March 2015

In your opinion, with reference to the Thaipusam ban on musical instruments enforcement incident, are measures put in place to preserve harmony in Singapore effective or are they breeding more unhappiness amongst Singaporeans?

1st Place - Lean Guanhua

In a multi-racial society, race and religion are very sensitive issues that have to be carefully managed by the state.  Singapore’s management of religious issues is rather unique for a secular state, by utilising a combination of coercive measures such as the rule of law to prevent racial unrest, affirmative action to provide socio-economic aid to the racial minorities, engagement of community leaders through sponsoring self-help groups, and facilitating inter-racial interaction through the People’s Association organisation of community bonding event. The Singapore government maintains a very delicate balance of managing religious freedom and preserving religious harmony. But unlike most secular states that have little restrictions on religious activities being practised in public spaces, critics argue that the Singapore model carries an implicit assumption that religious freedom and religious harmony are contradictory goals which cannot co-exist together. I aim to debunk that and argue that the Singapore model provides both religious freedom and harmony. This article aims to highlight the complexity of managing racial issues in Singapore, and I argue that despite criticism over the Thaipusam ban on musical instruments enforcement incident, the Singapore model is largely effective. Due to the racial vulnerabilities of the Singapore society, stringent enforcement actions are necessary to curtail any form of sedition.


The recent Thaipusam incident was sparked off by a group of people who refused to stop playing drums despite repeated requests by the organisations. It is critical for the public to get the facts right, the arrest of the three men was due to the fact that they persisted in their disorderly behaviours. This is evident in one man confronting the police officers aggressively, and the other two men assaulting the officers. This incident was misrepresented by a Singaporean man and Australian woman by posting irresponsible remarks online that could provoke hostility among Singaporeans. Therefore, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued a strongly worded statement, which stated that, any seditious misrepresentations online which “are deemed to invite enmity between different communities and races”, will be dealt with by the police. With the correct facts being established, then we can properly assess the effectiveness of current measures in preserving harmony in Singapore.


I will first discuss the legislations put in place to prevent troublemakers from inciting racial unrest in Singapore. These two legislations are the Sedition Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA).  The Sedition Act gave enforcement powers to the police to arrest anyone that incite “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races” in Singapore. It was first used to arrest two racist bloggers in 2005 that posted racist comments online, which sparked off a heated discussion filled with many inflammatory remarks. Another well publicised incident happened in 2008 when a Christian couple was charged under the Sedition Act for distributing seditious publications that contained offensive contents to Muslims. It is noteworthy that the Sedition Act was rarely used, it was only enforced due to public complaints or when the seditious comments sparked intense heated debate online. It is quite common for online forums to contain racist comments, albeit in a subtle form. Yet the Singapore government enforces the Sedition Act only in extreme situations when these inflammatory comments get blown out of portion, potentially threatening social stability.


Another legal measure that can be employed by the state is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), but it has not been utilised till today. MRHA empowers the Minister of Home Affairs in placing restraining orders on religious leaders, if they are found guilty of disturbing public order. When MRHA was passed in 1990, there were concerns among religious communities that religious freedom might be compromised. However, I argue that this MRHA will not compromise on religious freedom because of two reasons. Firstly, there are procedural safeguards to prevent the abuse of power; the President has the authority to cancel the restraining order by the Minister of Home Affair through the recommendation of the Presidential Council of Religious Harmony. Secondly, this Act is necessary in drawing a clear division between religion and politics, religious issues should not be politicised because they can potentially threaten social stability.  This Act enhances religious freedom instead, because religious freedom is preserved as religious groups are able to practise their religions freely, without jeopardising the interests of the other religious groups. Furthermore, the fact that this Act was not utilised before shows that the government is not keen on enforcing this law, unless a threatening situation arises that will threaten the social fabric of Singapore. Therefore, it is clear that the legal measures put in place will preserve racial and religious harmony in Singapore, by respecting religious freedom of all religious groups. The unhappiness that was expressed online was merely constricted to a vocal minority. Furthermore, many of these comments about the Thaipusam incident were not backed up with concrete facts


These measures are necessary especially with the proliferation of mass media, which render it easy for rumours to spread like wildfire. Religious freedom entails that individuals have the right to practice their religions freely, but they should not encroach on the rights of other religions. Rumours and hate speeches targeted at other religions are not positive indicators of freedom of speech. But rather these hate speeches provoke fears among the masses, which ironically diminish an individual’s freedom to practise his or her religion freely due to apprehension of persecution by other religious groups.


