What’s really behind the restriction on Thaipusam?

Teoh Tian Jing

Could the new Thaipusam regulations be a knee-jerk response to the gang-related street violence in recent months? The announcement of the restrictions by the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) seems to suggest so.

Under the new rules, no singing or music is allowed in the procession, and portable music equipment are banned as well. The 2011 guidelines states that “shouting and other forms of unruly behavior is prohibited; participants shall not paint their faces or bodies or wear any form of disguise”.


Is shouting considered unruly behaviour? If it is, what do we do about people screaming (often vulgarity) during a football match? And if painting one’s face is prohibited, then those who paint their faces during National Day Parades should be disallowed too. What about disguise? Are we also going to ban the lion dance and the bighead doll that accompanies the lion? What about the guy in the Tua Pek Kong costume giving out ang pows?

This is the problem with Singapore. The Government makes rules that arbitrarily discriminate against certain sections of the community. This creates resentment among the people.

When the authorities should be relaxing rules to allow for more spontaneity and expression, it does the opposite and enforces even more conformity in our society.

Singaporeans are, by and large, a tolerant people when it comes to religious and ethnic ceremonies. Hungry Ghost Festival
getais, deity processions, Malay weddings, and Chinese funerals have been taking place frequently in our midst and for many decades.

So it seemed more than a little strange that one of the reasons cited was that “residents of new homes along the processions 4km route” had complained about the Thaipusam festival. The procession courses through parts of Orchard Road and Tank Road which means that it does not affect Singaporean heartlanders. So who are the real complainants? Are they Singaporeans?

What about the road closures? Are the complaints because of the inconvenience caused by the closure of the roads? If that’s the case, then what about the road closures for the F1 race and National Day parades which occur for several days and weekends. The Thaipusam festival occurs only for one day in a year.

The pervasive social control the government wields on Singapore society applies not only to religious issues. In 1987, then Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said: “If we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

The potential for this resentment may not be evident now as the PAP continues to take a heavy-handed authoritarian approach on social issues against segments of the population. But there are indications that resentment is building up, and the PAP may find itself falling from its authoritarian grace simply because the people have had enough.

The PAP deflects political responsibility by getting the government-appointed HEB to announce the restrictions. It doesn’t hide anything.

If the new rules are a reaction to the recent gang violence, then it is overkill. Does the police have evidence that Thaipusam festivities are related to violence?

The ban on drums, body painting and music removes the traditional and religious elements of Thaipusam. It will only disappoint those seeking religious solace as they take part in this annual event.

The PAP champions religious tolerance among Singaporeans. It does not seem to practice what it preaches.

Teoh Tian Jing is a member of the Young Democrats, the youth wing of the SDP.