13 per cent drop in number of complaints over joss paper burning during Hungry Ghost month

The feedback level is now back to 2015 levels after several consecutive years of increase, said MSO.  PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – Fewer people complained about air pollution and littering caused by the burning of joss paper during the Hungry Ghost month this year.

The number of complaints fell from 3,441 last year to 2,999 this year – a 13 per cent drop, said the Municipal Services Office (MSO) on Thursday.

In August this year, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment Koh Poh Koon said that the number of complaints about joss paper burning received during the Chinese seventh month had declined, without giving numbers.

The feedback level is now back to 2015 levels, after several consecutive years of increase, said MSO.

From 2015 to 2020, there was a gradual rise in residents’ dissatisfaction, reflected in the growing volume of complaints on cleanliness and health-related concerns. They included smoke, ash and the smell from the indiscriminate burning of joss paper in Singapore’s densely packed housing estates. 

The drop in the number of complaints this year shows the progress the Alliance for Action (AfA) on Norms for Joss Paper Burning has achieved since it was established on July 14, said MSO.

The AfA comprises more than 10 Chinese religious, cultural and industry associations. Singapore Buddhist Federation (SBF), Singapore Religious Goods Merchants Association and Taoist Federation are among the organisations with representatives leading the efforts to get people who burn joss paper to be socially responsible.

The lunar seventh month, also known as the Hungry Ghost month, is when Taoists and Buddhists offer food and burn joss paper to honour their ancestors and pray for blessings. This year, the Hungry Ghost month was from July 29 to Aug 26.

The AfA’s focus is on getting people to act responsibly, such as by not scattering joss paper and clearing offerings at public places after the prayers to keep the environment clean. The group is supported by the MSO, which serves as its secretariat. 

Ms Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for National Development and adviser to the AfA, said: “With the AfA, we had an agreement that this would probably have to take about three to five years… But I have to say that results have exceeded our expectations and been very encouraging.”

Calling this a “morale booster”, Mr Kua Soon Khe, chief executive of SBF and co-lead of the AfA, said: “Changing customary practices takes time and effort, but coupled with persuasion and perseverance, we believe Singaporeans will adapt while preserving the core significance of their festive events.”

The 70-year-old added that it will refine and intensify its public education campaigns based on the experience gained, and look into co-opting more stakeholders into the AfA to ensure better representation and outreach.

The campaign this year was carried out on mainstream and social media. Posters were displayed and videos were shown at places such as town council branch offices, Housing Board lift lobbies, joss paper retailers and supermarkets. A public webinar, selected getai performances and live streams with getai personalities were also used to convey the messages.

Ms Sim said that leaders and cultural practitioners from the Chinese community have helped to decode the thinking behind cultural practices such as the use of burning bins. 

For example, they said that many people prefer not to share bins to burn their offerings simultaneously, as they believe the blessings may not be directed to the intended recipients. This resulted in the town councils providing more bins on a temporary basis during the lunar seventh month.

“There were some concerns in the past that by providing more bins, people will end up burning more joss paper,” said Ms Sim. “However, this was not what we observed. In fact, with the provision of more bins, people might be more inclined to use the burning bins instead of burning on the grass verge, concrete pathways or drainage covers.”

The next peak session for joss paper burning will be during Chinese New Year in January.  AfA plans to focus specifically on the festival in its public education messages and tackle the perennial problem of individuals burning joss paper along HDB common corridors. 

“We think that AfA has been a very positive example of how the community has taken a greater stake in shaping the living environment and addressing municipal issues, and this is indeed what we are trying to achieve under the Forward Singapore exercise,” Ms Sim said.

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