Published: 13 February 2015
1.MHA's general approach to events is to strike a balance between facilitating the activity while ensuring public safety and law and order.Religious foot processions pose a higher risk to public order. Unlike assemblies in a fixed location, they involve large crowds moving along an extended stretch of public roads, in close contact with other members of public, often impeding and crossing traffic flows. Emotions can be easily aroused when religious sensitivities are offended, which can trigger disorder and even violence. A general ban on religious foot processions was imposed following the racial riots in 1964, which had started as a peaceful procession but ended with the loss of lives. Police's assessment remains that we must continue to manage religious foot processions sensitively and carefully, because of the potential impact on law and order. The reactions to the incident in this year's Thaipusam show that race and religion continue to be sensitive issues.
2. The Government recognises the religious significance and the sanctity of Thaipusam for the Hindu community. An exception has therefore been made to allow foot processions for Thaipusam, as well as two other Hindu religious events, Panguni Uthiram and Thimithi (the fire-walking festival). 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.
Rules and Regulations
3. The Thaipusam foot procession presents unique challenges for maintaining law and order. Each year, about 9,000 to 10,000 devotees carry kavadis or paalkudams (milk pots). The event also attracts thousands who walk with the devotees in the procession, and other onlookers. The 3km route goes through major roads in the heart of the city with some road closures. The entire event stretches over 26 hours, with processions taking place through the night.
4. The Police work closely with the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) every year to ensure that the event is well organised and can proceed in a peaceful, smooth and safe manner, while minimising the disamenities to the public at large. The rules for maintaining law and order and public safety are clearly spelt out in the permit conditions for the Thaipusam procession. The organisers (HEB) have also kept participants informed of them every year.
5. One of the permit conditions is the restriction on the playing of musical instruments along the route. This restriction was introduced in 1973 because of a history of rivalry and fights between competing groups that disrupted the procession. 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.
6. The vast majority of devotees and their supporters have been complying with these requirements. When a breach is detected, the temple marshals would first advise the participant to abide by the rules. If a person ignores the marshal's advice, or if he is unruly, the Police would then intervene to maintain law and order, and allow the procession to continue for the benefit of the rest of the participants.
7. There have been recent instances where individuals had refused to heed Police's advice and warnings. In 2013, nine persons were arrested after they were observed to be shouting secret society slogans, and playing drums within the procession route despite being advised not to do so. This year, one person was arrested for possession of offensive weapons, apart from the three men who are being investigated for disorderly behaviour and assaulting a police officer.
Why musical instruments are allowed at certain events
8. The ban on musical instruments applies to all religious foot processions. However, musical instruments have been allowed at events that do not involve foot processions including at social, cultural and community events. These include drums for Chinese lion dances, kompangs at Malay events, and Nathaswaram and Thavil for Hindu community events such as Pongal. Musical instruments have also been permitted at events that might involve a limited foot procession in a certain locality, but are primarily cultural and community events, such as the Chingay Parade and the St Patrick's Day Parade. The scale, duration, and nature of these events are very different from Thaipusam, and they pose smaller law and order risks.
Greater accommodation and flexibility
9. The HEB and the authorities have worked together to be accommodative and flexible over the years, to address requests for a vibrant and meaningful event for the devotees and participants. First, the guidelines were relaxed to allow the singing of religious hymns throughout the procession, keeping in spirit with the sanctity and spiritual nature of the event. We note that HEB has also allowed the playing of musical instruments within temple premises.
10. In 2012, Police agreed to the HEB's request to allow two static points along the procession route for the public broadcast of religious hymns. In 2015, Police agreed to a third music point at the dismantling area at the end of the procession route, after assessing that this would not impede the flow of the procession.
11. With regard to the arrests at this year's Thaipusam procession of three men for disorderly behaviour and assaulting a police officer, various individuals, including one of the three men who have been charged in court, had made allegations online regarding what had taken place. These matters are under investigation, and the truth will be ascertained in court. Similarly, the allegation by a woman of being pushed by police officers is being investigated by Police's Internal Affairs Office. We should allow the investigations to take their course.
12. There have also been misrepresentations and rumours online and offline regarding the Thaipusam procession. 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. Singaporeans should reject such actions and never allow them to take root in our society.
13. The Police will continue to work closely with HEB to ensure that Thaipusam takes place in a dignified and peaceful manner that protects the safety of devotees and participants, and preserves law and order.