession would be allowed to “exercise discretion”.
TOC went to witness the procession on the morning of 20th Jan. While there was loud music and a festive atmosphere inside the temples, it was markedly quieter outside.
Most of the kavadi carriers were accompanied by only one tabla drummer. There were people singing religious hymns. Occasionally a kavadi bearer would break into a spinning frenzy and his supporters would cheer. But overall, the tone was subdued.
"In comparison to what I observed from last year's encounter of Thaipusam, the atmosphere and volume is of stark difference," said TOC photographer Terry Xu.
Still, if the following Youtube videos are any indication, there were pockets of defiance. Despite the threat of punishment, some people were clearly not afraid of making their displeasure known.