There are other non-legal measures put in place to promote racial harmony in Singapore, as evident in community bonding events organised by the People’s Association and grassroots leaders, inter-faith dialogues organised by Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC), and the government adopting a social approach of creating an inclusive society through the sponsoring of self-help groups to ensure the education and economic support of all racial communities. This is a soft approach by the government, which contributes to the successful management of diverse ethnicities in Singapore.


In sum, the current policies in place are necessary and are largely successful in promoting racial harmony in Singapore. We should be cautious about rumours spreading online and not be easily swayed by them; hence we should ensure that we get our facts right before commenting on any issues. In addition, we should not rely solely on the government’s efforts in preserving racial and religious harmony in Singapore. Religious leaders should be more sensitive to the other religions and refrain from criticising other religions. Community leaders play an important role in organising community bonding events to promote racial harmony. Individuals especially bloggers and online forum participants need to exercise responsibility in their writings and comments online, a wrongly phrased comment will invite hordes of angry responses. All Singaporeans should strive together to create a harmonious society.

2nd Place - Juliet Seow

With reference to the Thaipusam ban on music instruments, I feel that such enforcement would breed more unhappiness among certain Singaporeans, especially the minorities, because such enforcement on religious activities or ethnic practices do not apply equally to all groups, but rather only to those that are practised by minorities. In most festivals and practices, music is an important component that symbolises the sacred ritual. Therefore, in the multi religious country we are living in, we ought to be more tolerant and compromising about certain activities even if we do not participate in them. Yet, it is unfair to enforce strict bans on Hindu festivals but not other majority religions like Buddhism or Christianity. For example, Buddhist funerals carried out at void decks involves rituals that use percussion and wind instruments, which are relatively as noisy, and furthermore, played throughout the night. However, because of the greater population supporting Buddhism, minorities cannot complain about their activities because the state will recognize that majority of the population are involved in such practices. It is in a sense unfair that respect has to be given to the more recognized religions, whereas less respect is given to the minorities, as in the case of the Thaipusam incident. In view that the major religious groups can complain about the inappropriateness of minorities’ religious activities and the state in turn proposes enforcement on them, it can be seen that there is unequal treatment to different religious groups whereby the minorities have to give in to the majorities in order to achieve the secular society free of religious conflict as proposed by the state. However, such unequal treatment will only create unspoken dissent amongst the minorities, those who might feel upset and unjust but do not have the power to fight for their rights, because of the fact that they are the minorities and thus have less say even though everyone are equally Singaporeans. The absence of riots and fights may not signify the absence of religious conflict, but rather the unspoken unhappiness experienced by these minorities could accumulate across time and eventually lead to potential strife in the future.

3rd Place - Rachel Quek

After its independence in 1965, Singapore has been increasingly, and now commonly known as a successful multi-racial country.


The reputation that Singapore holds was not derived easily, especially since there was a series of racial riots in the early days prior to Singapore’s independence. The first race riot that happened in the 1950s shed light to the Government about the importance of peace and harmony between racial groups in Singapore and led to the implementation of policies to foster interracial harmony, such as the Sedition Act, which commenced in 1964. Another policy would be the Housing Development Board (HDB) Policy, which requires an equal proportion of racial groups living in the same block of flat. This is to ensure that there is equal interaction between people from different racial groups, so that the understanding of each other’s cultures could be cultivated.


Ever since the implementation of such policies to preserve harmony among Singaporeans, the number of race riots and conflicts has significantly decreased. However, as Singapore becomes increasingly globalized, the proliferation of new media and technology has both its pros and cons on the issue of racialism. Although the free media has allowed us to post content as we please, it has brought about several threats to the Singaporean community. On social media platforms, we often speak our honest minds without knowing the consequences it may bring. For instance, the former Assistant Director at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), Amy Cheong, lost her job and was sternly warned by the police after she posted insults laced with profanities about traditional Malay void deck weddings. On another instance, a teenager at the time of his offence, Gan Huai Shi was charged with the Sedition Act for mocking the Malays and ridiculing their religion. Hence, this has proved that despite having laws to protect interracial harmony, the Internet, which is becoming an important part of our lives, is a platform that might cause dissatisfaction against other racial groups.


On the recent Thaipusam ban on musical instruments, much of the rage surfaced online, primarily on Facebook, questioning the ban only for the symbolic Hindu festival. In my opinion, each and every race has practices unique to them and these practices are usually topped off with the use of music or musical instruments. With the ban on musical instruments, the Thaipusam event would not be as lively and celebratory than it is supposed to be, and the Indian population would feel discriminated against. Therefore, this measure is doing more harm than good in preserving peace and harmony amongst Singaporeans.