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Thursday, February 05, 2015

On Drums during Thaipusam Processions in Singapore

Recently, lots of outrage has been evinced over the ban on drums at Thaipusam processions in Singapore.

While, naturally, this is seen as the oppression of a minority, the reality is a lot more complicated.

In the first place, even though Singapore pretends that racial and religious harmony are cornerstones of the national ideology, in reality racial and religious desires are not allowed free reign. For example during the Chinese Seventh Month, people are not supposed to burn hell money (and other offerings) anywhere they please, but instead in specified containers.

Of course this rule is not always rigorously enforced (selective enforcement is common, as with Section 377A), but this is not limited to Chinese concerns - illegal parking around mosques on Fridays and churches on Sundays isn't rigorously clamped down on either.

Racial and religious concerns are circumscribed, then, by other elements of the national myth.

It is notable that the police note that

The prohibition of musical instruments during processions is not a new requirement and has already been in place since 1973. Police have disallowed the use of music during procession to deter public disorder which may be caused by rivalries between groups and to minimize the impact of the procession along the procession route.

In other words, it is not just a noise issue, but primarily a public disorder issue.

Looking at the letter of the law, we see that under the Public Order Act, a procession is defined as

a march, parade or other procession (whether or not involving the use of vehicles or other conveyances) —

(a)comprising 2 or more persons gathered at a place of assembly to move from that place substantially as a body of persons in succession proceeding by a common route or routes; and

(b)the purpose (or one of the purposes) of which is —
(i)to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person, group of persons or any government;
(ii)to publicise a cause or campaign; or
(iii)to mark or commemorate any event,

and includes any assembly held in conjunction with such procession, and a march by a person alone for any such purpose referred to in paragraph (b)(i), (ii) or (iii)

With all this phrasing, there is an obvious historical event which has so traumatised the national psyche, resulting in musical instruments being banned during Thaipusam processions. Because I paid attention during propaganda National Education lessons, I knew what to dig for:

From the perspective of the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB), as expressed by one of its officers: “We try to follow the rules and regulations as closely as possible because we do not want to lose this privilege like what happened to the Mohammad procession” (personal interview, 27 June 2001).

Historical precedence — the 1964 procession celebrating Prophet Muhammad's birthday which erupted into riot and led to its subsequent discontinuation — becomes the basis on which the Hindu leadership submits to contemporary state regulatory forces.
--- Religious Processions. Urban Politics and Poetics / Lily Kong in Religious Diversity in Singapore / edited by Lai Ah Eng

What, then, happened during the Prophet Mohammed birthday procession?

On 21 July 1964, the birthday of Prophet Mohammed, the Malays in Singapore gathered in a vacant land in their town and walked up to Geylang Serai. They played the drums and chanted Al—Quran along the way to celebrate the birthday. The Minister of Social Affairs, Othman bin Wok, and Malayan members in PAP also joined the gathering. However, an Arabian attorney, Esa Almenoar, issued provoking words before departure stating, “Obviously, Allah wouldn’t like Muslims to keep good relationship with non-Muslims. . . . Everything we do has to be controlled. As for those who intervened in our religion and expelled us from our hometown, Muslim said they are merciless and are doing evil things. Endurance and understanding would not help us tolerate internal or external people violating our castle, house and religion. . . . " Before the parade, the crowd had been agitated, and some people clapped on the drums and kept yelling along the road. At around 5.00 pm, while the procession approached Kallang gas station, several young people left the crowd. One of the Chinese police asked them in Malay to return to the procession and pushed one of the young people who would not listen to the police’s direction to join the crowd. This behavior enraged others and about 20 Malays surrounded the policeman, threatening to assault him. At that time, two other police (a Chinese and a Malay) tried to rescue him from the siege but failed to calm down the crowd. The crowd went berserk and about 50 Malay people started to assault the Chinese police.

The conflict in the parade contributed to the Malayan group’s simmering rage. Some people in the parade even spread the rumor that Malays were attacked by the Chinese. This angered the Malays, who began to attack the Chinese who were passing by and the nearby shops. Riots sequentially occurred on many streets in Geylang Serai.
--- Retrospect on the Dust-Laden History: The Past and Present of Tekong Island in Singapore / Leong Sze Lee

Drums (i.e. musical instruments) indeed were involved in the Prophet Muhammed Birthday Procession (which led to the riots). While their importance in triggering the riots is unlikely to be great, the resulting trauma likely led to the bureaucratic imperative to ban musical instruments.

