“Religion Thing Cannot Touch”

By Masked Crusader

Eleven years ago, one night during the month when Hungry Ghosts roam restlessly, my wife went to the guard house in the condominium we were staying and complained to a guard about some residents who were burning hell money and leaving joss sticks and food offerings on sidewalks within the compound. They were doing so openly and within sight of the guards on patrol and against condominium regulations even though bins had been set up by the management for offerings to be burned.

It was not so much the indiscriminate acts which bothered my wife, who herself was brought up as a Taoist, but that, as in previous years, it seemed unlikely that those who had left joss sticks and food on the grass would return to clear them.

Our children were young and we were concerned that they may stumble and injure themselves on the burnt out sticks in the ground. More importantly, we worried about how we would explain to them that it was, on occasion, acceptable to leave your mess for others — such as Bangladeshi workers — to clear up.

Back to my wife’s encounter with the poor security guard, a middle-aged Malay man. Clearly not wishing to be in the unfortunate situation of having to enforce condominium rules by telling religious adherents that their behaviour was unacceptable, he looked pleadingly at my wife and explained to her, “Madam, you know, religion thing cannot touch.”

Fortunately for the guard, we decided to go no further with the complaint. After all, if it didn’t bother the other residents, it would seem we were being unreasonable to press the issue. But, mainly, we didn’t want to be the cause of a guard losing his job, which was a possibility if those he confronted sought retribution. The guard could quite easily have been accused of being religiously insensitive rather than perceived as a professional doing his job.

Hungry Ghost 2 - Masked Crusader
Hungry Ghost Month in Singapore

The following year, during a walk one evening outside the condominium — an HDB estate — my wife was again upset about discriminate burning and food offerings on sidewalks. I called the police this time since it was beyond the purview of the condominium security guards. The policeman who answered originally said that they do not attend to these types of complaints but later agreed to send someone out to the location. We waited for about half an hour but no policemen came and nor did they call us.

Today, little has changed. Because, other than placing bins around HDB estates and mobilizing Bangladeshi town council workers to clean up the previous night’s mess, little has been done to address the issue. This despite the National Environment Agency, Singapore Civil Defence Force, Police, Town Councils, and other agencies all holding some sway over the matter. The indifference of the agencies over this issue is most marked when compared to their vigorous efforts to restrict smoking — an issue with no religious connotations — over the past few years.

As with indiscriminate parking around places of worship there is a general inertness and reluctance to enforce laws when religion enters the equation. It is a running joke among the public that the authorities are conveniently not around in these situations so they do not have to deal with messy situations.

One might say in multicultural, multi-religious Singapore, it is important to give and take a little. That trash left behind during the Hungry Ghost month is simply an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of an important religious observance.

Except, Singapore is hardly the most Taoist/Buddhist/Confucionist society around. Nor even a society with the most number of such adherents living in high-rise apartments. Taipei, in Taiwan, for example, has more adherents who live in densely-populated urban apartments. Yet, modern Taiwan is zealously concerned with environmental issues. Gentle societal pressure rather than punitive laws have shaped attitudes. In Taiwan, temples make arrangements on behalf of worshippers to burn paper within its premises. Residents in Taiwanese condominiums or businesses in strip malls coordinate to burn hell money together on designated days. Food offerings to ancestors are made on altars within homes rather than left out in the open. And, Taiwanese adherents are more likely to take responsibility for any mess they may cause.

Hungry Ghost Month in Taiwan
Hungry Ghost Month in Taiwan

It is clear that what occurs during Hungry Ghost month in Singapore — where cheap Bangladeshi cleaners and Indonesian maids are at our beck and call — is a reflection of societal ambivalence towards environmental issues and divergence in values. The issue, therefore, is a cultural — not religious — one as the Taiwanese do not behave as we do. This is even more apparent if one is to look at other evidence.

While all sorts of inappropriate junk can be found stuffed in the token recycle bins in HDB estates, the Taiwanese are diligent about sieving out recyclable waste and make the extra effort to dispose of them appropriately. In night markets in Taipei, one will find rubbish bins and free plastic bags to dispose of waste only at the ends of the streets. Yet, one will observe Taiwanese shoppers holding onto their trash till they reach the end of the street instead of “accidentally” allowing it to slip out of their hands. Remarkably clean roads at the busy Luzhou Night Market in Taipei, that can be seen in photos here, are a stark contrast to what one will see in Singapore’s Chinatown or night markets in HDB estates, where trash bins are ubiquitous. In fact, in HDB blocks, even when trash bins are within arm’s reach, it is not unusual to find trash on the floor all around them.

When religion enters the equation, in Singapore, we often find ourselves unable to disentangle the real issues and engage in constructive discussion. Sincerity is absent if honesty and openness must be checked in at the door when religious matters are to be discussed. It does not help when the Government and authorities choose softly-softly approaches to problem-solving when religion is involved as it only entrenches existing attitudes and behaviours and sends the wrong signals to the impressionable in society. It also emboldens those who know that playing the religion card often puts a stop to conversations.

Far too regularly, Singaporeans are reminded of the fact that we are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society and that greater tolerance is required to avoid civil unrest. We are not the only such society in the world nor the most diverse if this report is to be believed. Yet, I do not read of New Yorkers being reminded every few months that they need to be more tolerant of each other for continued peaceful co-existence. Honesty is more important in such matters.

This article first appeared in a blog entry by Masked Crusader