Keeping street processions peaceful

What began as an isolated scuffle at a Thaipusam procession has led to calls from some for an easing of the rules on musical instruments played in the street during the Hindu festival, celebrated mainly by the minority Tamil community. The ban on music on the move was emplaced more than four decades ago, after recurring cases of public disturbances led to a cautious approach among regulators. Misperceptions have arisen lately over the role of the Hindu Endowments Board in relation to the rules, and there are even calls for a restoration of a public holiday once linked to the devotional festival. It's politic to not dismiss these as an aspect of a "minority syndrome" characterised by sporadic resentment against perceived deprivations, and to gather views on the procession, as Hindu bodies are doing.

This is the proper way to discuss such issues, of course. It would be intolerable for discontent to be expressed in the form of confrontations with marshals or policemen tasked to facilitate the orderly and peaceful conduct of a religious event. Any violence could also adversely affect the basis and tone of a wider discussion.

There is no doubt that Thaipusam is an established part of Singapore culture, a time for devotees to do acts of penance or thanksgiving, typically supported by family and friends who accompany them along major roads in the heart of the city. Since it is a time for much spiritual preparation and expression, static music points were allowed for the colourful procession, as a result of discussions between the Hindu Endowments Board and the authorities.

Thaipusam, together with Panguni Uthiram and Thimithi, remain the only religious foot processions that have been routinely allowed to take place here since 1964. That concession for the benefit of Hindus has to be seen in the context of the social balancing that is necessary to maintain rules for the well-being of all while selectively accommodating the religious needs of a section of the community. This has to be distinguished from other street events that are of a cultural nature, such as the Chingay parade.

Demands from religious groups for so-called parity could pose an acute dilemma for society. How would one choose between one and the other when there is a limit to the exceptions that can be made to rules framed for the larger good? For social and economic reasons, public order must be safeguarded, traffic disruptions minimised and public holidays judiciously assigned. As drumming up support for one religious cause or another could prove sensitive, a discussion of the issues should be framed against such wider considerations - including preservation of the social accord carefully fostered over the years.