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The Government, through the Hindu Endowments Board, declared that Thaipusam participants, after a few decades of traditional practice, cannot play musical instruments, including beating drums, gongs and cymbals during the procession.
The police promptly stepped in and ensured that the policy was strictly enforced. The usual festivity of the occasion was inevitably killed off and the once noisy and colourful parade was no more.
Spin as he might, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam cannot deflect the criticism that the restrictions on Thaipusam are new and selectively applied to this religious activity.
Mr Shanmugam defended the ruling, saying that the regulations on musical instruments have been in place for the last 38 years. But unless Singaporeans have been all deaf and biind, we are certain that participants of Thaipusam have been banging their drums and playing musical instruments for the last 37.
But like everything else in Singapore, the Minister got what he wanted. Save for a couple of isolated incidents, Thaipusam celebrants largely kept to orders to remain silent. Enforcing rules in an autocratic state, no matter how ridiculous these rules are, is not a difficult thing to do. It’s the easy part.
Here’s what the PAP will find more difficult to control: public sentiment.
All eyes will now turn to the Chinese New Year which will take place next week. Will we see a similar enforcement of the no-drum-no-gong policy?
If Mr Shanmugam applies the law even-handedly, he would also have to ban the lion-dance troupes from playing their musical instruments as he did those celebrating Thaipusam. Will he do it?
Of course not. The Government will not dare to announce a ban on the ubiquitous lion dance and raise the ire of those who celebrate the biggest and most auspicious occasion of the year for Chinese Singaporeans. After all, what’s the Lunar New Year without the lion, Mr Big-Head, the angpows on a bamboo stick and the tangerines?
Unless, that is, the PAP for some strange reason decides to press the Self-Destruct button.
The lion dance and everything that accompanies it – tung tung chiang and all – will go on.
And then what?
How will the Hindus look upon this? Why are their musical instruments banned while the Chinese ones are not? Their celebrations take place over the course of one day; Chinese New Year lasts for all of 15. Their procession courses mainly through non-residential areas of the island with the noise affecting few households; lion dances are conducted right smack in the middle of HDB estates.
Think before legislating
This is the problem with autocrats who enforce policies before they think. They choose the expedient route of prohibition rather than education. They ban because they can. It’s the easy thing to do.
Yes, the Hindus have obeyed the ruling not to play musical instruments during Thaipusam. But how will they feel when they see and hear the Chinese gongs and cymbals going full blast just days after theirs were banned?
Is the PAP not setting up society for friction and conflict? This is the kind of arbitrary policy-making that divides the people.
But don’t we have the Religious Harmony Act to prevent individuals or organisations from speaking on such matters? And the SPH can always suppress public discussion (as it is doing now) so that sentiment is controlled and everyone can go about his/her own business pretending that all is swell.
The law and the forced silence will simply drive resentment inwards and underground. Sooner or later, the pent-up pressure will erupt. And it will erupt with a vengeance.
If there is a textbook on how not to go about making policies that would tear apart a society, Mr Shanmugam’s ‘ban’ on religious musical instruments will be right up there on the first paragraph of chapter one.
Talk about duds.