The viral encounter between a group of Hindu devotees and the authorities during the recent Thaipusam procession has certainly ruffled some feathers. Not so much about the group’s alleged noise levels that the cops stated was too loud, but about the strict restrictions put in place for the Hindu community during their annual festivities.
In case you haven’t been caught up, a series of video clips went viral on Facebook earlier this month, depicting a group of people involved in a Kavadi procession getting into a heated argument with an official from the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB), who took issue with their volume levels in the wee hours of the morning. Some members of that particular group had portable microphones on to sing hymns in support of the Kavadi bearers — but the authorities insisted that they lower the volume, as they received a noise disturbance complaint related to the Thaipusam procession.
The claim made by Pradeep Thana noted that the cops started filming the group for about half an hour, causing some discomfort. The police dismissed the allegations, stating that they only filmed the whole thing for less than 10 minutes, and that it was done for “evidentiary purposes”.
Nonetheless, the incident sparked off quite a bit of indignation — why is the Hindu community under such strict rules in the first place? The annual Thaipusam procession is an important event in the Hindu calendar after all, and having prohibitions on what they can or cannot do might be dampening the spirits for what was meant to be a vibrant, colorful festival.
But what one has to remember is that the prohibitions were put in place decades ago. Since 1973, musical instruments have been prohibited during Thaipusam processions, in which Hindus here carry Kavadis from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India through the city center to Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road.
Police disallowed the use of music during processions to deter public disorder, which may be caused by rivalries between groups, and to “minimize the impact of the procession along the procession route”.
The recent clarification put out by the Singapore Police Force was also toned in a way that seemed to say the government has already allowed more than enough leeway for the Hindu community. Here, you be the judge of it:
“Outdoor religious foot processions are generally not allowed. The Government, however, makes an exception for the Hindu community for Thaipusam, and allows an outdoor religious foot procession, in view of the festival’s significance and importance to the community.
“Over the past few years, the Police have worked with the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) to ensure that the Thaipusam foot procession takes place safely for devotees, participants and the general public, and in a manner which is considerate to residents and businesses along the route. The restriction on the playing of musical instruments along the procession route was introduced in 1973.
“Nevertheless, in response to feedback from devotees who wanted a more vibrant event, the Police and HEB have increasingly allowed religious music over the years. Since 2011, devotees have been able to sing religious hymns along the procession if no amplification devices are used. Static music transmission points were allowed in 2012 to broadcast music to devotees. The number of such music points allowed has increased from just two in 2012, to 23 since last year. Since 2016, three live music points were allowed along the procession route.”
Singaporeans responded to the recent contention the way they know best: Petition. A netizen by the name of Pria Prizzy launched a petition that called for the allowance of devotional music to be sung or played throughout Thaipusam processions. Right now, there are over 10,500 signatures, and that’s quite a significant amount of people who disagree with the prohibitions placed on the Hindu community. But that’s nothing compared to the 22,021 signatures collected back in 2015 in a petition calling for Thaipusam to be considered a calendar holiday.
Beyond petitions, some folks decided to take their displeasure to Speakers Corner. In a Facebook event page that’s titled “I have no problems with music playing throughout Thaipusam”, there’s a planned sit-in to be held at Hong Lim Park next month to protest the restrictions on Thaipusam processions.
“In recent years, the holy festival, Thaipusam, has been marred by scuffles between authorities and devotees over the playing of music in public spaces. These confrontations need not to have happened, just like the way the whole island lived through Chinese New Year year after year, noisily yet peacefully,” wrote Lin Shiyun, the individual who set up the event page.
“This event is created for the ‘silent majority’ who has no problem with music played throughout Thaipusam procession, is distressed that our Tamil community has to deal with such restrictions on their rituals, but has no means of stating our stand clearly.”
No speeches or other activities will be held during the event (if it does go on, pending police permit) — attendees are invited to bring a musical instrument to the grounds, but they’ll sit in silence.
Perhaps as a jibe on Singapore’s widespread disapproval on all things cultural, a similar Facebook event page was set up to call for the total banning of music for all Singaporeans.
“Music is disgusting and should not matter to Singaporeans. It slows down our nation’s progress towards excellence and distracts us from our daily passions and possibilities that we’ve worked so hard to achieve,” wrote the event organizer CheapBuy Records (it’s satirist Laek1yo, really).
“Bring your loved ones and together we shall discover the latest methods of self-censorship and civilian policing so you don’t just STOMP about it.”
As amusing as it is, it does reflect a genuine truth about the current state of affairs — a skewered inclination towards preserving general public order in lieu of keeping cultural prerogatives.