The ban on the playing of music at the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam has been in place since 1973.
Since then it has caused much controversy each time the ban is brought up or enforced, as it happened on Tuesday when a scuffle broke out after devotees were told not play certain musical instruments during the kavadi procession.
Three people were subsequently arrested for alleged disorderly behaviour.
But what are the reasons for the ban on musical instruments, such as gongs and drums, and music during the procession?
To find the answer, we go back to 1973 and what the then Minister of Home Affairs, Chua Sian Chin, said.
The member for Anson, P Govindaswamy, had asked the minister about the matter:
Mr P. Govindaswamy: Mr Speaker, Sir, what is the guideline used in the issue of permits for religious street processions? The authorities are now issuing permits for street processions, which are somewhat restricted. I wonder why the Police should deem fit to reject some of the applications for permits for street procession without giving any reasonable explanation.
Sir, I have to make an appeal in this Chamber on this matter because the street procession is a vow that some religious groups have made, and it has since been a tradition. Therefore, where religious matters arc concerned, I feel that the Minister should consider relaxing the rules for the issue of such permits. If it is a question of security measures that these permits have not been granted, then I would call upon the Minister to send more security officers to the procession to see that it is being carried out peacefully.
The Minister later replied:
Mr Chua Sian Chin: As a rule, religious foot processions in the streets are not allowed. An exception to this rule is Thaipusam kavadis, which are not similar to other foot processions in that they comprise individuals who proceed from one temple to another in fulfilment of individual vows. In issuing permit for kavadis, the following conditions are imposed: that kavadi carriers must proceed singly or in small groups, and by the shortest route to the designated temple. Permits may be granted for religious foot processions to be held within the grounds of churches, temples, mosques and suraus. In the case of Kiew Ong Yah and other religious processions involving deities, permits are granted for processions but these are subject to the following:
(a) Only vehicular processions are allowed.
(b) Distances travelled must be the shortest possible route from point to point.
(c) No music, gongs, drums or cymbals shall be played en route.
(d) The procession will be restricted to small groups in vehicles, and
(e) There shall be no stoppage en route.
There have been applications for religious processions which involve pulling a chariot with bullocks. This was in connection with processions on Lord Krishna’s Birthday. As these animals were banned from the streets of Singapore – Members may remember the Cattle Act that we had passed some years ago – organisers should consider the use of a motorised chariot.
However, Mr Govindaswamy was not letting it go and asked for direct answers to his query, and the following exchange with the minister ensued:
Mr P. Govindaswamy: Mr Speaker, Sir, regarding the religious foot procession, the hon. Minister has not given an answer as to why it was restricted last year. I had a lot of trouble last year. When the devotees were all gathered in the Perumal Temple and were ready to go to Mariamman Temple for the fire-walking ceremony, they found that the Police had blocked the place. They could not move because they had no permission.
Mr Speaker, Sir, these people have been holding that procession for more than a hundred years, so what is the reason for stopping them last year?
Mr Sim Boon Woo (Changi): Times have changed!
Mr P. Govindaswamy: You cannot give that reason. Has there been any trouble previously? Has there been any religious quarrel? This procession is a tradition. The Minister must not allow the Police to stop issuing the permit. I cannot bear listening to people talking about this, and, therefore, something must be done regarding this procession. I would like to ask the Minister to reconsider this matter.
Mr Chua Sian Chin: Mr Speaker, Sir, my explanation is quite simple. The Member for Anson himself has stated the reason why we do so – he did mention the point about security. May I add that the traffic problem has to be considered too. That is why we have advised them that if they wanted to have a vehicular procession, perhaps they could think of motorising the chariot. As the Member for Changi has just remarked, we have to keep up with the times. Conditions have changed, and our roads and traffic have also changed.
Mr P. Govindaswamy: Sir, there is an increase in the volume of traffic, which cannot be controlled at the moment. And on the last occasion, why should they want to stop the procession? I do not think the Minister’s reply is proper. The Minister will have to reconsider this matter and give favourable consideration next year. I do not want to say any more on this matter.
The issue was again brought up in Parliament in 1981, this time by the PAP MP for Radin Mas, MKA Jabbar.
Mr M.K.A. Jabbar asked the Minister for Home Affairs whether the playing of any musical instrument, including the traditional drum, while devotees were carrying kavadis at this year’s Thaipusam festival, was not allowed, and whether the Hindu Advisory Board had been consulted on this.
Mr Chua Sian Chin: Mr Speaker, Sir, music was not permitted in this year’s Thaipusam kavadi procession as in the past eight years. The ban on music along the route was introduced since 1973. The ban is not confined to the Thaipusam kavadi procession. It applies equally to all other religious processions. I wish to add that since 1973 religious foot processions, with the exception of Thaipusam, have not been allowed on our public roads and only religious processions on vehicles have been permitted. The exception has been made for Thaipusam because the devotees have to carry the kavadi and walk in fulfilment of their individual vows. The walk is allowed because it is a religious rite.
In the years prior to 1973, music en route was permitted for the kavadi procession. However, the Police observed that with the accompaniment of music, the pace of the procession was slowed down. Further, the supporters, relatives and friends accompanying the devotees tended to dance to the beat of the music and occupied too large a portion of the road. The music also attracted large crowds of spectators. The result of this was that traffic flow was completely disrupted, creating huge traffic congestions in the city. Hence, the ban was imposed in 1973.
The Police permit for the 1981 Thaipusam procession stipulated as in the past eight years, inter alia, that no music was to be played en route. On 12th January 1981 the Secretary of the Hindu Endowments Board, Mr S. Suppiah, wrote to the Ministry of Social Affairs appealing against the ban on music en route. The Ministry of Social Affairs sought the views of the Police who replied that the ban could not be lifted. They gave two reasons in rejecting the appeal of the Hindu Endowments Board. First, the ban applies not only to Hindu processions but also to processions of other religious groups. Secondly, Police experience prior to 1973 showed that music along the route of the kavadi procession aggravated traffic congestion.
In 2011, perhaps because of the protest at the ban, the authorities allowed the singing of hymns during the procession.
Still, members of the public have questioned why music is allowed on other occasions such as during lion dance performances for Chinese New Year, and also at Malay weddings.
One of the reasons which have been offered to support allowing music during Thaipusam is that music helps the devotees and kavadi carriers focus and immerse themselves in meditation during the procession.
Are concerns over traffic situations enough justification to ban what is a centuries-old tradition and religious practice?
Perhaps it is time the authorities addressed this in a more comprehensive manner and see if further relaxation of the rules can be exercised.
Surely, Singaporeans and the general public will support this, and recognise that all our religious groups should be free to express themselves on special occasions as they wish.
Isn’t this what makes Singapore special and vibrant?
Times have indeed changed and it is time to relook an archaic rule.
*NOTE: The Police did indeed closed various roads for the festival this year. See here.