By Howard Lee
When The Online Citizen posted on Facebook an announcement on the St Patrick's Day street parade, commenters immediately drew comparisons between the event and the Thaipusam incident earlier this year where three men were arrested for causing a disturbance.
Commenters were quick to point out that the use of musical instruments, the presence of a procession and the demarcation of a public street for the event closely mirrored what happened in Thaipusam.
And while the influence of alcohol is yet to be determined as a factor in the Thaipusam case, what we had for the St Patrick's Day festival was essentially a free flow of alcohol. It doesn’t take much for us to join the dots and see that what was alleged to be the cause of disturbance at Thaipusam had the looks of taking place again at the St Pat's Day parade last weekend.
True to word, we even had a few individuals who decided to join the St Pat's parade with urumi drums, as if to demonstrate the similarities of the events, or at least draw parallels to them.
But if we were to honestly examine the situation, we would realise that the two events are worlds apart. Thaipusam is a religious festival that caters to the needs of devotees, while St Pat's Day was a highly commercial event driven by money and fuelled by excess. Alcohol is frowned upon during Thaipusam, particularly by the devoted, but for St Pat's, a hearty Irish stout was relished with religious zeal.
Then why did so many people want to see them as the same?
What's the parity we are after?
It comes down to just on factor: Both events took place with a lot of people in a public space. This sounds trivial, but the reality hits when you think about what this means: Invasive police presence.
People saw similarities between Thaipusam and St Pat’s Day not because they desire for parity in how the authorities treated both events. In Thaipusam, we saw the police attributing, once again, alcohol as the cause of the disruption. But here we have another equally public event where alcohol was the main, if not the only, event highlight. If that is the case, why allow it to begin with?
In Thaipusam, the reason given for banning music during Thaipusam was linked to racial tensions. However, parliamentary records suggest that the ban was due to traffic concerns. Might music playing during St Pat’s Day also not cause traffic issues?
And perhaps the biggest sticking point among Singaporeans is that a religious festival that has been part of our culture for years has not been accorded the full support it deserves, while a commercial event that is seen as “imported” has been given much more leeway than it does deserve.
Two wrongs make a right?
Does coming down hard on St Pat’s Day make it any better for the scuffle we saw at Thaipusam? Of course not, and it is grievously wrong to say that the people are asking for tit-for-tat treatment.
The bulk of us would hardly bat an eyelid over what happens at the St Pat’s Day carnival, even as we expect drunks to line the streets the morning after. Most of us would hardly wish to deny St Pat’s Day revellers from their moment of fun, just as we would not deny the musicians from supporting their family and friends during Thaipusam.
And that explains why people are angry about the disparity. The police were seen as allowing St Pat’s Day to go at full swing, yet limiters were placed on Thaipusam. There has been no justification, no explanations to what is seen as reasonable parallels, and no sound whatsoever from the police about how they intend to manage a fallout at St Pat’s Day. Why?
If anything, given our government’s track record for dealing with public unhappiness over parity, might it even be right to assume that the police would have done all they could to ensure that no parallels can be drawn between the two events, by ensuring that St Pat’s Day go on without an incident similar to Thaipusam, rather than do active policing on the ground?
If so, then the effort is futile as much as it demonstrates a lack of understanding of ground sentiments. Singaporeans are not unhappy because they want the authorities to intervene in St Pat’s Day. Singaporeans are unhappy because we have no idea what the criteria for intervention is any more.
The role of the police should be to keep the peace. Perhaps our authorities have been so over-sensitised to the relentless narrative of racial and religious tensions, that it has blinded them to the fact that trouble can occur without race and religion in the mix. You don’t even need alcohol, actually. All you need is to put disagreeing people together.
Indeed, perhaps it is time for us to grow up and stop seeing a crisis at every street corner. And by that “us”, I refer not to Singaporeans, but our authorities. For too long, we have seen our government try to manage fallouts on social media by trying to talk common traits into becoming “isolated events”. That will not work. What will work is by accepting a lot more messiness in our society, and step in only when absolutely necessary – same applies whether you are carrying a kavadi or a shamrock.