K Shanmugam’s response to the Thaipusam fracas between police and devotees displays all the hallmarks of a typical strategy from the PAP’s playbook.
There is the classic retreat into legal jargon and semantic somersaults when he says musical instruments are allowed during lion dances and Malay weddings because, unlike Thaipusam, these are not “religious foot processions” and are usually categorised as “social, community events”.
There is the usual red herring: Hindus in Singapore are supposedly privileged because they are the only ones allowed religious foot processions through major roads, unlike other religious groups. He narrows the entire realm of religious worship to one particular aspect, the foot procession, because of course the amount of traffic a particular faith group holds up indicates the level of respect it’s accorded by the State.
When other religious groups apply for permit to proceed on a foot procession, they are often rejected, he claims. He doesn’t cite any stats though, save for one example: the Kew Ong Yah Festival, which was given permission for musical instruments to be played, but not for a foot procession.
Like many of his fellow PAP cadres, he makes sure not to slam the door shut on the current rule, a sign the political party is ‘maturing’, so he ‘encourages’ debate between the Hindu Endowment Board and various governmental agencies. As much as any debate can be had in Singapore. We all know who are the ones invited to these closed door sessions, these conversations over breakfast with the minister.
As a Muslim, I must say all these points he brings up I’ve heard many times before. When the hijab issue was brought up about a year ago following a petition to allow Muslim women to dress according to religious requirements at work, leaders were quick to say that the hijab was already largely accepted in workplaces across Singapore, that Muslims already enjoy special privileges, that the matter was not for the Government to decide and still open to debate.
But I digress. This is after all Singapore, where the secular state must never be seen to be subservient to any religion, unless of course such subservience rings the cash registers.
It is the final point that Mr. Shanmugam stresses that is his most salient, in part because of the Little India riots that broke out in December 2013: physical and verbal assaults on police officers are unacceptable, whatever the underlying circumstances. Perhaps, in his mind, the officers who were on the scene during Thaipusam are blameless, upstanding paragons of moral behaviour, even though witness reports indicate some element of police brutality was present.
I can only hope that he has enough sense to know that they were somewhat overzealous in their approach to maintain law and order, and balances this public show of support for the men in blue with a private rebuking of those who were guilty of using unnecessary force.
Because I would hate to wake up tomorrow and see Singapore degenerate into a police state, if it hasn’t already, with minorities unfairly targeted and racist policemen thinking they are above the law.