I remember when I was in the army, 20 years ago, suddenly developing chickenpox. The itch was agonising. A friend, Viknesh, accompanied me as I waited for the ferry to take me back to the main island. I couldn’t chat much with him; I was in too much discomfort. I knew I couldn’t scratch the vesicles on my skin, but I needed to dissipate that terrible urge. And then Viknesh started drumming on the surface of a table with his hands. I closed my eyes and listened. The beats he produced were complex: I tried to figure out which ones were made with the base of his palms, his fingers, his fingernails. When he stopped, I said to him, ‘Eh, don’t…please continue.’ Viknesh happily obliged.
The music had transported me, brought me out from the shell of my pain. It was sublime distraction, and one of the very few shining things I remember from the murk that was BMT. Which is why I cannot understand why musical instruments for Thaipusam are banned by the government. This isn’t pseudo-science: research has shown that music can interfere with the signal pathways for both acute and chronic pain. To deny devotees this mode of relief–or put another way, this connection to the transcendent, the circuit between soul and divinity that bypasses the flesh–is cruel. And to seek refuge in the idea that ‘this is the law of the land’ shows a lack of moral imagination–there are some laws, fixated on the utilitarian (traffic disruptions, noise ‘pollution’), that are also inhumane.

Shanmugam makes the claim that religious foot processions are a ‘privilege’ granted to the Hindu community, and denied to the other religious communities. This is a very poor argument which presupposes that every single religious community in Singapore has foot processions as an integral part of its faith. Some people mention the banning of the Muslim procession celebrating the Prophet’s birthday (Maulid/Maulud Nabi), observed in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. But this procession is not mandatory, and observance takes different forms depending on the cultural practices of respective countries. And puritan Muslims like the Salafis and Deobandis believe the observance to be an innovation or heresy (bid’ah) and should be forbidden.

Also, I am not entirely certain that foot processions are completely banned for other religious communities in Singapore. I have seen Chinese funeral processions before, and surely these are of a ‘religious’ nature? And there is also the Nine Emperor God festival (famous for a swaying sedan chair carried by devotees), which involves a procession from a Taoist temple to a water body (like Serangoon River or Punggol End Beach). But I never like making this kind of argument about seeming ‘unfairness’ because the state has a tendency to respond by rolling back the rights of others, instead of extending these rights to the ones making the plea.

To my Hindu friends, I just want to say that I believe that the majority of Singaporeans do not support this kind of heavy-handed and iron-fisted approach to a community’s religious rights. I think I speak on their behalf when I say that the government is not acting on our behalf with this ban. What is the whole point of having ‘Inter-Racial and Religious Circles’ when the state can’t recognise the fundamental religious liberties of a community? Why can’t they see that the perception of religious persecution is a far greater threat to public peace and harmony than traffic snarls and loud music? It’s filled me with sadness that the country is moving in a direction further and further away from the Singapore I once knew. Or perhaps what we are really observing is a government that is steadily drifting away from the Singaporeans that they are supposed to represent.

Alfian Saat

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