By Ng Yi-Sheng
I didn’t enjoy Chinese New Year much as a kid. I was awkward around my relatives, who always made fun of me by calling me the “angmoh kia”, the white boy, because my English was so much better than my Mandarin or Hokkien. Angpows didn’t matter much to me, either, since my parents always collected the money afterwards to save in my POSB account. Most of my holiday memories involve sitting in the back of the car, queasy from motion-sickness, stiff scratchy in my newly bought clothes, trying to act as a buffer between my squabbling sister and brother till we got home.
But I did enjoy the lion dances. My uncle was a contractor with one of those monster houses in Bishan, and every year he’d hire a lion dance troupe to perform in his courtyard. Throughout the ceremony, I’d gaze at these bizarre artificial beasts, jumping and strutting, batting their huge eyelashes, spitting out cabbage leaves onto the floor.
Even more than the acrobatics, I remember the music: the clashing cymbals and thumping drumbeats so loud you could feel the vibrations in your very chest. You’d hear it blocks away, or else on the street as one of the lorries went by, with the entire troupe hanging out in the open-roofed back. A proud music, so ebullient that it didn’t care if the neighbours were going to complain. A joyful noise. A feast of sound and spectacle, so intense that it becomes almost holy.
Over the years, I’ve had the fortune to witness many other traditional rituals in Singapore, often more explicitly spiritual, with just much jubilant noise. I’ve applauded for kompang bands at Malay weddings, listened to Buddhist chanters at Chinese funerals, once even walked alongside the statue of a Hindu god, fanning him with horsehair, while my boyfriend’s family carried him through his temple to the sound of trumpets.
I’ve seen kuda kepang performances, firewalking, tang kees going into trances. They’ve left me awed, mystified, and proud. Proud that these centuries-old ceremonies have been able to survive, even in the obsessively efficient, culturally ambivalent, urban jungle that is my home. Proud that this – all this – is part of my heritage, as a Singaporean and a Southeast Asian.
I’m telling you all this so I can explain why I’m so upset about the ban on musical instruments at the Thaipusam parade. It got a fair amount of publicity this year (the festival took place on 17 January, in case you’ve forgotten). But in fact, it isn’t a new thing. Back in 2011, the Hindu Endowments Board laid down new guidelines that forbade singing, beating of drums and gongs and playing of recorded music at the event. This year, signs went up that explicitly forbade the carrying of any instruments in the procession.
In case you didn’t know, Thaipusam is a festival in honour of Lord Murugan, the handsome war god who is always shown riding a peacock. It’s not actually a big event back in India. It’s the South Indian diaspora that’s really blown it up. The processions in Singapore and Malaysia have no equal in any other part of the world, which is why photographers come specifically to our shores to witness the display. It’s an almost unique part of our culture, and everyone on the island should be proud of it.
Taking away the music doesn’t just take away some intangible magic from the event. It also causes real physical suffering. The men who carry the kavadis, who perform the superhuman feats of piercing their bodies with hooks and skewers to carry the peacock-like floats on their backs – they use loud music to hold them in their trances, to block out the pain in their bodies.
In short, the ban is harmful and stupid. It castrates a part of our culture. And it didn’t get imposed because of the Little India Riots. It came about because some lawmakers were worried that neighbours wouldn’t like the noise.
My Hindu friends – and some non-Hindu friends – have pointed out how Chinese lion dances and funerals make just as much noise, and are held in closer proximity to residential areas, throughout the year. Why haven’t they been banned?, they ask.
The simple answer is, because of racism. But it’s a very specific form of racism that’s at play here. It’s about a failure to understand that your heritage isn’t just limited to the culture and customs of your own race. Our heritage is a patchwork of cultures, covering all the ethnic communities on the island and then some. What more lawmakers need to see is that marginalise any one culture among us is to impoverish oneself.
I know I’m behind the times here. I should’ve written an opinion piece on Thaipusam, or shortly after Thaipusam. But I figure this shouldn’t just be a seasonal complaint. It should be kept on our agendas throughout the year as evidence for the government’s mismanagement of ethnic relations. It should be raised by every political party at the General Elections in 2016 – unless the PAP gets its act together and reverses it before then, of course.
Of course, there are many other issues of racism that ought to be addressed – the potential for racial profiling now that the police have these awful expanded powers to strip-search innocent subjects in Little India, for example, and also the sheer cluelessness of Chinese Singaporeans boasting that we live in a racism-free society when there is barely any Muslim soldier who’s allowed to be a tank driver or a fighter pilot. But for now, in the run-up to Chinese New Year, I’d like to just think about the rights that we all should enjoy to freely express our culture.
This weekend, on 31 January and 1 and 2 February, you’ll hear a lot of lion dance music. You might get to watch a show, marvelling at how young men can transform themselves into animals, just by wearing costumes of cloth and sequins and moving to the sound of drums and brass cymbals. Don’t put your hands over your ears. Let yourself bathe in the noise. It’s the voice of a culture, proudly proclaiming that it is still here.
And as you watch and listen, remember that you have a responsibility to defend every culture in this country, no matter what your race is. The voice of the peacock god deserves to be heard, just as much as the music of the lion.
TOC’s interview in 2011 over ban of musical instruments