The Thaipusam fracas – Real answers needed

No Musical Instruments

By Masked Crusader

While the police have attributed the scuffle at this year’s Thaipusam procession to inebriated hooligans, a fringe group even Hindus would frown upon, it may have been an incident that has been brewing (pardon the pun) since 2011 and perhaps much longer.

The fracas may in fact have been an act of defiance against laws the participants may have felt are unfair. An example of this can be seen in the video below of musicians during Thaipusam in 2011. Discontent in the Hindu Indian community has been simmering since several decades prior because Thaipusam is not a public holiday as it is in some parts of Malaysia.

The Hindu Endowments Board announced in 2011 that it would impose restrictions against shouting, musical instruments such as drums and gongs, music played through speakers, and the use of loud hailers during the annual Thaipusam procession. This did not go down well with segments of the Hindu community to whom Thaipusam was synonymous with all these things.

Due in part to the individualistic nature of Hindu practices, which can vary even within India, Thaipusam in Singapore had always been celebrated differently. It had been practiced rather more irreverently than temple priests, temple management, and some religious purists would prefer. Nevertheless, it had been practiced that way for half a century or longer and had become as much a cultural observance as a religious one.

Although the ban was only enforced in 2011, the complaints against the unbridled and youthful exuberance of these more colourful adherents had been around since the late 1970s. Professor Masakazu Tanaka in his essay “Hinduism in Singapore: A Case of Ethno-nationalization” details discussions in The Straits Times and other forums from 1978 to 1992 in which some Hindus lamented that Thaipusam had become more of a carnival than a sombre religious observance.

The Singapore Tourism Board had promoted this exuberant brand of Thaipusam to tourists for years. The National Archives of Singapore lists a Cantonese video of Thaipusam dating back to 1984 which features “… scenes of Hindu devotees with their bodies pierced; dancing and music outside temple; procession of devotees carrying kavadis …”. This video had originated from the STB’s collection.

In 2011, following the response of Hindus—and non-Hindus— expressing their anger at the ban and the HEB, the then Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam presented some rather unconvincing explanations in Parliament. He stated that the public order guidelines were not new and applied equally to all religious processions. He added, the HEB evidently had formulated these guidelines in 1973 but inexplicably chosen to publicise them only in 2011. More incredibly, in an attempt to get Hindus to view the glass half-full, he added that the authorities had in fact relaxed the rules since it now allowed the singing of religious hymns which had been banned since 1973!

One would be shocked that any journalist would see fit to publish these statements without asking the most obvious questions if not for the fact that they appeared in The Straits Times and Today newspapers. The inconsistencies and the illogical explanations, however, were evident to everyone else, even young children.

Was the Minister saying that the police had not been doing its job for 38 years? And that the HEB had been negligent for the same period?

To date, there has been no real explanation of why 2011 was chosen for the enforcement of rules established almost four decades ago.

The absence of coherent and logical explanations by the Government on many issues has increasingly bred distrust. This cynicism has also transferred onto institutions linked to it such as its numerous Government-Linked Companies and statutory boards. Many Singaporeans may not know that several religious, ethnic, and cultural bodies are statutory boards. The HEB is one them. Why?

The HEB, by being controlled by the government, is treated with suspicion by some segments of the community. Its board members are not elected but rather are appointed by the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth.

Due to the suspicion of “politicization” of the HEB, the community cannot be certain if its actions are a result of government influence. The current arrangement cannot be in the best interests of the HEB or the Hindu community.

Although it was initially established in 1968 to manage endowments placed under its administration, today HEB also runs a half way house and two kindergartens. In a secular country, it is uncertain why taxpayer funds are being channeled to religious organisations to run kindergartens.

Returning to the subject of the recent Thaipusam melee, which has been captured on video, the authorities need to explain why it appears there were many more plainclothes police officers than those in uniform at a major public event. It defies logic to conceal the fact that there is greater police presence? Plainclothes police with cameras seem to be seen with increasing frequency in videos of events nowadays especially at Hong Lim Park a.k.a. Speakers’ Corner. The increasing use of undercover police does nothing to allay the persistent fear that Singapore is a police state.

Finally, using drunkenness in Little India as a bogey is becoming tiresome and is starting to border on racial profiling. This is particularly so as the brawl seemed to stem from a grievance the participants’ had with the organisers and, from the video, that high-handed treatment by some of the police officers may also have contributed to the escalation of the conflict.

To discount these and other factors and immediately point the finger at liquor as a root cause may be perceived as an attempt to deflect attention away from unhappiness with the HEB and Government.

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