Devotee carrying a kavadi (Image by Lawrence Chong)

Thaipusam & the right to cultural and religious expression in Singapore

Devotee carrying a kavadi (Image by Lawrence Chong)
Devotee carrying a kavadi (Image by Lawrence Chong)

By Sangeetha Thanapal

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil Hindus in Singapore, and other parts of the world that have a sizeable Tamil population. It has recently come under certain rules and regulations which have been deemed unjust.

In the 1960s, Thaipusam was a public holiday in Singapore. Thaipusam was then removed as a public holiday under the pretext that each major race is given two holidays; the Chinese have Chinese New Year (CNY), which lasts for two days. Malays, who are predominantly Muslim, are given holidays for Hari Raya Haji and Hari Raya Puasa. Indians are given Deepavali and Vesak Day. Hence, Thaipusam could not be considered as a holiday for Hindus.

However, who observes Vesak Day? It is a Buddhist holiday. Buddhism originated in India, but by and large, the world’s biggest population of Buddhists, are East Asian. In Singapore, this means it is the Singaporean Chinese who are mostly Buddhist. Why is it gazetted as an Indian holiday when there are so few Indians celebrating it? In effect, this means the Chinese actually get three days of religious celebrations, and the Indians get one.

Singaporeans are fond of making comparisons between Singapore and Malaysia, remarking on the institutionalized racism in Malaysia that favours ethnic Malays. However, Thaipusam is a religious holiday in Malaysia. A country that is supposedly less fair than Singapore, is able treat its minorities with so much more respect and sensitivity than Singapore does.

In recent years, the state has gone further in curtailing expressions of music at Thaipusam. In 2011, playing music was banned at Thaipusam. Music and dance are vital parts of religious expression in Hinduism. Classical arts are almost entirely devotional in nature. Carnatic music, including Bharathanatyam, are demonstrations of love for God. In Hinduism, music is one pathway to realizing God. The state displays not just insensitivity, but a basic lack of understanding of the role of music and dance in religious expression in this case. During Thaipusam, the music and dance are meant to lift the spirits of devotees who are engaged in difficult and arduous undertakings. Mind you, these are not actually laws. No one playing music at Thaipusam has broken any laws. It is important to point this out.These are police regulations, supported by a toothless Hindu Endowment Board, that are in effect.

The official state line is that these guidelines have been around since 1973, but not enforced. So why are they being enforced now? Why selectively as well, towards the Tamil-Hindu population in Singapore? Why are these rules not enforced for lion dance? There are Getai shows, the Chingay Parade and Chinese cultural programs all over every neighborhood that do not seem to fall under these regulations. What about bothersome non-religious activities? The F1 race closes down the roads in town for three days straight. It is extremely loud. But that is an inconvenience the state welcomes. Is it because it caters to the expatriate crowd in Singapore? Are Singaporean Indians just worth less to them?

This is how institutionalized racism works in Singapore. It is racism enacted on an ethnic minority that is already numerically vulnerable. To treat Indians as less important and to show cavalier disregard for an ethnic community that has voiced its needs time and time again, while privileging others, is outright racism.

If the ban is on all religious processions, then I expect that come Chinese New Year, lion dance should be performed without music or drums. That is the only way this is fair. If the CNY festival goes on as per usual, the government is making clear to everyone that it is Indians it is discriminating against. If so, the only conclusion we can come to, is that this state and its police are racist.

There are many religious expressions in Singapore that are not welcomed by others. In fact, joss stick burning has been known to increase asthma attacks in Singapore. This is an expression of religiosity that is actually harmful. Not just the Chinese, but other ethnic minorities as well have to tolerate the smoke every time the Hungry Ghost Festival comes along. Singaporean doctors actually state that “patients pinpoint the festival as the problem.

Why does the government not do anything about this? It is literally putting peoples’ health at risk. Does the government care more about the convenience of the rich living in town (apparently they banned instruments also due to some complaints from residents in the area of the Thaipusam procession) than the health of those living in HDB flats in Singapore?

The Hindu Endowment Board is in charge of presenting these Thaipusam guidelines. They have not done so before 2011. They have offered no explanation as to why they felt 2011 was the year they felt the need to publicize, and subsequently have the police enforce them. The HEB issues these guidelines to every Kavadi taker and requires their signature on it.

I am not sure what the board thinks they are endowing, but it is definitely not a Thaipusam Singaporean Tamils want.

During this year’s Thaipusam, a disturbing video of police brutality against Indian processioners taken by a bystander was shared on Facebook. In it, we see policemen yelling at Indian devotees, who are not seen doing anything besides standing on the road. They are also seen manhandling a participant. A witness reports the event as follows,“… about 15 police kicked literally on that guy… it seems the police used unwanted words over a conversation just because they played the urumi (a traditional drum)…furthermore the guys’ wife’s neck was also grabbed by a male police and they immediately ask the officers to human cordon the place.”

This is uncalled for. The police are behaving in a manner that is threatening and violent, while at a religious event. The latest update on this is that the police have arrested three men over the issue. Let’s all think about this for a moment. The Singapore Police Force has arrested people for playing music. It is difficult to think of anything more ridiculous than that. Maybe what we need are authorities with better manners, who instead of herding ‘minority cattle’ by screaming at the top of their voice, are able to treat us as human beings.

Indians need to stop sitting on the sidelines thinking our representatives in Parliament or that the HEB will do anything for us. We need to make clear that we are not willing to be treated like this and that we will no longer be accepting this situation.

Two things need to happen:

A) The ban on music must be removed. It is unfair, unjust and plainly racist. It is also an affront to religious expression.

B) Thaipusam needs to be made a holiday, and Vesak Day should not be considered as a holiday for Indians.

For the first, please write letters & e-mails to HEB demanding they do their jobs by protecting Tamil-Hindu traditions.

Another suggestion is that we stop participating in Thaipusam. The HEB makes a lot of money from Thaipusam. Come next Thaipusam, we must refuse to give them our money. They have so far done absolutely nothing because we have continued to accept these ridiculous rules and regulations. They have lost nothing. We must make them realize that they will. We should continue on with Thaipusam in our homes. But we should not allow HEB and the state to take our money all the while treating us as violent hooligans they must yell at and control. There is also a petition to reinstate music at Thaipusam.

As for the second where we need to have Thaipusam become a public holiday, I have created a petition for it. Please go to the petition to sign it.

Zora Neale Hurston said that, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” We have kept silent and grumbled amongst ourselves long enough. If we continue to do so, they will say that it is only a ‘few’ who are unhappy and that overall we agree with these preposterous rules. Instead, it is time to do something about it.

This note was first published at Sangeetha Thanapal’s facebook note.

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