Monday 16 February 2015

MOM: Bid to make Thaipusam a public holiday will stir competing claims

By Amir Hussain, The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2015

ANY move to make Thaipusam a public holiday again could see other communities make similar demands.

But Singaporeans should be able to make arrangements to observe their religious festivals, the Manpower Ministry (MOM) said yesterday, and urged employers "to make it possible for Singaporeans of all faiths to observe their respective religious festivals".

There has been a call from some Singaporeans to reinstate Thaipusam as a public holiday, which it was until 1968. A petition launched by educator Sangeetha Thanapal on campaign site has already attracted nearly 20,000 signatures.

A planned Hong Lim Park rally supporting this tomorrow has been cancelled after police rejected organiser Gilbert Goh's application for a permit.

A police statement said: "The planned event runs a significant risk of public disorder and could incite feelings of hostility between different racial and religious groups in Singapore."

The call to make Thaipusam a public holiday has attracted debate online. Some argued that Hindus here should have another public holiday on top of Deepavali, because the Chinese, Christians and Muslims have two each.

MOM, in a letter to The Straits Times, gave the historical context to the 11 public holidays in Singapore which, it said, is "neither high nor low" when compared to the number of holidays other countries had.

In 1968, with the British planning to pull out its forces and as a new nation trying to find its economic place in the world, the Government decided to cut the number of holidays from 16.

But this was done only after "careful consultation with various (religious) groups", MOM said.

"Muslims chose to give up Prophet Muhammad's Birthday as well as an extra day for Hari Raya Puasa. Christians chose to give up the Saturday after Good Friday and Easter Monday. The Hindus had to choose between Thaipusam and Deepavali as a public holiday, and chose the latter.

"The Buddhists, who comprised the largest faith and had only one public holiday to begin with, Vesak Day, were not asked to offer cuts."

To change the current status quo "will immediately invite competing claims and necessitate considerable renegotiation with all communities", MOM said.

Meanwhile, Mr Goh posted on Facebook that there will not be another rally to replace tomorrow's.

On Thursday, Ms Sangeetha posted her decision to pull out as a speaker for the event, saying that too many of those due to speak were not from the Indian-Hindu community.

Thaipusam as public holiday: MOM replies

WE APPRECIATE the perspectives shared by many Singaporeans on Thaipusam.

As many have noted, Thaipusam was a public holiday until 1968.

Faced with the British withdrawal and the need to compete in global markets, the Government decided to reduce the total number of public holidays, among other things.

The decision on which public holidays to give up was reached only after careful consultation with religious groups.

Muslims chose to give up Prophet Muhammad's Birthday as well as an extra day for Hari Raya Puasa.

Christians chose to give up the Saturday after Good Friday and Easter Monday.

Hindus had to choose between Thaipusam and Deepavali, and chose the latter.

Buddhists, who comprised the largest faith and had only one public holiday to begin with, Vesak Day, were not asked to give it up.

Some groups continued to celebrate their important religious occasions, such as Vesakhi for the Sikhs and Lao-Tzu's Birthday for the Taoists, without these being public holidays.

The 11 public holidays that we now enjoy is neither high nor low when compared with other countries.

New Zealanders, Canadians and the French enjoy the same number.

Malaysia and Indonesia enjoy more days, but we have a few more than developed countries like Holland, Britain and Germany.

But beyond numbers and economics, our calendar of public holidays is a reflection of our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

There is much value and meaning attached to each of our festivals, including Thaipusam, both among that particular group and Singaporeans generally.

But any move to reinstate any one festival as a public holiday will invite competing claims, and necessitate considerable renegotiation with all communities. Balancing the wishes of each community will not be a simple matter.

Neither can we simply re-allocate public holidays by ethnic group, as among both Chinese and Indians, we have citizens of different faiths.

While we will ensure that all Singaporeans can practise their faiths freely, we cannot make all important festivals of all faiths public holidays.

But it must always be possible for Singaporeans to make arrangements to observe their respective religious festivals, and we encourage all employers to show understanding and flexibility in this regard.

We have learnt to live harmoniously with one another, with everyone making some compromises for the greater good.

This has served us well for five decades and remains the best way for Singapore.

Alvin Lim
Divisional Director
WorkPlace Policy and Strategy Division
Ministry of Manpower
ST Forum, 14 Feb 2015

Wanted: Views on Thaipusam procession
Feedback sought by Hindu bodies; MHA reiterates reason behind music ban
By Amir Hussain, The Straits Times, 14 Feb 2015

VIEWS on the Thaipusam procession are being sought by Singapore's two top Hindu bodies.

The Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) and the Hindu Advisory Board will hold feedback sessions, details of which are being worked out, the HEB said yesterday.

The issue of whether music instruments can be played during the procession came into the spotlight after three men were arrested following a scuffle with the police during Thaipusam two weeks ago. The incident was sparked when organisers asked a group to stop playing traditional Indian drums.

It revealed that another man was arrested in this year's event after he was found carrying weapons. In 2013, nine were arrested after they were seen to be shouting secret society slogans and playing drums despite being advised not to do so.

In its statement, the ministry added: "The playing of musical instruments also slows down the pace of the procession, sometimes causing friction between participants, which in turn could lead to public order issues and disruption to other members of public."

The HEB, a statutory body that jointly organises the annual Thaipusam procession with the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, said that over the years, it too has received complaints of disorderly behaviour impeding the progress of devotees.

But it insisted that "contrary to public misperception", it has never urged the authorities to tighten the rules further, believing this is not necessary. Instead, it has been been requesting "the authorities to adjust the rules to take into consideration the importance of music to our religious rites".

"In 2012, in response to our appeal, the authorities allowed static music points along the procession route for the broadcast of religious hymns," the board said.

Two such static points were allowed that year, and a third was added for the most recent procession, the MHA said yesterday.

The HEB, which has asked those interested in participating in the feedback sessions to contact it at, also pointed out that music has always been allowed at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road, where the procession starts, and at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road.

The board explained that it has been issuing a set of guidelines to Thaipusam participants since 2011 "to provide greater clarity and guidance on the dos and don'ts for the procession". These guidelines are also put online, and kavadi bearers are told of the police permit conditions two weeks before the procession.

"But some participants still engage music groups to accompany them on the procession route," the HEB said.

Police were asked to assist at times when temple marshals or volunteers had difficulty dealing with the groups.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam last week stressed that the Hindus here are the only group allowed to hold religious processions, including the Panguni Uthiram and Thimithi (the fire-walking festival), on major roads since 1964, when a general ban was imposed following racial riots that year.

It was a point reiterated by the MHA yesterday.

It said: "Applications for other religious foot processions have generally not been allowed, with seven such applications from various religious groups rejected in the past five years."

As for comparing the Thaipusam procession to the Chingay and St Patrick's Day parades, the ministry said the nature of these events are very different, because they are cultural and community events, and are of a smaller scale and locality.

In contrast, Thaipusam "presents unique challenges for maintaining law and order" because it involves about 9,000 to 10,000 devotees carrying kavadis or paalkudams (milk pots), attracts thousands of supporters and onlookers, and goes through major roads in the heart of the city, stretching over 26 hours and around 3km.

The MHA also warned that there have been misrepresentations made regarding the Thaipusam issue, both online and offline.

It said: "If such activities are deemed to incite enmity between different communities and races, the police will investigate and take firm action against anyone responsible for such offences."

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