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Devotee carrying a kavadi (Image by Lawrence Chong)

Thaipusam incident – rhetoric not useful in promoting race relations

Fracas between devotees and police officers on Tuesday

By Gangasudhan

So we have yet another incident of unrest at Desker Road, when the police were called in to quell a “disturbance” in the peace which, oddly enough, might not have been an issue at all if they had not intervened.

Contrary to the rhetoric on mainstream media, there is ample reason to believe that the scuffle between Thaipusam participants and the police – which thanks to social media we get to see in widely circulated videos – would not have happened if the police had not done anything and allowed the civilians involved to simply play traditional music along the route. Nothing would have been damaged, and – let’s be honest – less eardrums would have burst than at a typical getai.

As it was, we had reports of a policeman getting injured, at least one woman knocked to the ground, and three arrested. But anyone who wishes to wave around this “violence” as a red card to justify the clamp down by the police, is doing little more than throw out the usual red herring.

In this dramatic show-and-tell, one aspect of the incident seems to have been conveniently forgotten – the concerns of the Tamil community on why was there a need to approach participants of the religious procession with such aggression. Let us not be mistaken that attempts to subdue by force and arrest are no less aggressive than the rowdy behavior that the participants were accused of.

Even if the entourage had being uncooperative, shouldn’t the approach be much more subtle given the highly sensitive nature of this ‘highly privileged’ procession that apparently no other religious denomination enjoys? Only in Singapore do you see this type of “protection” for religious freedom.

One Member of Parliament referred to maintaining law and order in spite of traditional celebrations. Another Minister urged everyone to keep calm and carry on keeping calm, evidently directed at the aggrieved community and others who sympathized with the participants involved in this incident. Yet one more Minister clarified that religious processions are so sensitive that they need to be highly restrictive.

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

Calling all other processions non-religious is just disingenuous because many can be traced back to a religious undertone if one wanted. Likewise, the Thaipusam festival could as easily be reclassified as a cultural procession with a religious ceremony at the start and end points.

It would also be fair to say that there is more religion on show during a funeral march than along the Thaipusam route. It is more sensible to look at the spirit of the event rather than use the vague shield of religious sensitivity just because we have termed something religious. While it is meant to be the demonstration of one’s commitment or penance, the Thaipusam ritual is done largely in a celebratory and extravagant procession, not unlike a lion dance or dragon dance.

If we look at potential physical danger, there is incredible hazard in the bonfires that erupt islandwide during the hungry ghost month. If we look at massive road diversion and inconvenience to residents and businesses, Thaipusam happens once a year for less than 24 hours, while things like the Formula One Grand Prix and various Orchard Road parades cause more heartache to motorists for a longer period each time. If we look at potential noise pollution, can any loud, boisterous music along Serangoon Road compare in any way to the amplified guttural utterances at the auctions of the hungry ghost month, or the weekend festivities of ‘void deck weddings’ in the heartlands?

Simply framing the rhetoric in the aftermath to conveniently focus on the conduct of the entourage in question or its members or even specific individuals will not sit well with a thinking public, who are more than capable of comparing said rhetoric with similar events around them. The logic would be found seriously wanting.

The conclusion among those affected, particularly in the wake of the Little India riot in December 2013, and incidentally within walking distance of the current one, would likely cause deeper rifts within the Indian/Tamil community. If our government leaders think that such rhetoric, including those that call Thaipusam a “special privilege”, would help to ease tensions, then they are gravely mistaken.

The follow-up from the government and the authorities thus far from the Thaipusam incident is frighteningly apathetic and can only further entrench racial and religious fault lines – something it so painfully reminds the entire Republic of Singapore to be mindful of, year in, year out, ad nasuem.