Just as with laws in many European countries criminalising Holocaust Denial, then, the ban on drums during Thaipusam (and other) processions in Singapore cannot be understood without considering the country's historical context, and blindly alleging discrimination without understanding the contingence of the situation risks misdiagnosing the situation.


Lion dance troupes would seem to be excluded from the definition of a procession, since while they are marking Chinese New Year, their movement in their lorries is typically (presumably) for the purpose of shuttling to places where they will perform (instead of being a commemoration itself). In other words, their being driven around in their lorries is to go to places where they will perform.

Weddings and funerals are also excluded, since the Public Order (Exempt Assemblies and Processions) Order 2009 has an exemption for

A public procession held in connection with a wedding or a funeral (other than one in any prohibited area) —
(a)during which an organiser thereof is present at the assembly area and accompanies the procession at all times until the procession stops or the participants disperse, whichever is the later;
(b)which is held between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10.30 p.m. and does not exceed 30 minutes;
(c)the route of which does not exceed 100 metres;
(d)which involves not more than 150 participants;
(e)which involves none of the following:
(i) the display or exhibition of any placard, banner or poster;
(ii) the use of any public address system;
(iii) stilt-walking;
(iv) soliciting sponsorship or monetary contributions along the route of the procession;
(f)the conduct of which occupies not more than one lane of any public road and during which a reasonable number of persons will be deployed to manage traffic and ensure the safety of participants in the procession; and
(g)the conduct of which does not cause or result in obstruction or inconvenience on any public road, bridge, landing place, or in any other public place.

Meanwhile, Chingay escapes as it is

A public procession —
(a)the purpose of which is either to raise funds for the body or charity in sub-paragraph (1), or to promote sports, physical exercise or other recreational activity, but —
(i) without dealing (directly or indirectly) with any matters of race, religion or religious belief in a manner that is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different racial and religious groups in Singapore; and
(ii) without glorifying the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of acts of terrorism or any offence or otherwise having the effect of directly or indirectly encouraging or otherwise inducing members of the public to commit, prepare or instigate acts of terrorism or such an offence;

Notably, Thaipusam doesn't fall under this banner as religion is not a recreational activity.



The Minister for Law and National Development (Mr Barker):

"It would perhaps be appropriate for me, in making this speech, to tell the House that Government sought the views of the various religious communities in our society on the proposed reduction of public holidays. The Hindus, for example, given the choice of having Deepavali or Thaipusam as a public holiday, have chosen the former. The Muslims have, after discussions and correspondence with the Muslim Advisory Board, retained Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji to enable members of our community who are of the Muslim faith, to discharge their obligations and attend mosque on those specific days. The Christians have retained Christmas and Good Friday, the two most important dates in the Christian calendar. The Buddhists have retained Vesak Day. Thus it will be seen that the choice of holidays that will be retained in Singapore have had the blessings of the Inter-Religious Organisation, an organisation represented by all the religious persuasions in Singapore.

The result of this Bill will bring us back to the less playful conditions which existed before we started to add on to our holidays as we had to please more and more religious and cultural groups in Singapore and Malaysia"

Shanmugam addresses questions over ban on playing music at Thaipusam

"The truth is that Hindus are not discriminated against. In fact, they have been given a special privilege not enjoyed by others.

Most people don't realise that, in Singapore, all religious foot processions are banned. This ban was imposed in 1964, after riots.

But Hindus were given an exemption: Hindus have been allowed three religious foot processions: Thaipusam, Panguni Uthiram and Thimithi.

The Hindu religious foot processsions go through major roads. No other religion is given this privilege.

When other non-Hindu religious groups apply to hold foot processions, they are usually rejected. On rare occasions when it is given, stringent conditions will be imposed including much shorter routes, unlike Thaipusam which lasts the whole day and goes through major roads.

So the first point to note: Only the Hindus are allowed such large religious foot processions...

As shown by social media, there are many events in public with music. But they are often not religious events. Sometimes, they are religious events - for which permission would have been obtained, as set out above."
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