Thaipusam, Chinese New Year, what’s the difference?

What’s the next big and upcoming event happening in our local calendar?

You’re right – Chinese New Year.

Red packets and goodies aside, a very strong cultural aspect of Chinese New Year which, if missing, will diminish the spirit of the occasion, is music.

Lion dances and music add to the festivity and facilitate the unity of different individuals whose shared cultural traditions bring them together. Without such music and cultural customs, the festive mood would be severely dampened.

Lion Dance

Being a Chinese who was born and bred in Singapore, I am thankful for the liberality that we have, being able to express our culture and embrace our Chinese roots. But, sadly to say, not all can be said of festivals belonging to other ethnic or religious groups.

The latest uproar occured with regards to Thaipusam (Find out more about Thaipusam here) , an annual event held in honour of the Hindu Deity Lord Murugan. This is the next biggest event in the Hindu calendar after Deepavali.

The following clip shows part of the Thaipusam festival which took place in Singapore on 20 January this year. (With the new guidelines)

Loud music is traditionally played during this festival using drums and gongs. Such music, “often played at a deafening volume- is seen as encouragement for those who pierce their bodies as an act of faith,” according to an article in The Straits Times on 6 January 2011. However, new guidelines and regulations laid down by the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) stated that playing recorded music or sounding drums and gongs are not permitted, so as to curb the noise level, among other reasons.

What I am attempting to illustrate here is how we (or more specifically, the HEB and other relevant organizations responsible for the new regulations) select information regarding issues that are not the cultural norm. In addition, how misunderstandings may occur without the same shared perspectives.

Perhaps the Hindus are misunderstood and misrepresented in their own culture, for what we perceive so literally as “noise” during Thaipusam is simply an outward expression of commemoration to their deity. We select salient information pertaining to a particular situation (In this case, perhaps the “noise” created and the perception of Thaipusam being a grotesque process) rather than the more significant underlying meaning of Thaipusam. We therefore are at risk of commiting a perceptual error by oversimplifying the meaning of an authentic Hindu culture right here in Singapore.

Based on the social constructionist perspective, which maintains that we construct our world through communication and that communication creates individuals, misunderstandings could be avoided if we interact with people, in this case, the Hindus. Through interaction, we derive a clearer perspective of what their culture entails because we now share collective representations of their tradition.

To sum it all up, indeed Thaipusam and Chinese New Year are different in terms of cultural traditions and practices. But it is pertinent to bridge this gap and share the common perspective that all races are equal. Hence we should not dismiss any part of another’s culture just because of its differences.  All ethnic and religous groups should be awarded liberal rights in cultural expression.

Food for thought:

-What are your views on cultural expression in Singapore? Liberal? Strict?

-Are there misunderstandings about particular cultures that ought to be cleared?


January 29, 2011. Uncategorized.


  1. Shar replied:

    Good exploration on the parallels bet CNY and Thaipusam:) hmm I would say that we have to view the banning of loud music in the Thaipusam festival in an objective way, and keep in mind that this is not a specific move to curb the cultural expression through this festival. Rather, this is to keep peace and quiet in the neighbouhoods where the temples are situated, as the celebrations go on for extended periods of time. However, i would say that more could be done by the government through consulting the leaders of the Hindu community before such a ban is passed. A concensus could have be achieved without using such a blunt tool like a ban. This being said, any discussion focusing on whether this counts as discrimination against a certain group might only further polarize the different ethnic groups and races and fan strong emotions regarding this issue even more. I think what we can do now is to seek to have a stronger understanding and embrace the differences between the ethnic groups in Singapore:) guys, what’s your take on this issue?

    • Valerie replied:

    • Thanks! Well perhaps the bans were indeed laid down in an objective manner. But at the end of the day I do believe that an event that occurs only once every year should be given their due rights and respect. A festival like this just wouldn’t be the same without music to encourage the kavadi-bearers (these people undergo extreme pain). I just think that tolerance is the key here. Shouldn’t tolerance be an important aspect in Singapore’s multiracial society?

      Having said that, I do agree that we should understand and embrace the differences between different ethnic groups. As I mentioned in my entry, misunderstandings may occur without a complete understanding of another culture. To avoid that, communication is the way for us to construct a common understanding between each other.

  • shermin replied:

    I cannot imagine what Chinese New Year will be like if we are barred from playing chinese new year songs in public areas such as shopping centres. So, I do believe that the Hindus should keep their tradition alive. I do not think that the Dragon and Lion dances that are traditionally performed during Chinese New Year makes less noise than the drums and gongs that are played during Thaipusam. Instead of misunderstanding the Hindu culture and implementing a ban, it is imprudent that the public learns to perceive and accept Hindu cultural tradition as the way they are. Since Singapore is a multi-racial society, such issues may happen again if we do not learn to appreciate other cultures by communicating and experiencing such events together.

  • jing91 replied:

    Hey there valerie, i agree with how different perceptions of what is ‘noise’ to one group may be perceive as a good way of commeration to the other, all I have to say is sometimes we should be more concern about one another’s differences so that we can accomodate to one another in our multi-racial society : D

  • aliyaanwar replied:

    Great write up on the expression of culture. Many a times, we have seen Singaporeans misunderstand or misinterpret the different races and their festivals. What we may perceive as noise during Thaipusam, is in fact the same sounds and music that spurs and encourages the South Indians to carry out their acts of worship with more strength and support. We live in a peaceful and harmonious community, and instead of complaining, we should learn to respect each other’s culture. If the noise level is not required to be limited during CNY, I don’t see why the same regulations cannot be applied to Hari Raya or Thaipusam in this case. Thus in such a society, fairness is key in maintaining peace.

  • johanluqman replied:

    I think that singapore is quite liberal in allowing us citizens to freely express our cultural beliefs. Take for example malay weddings which are usually held at void decks, neighbors would just tolerate the ‘music’ created throughout the day and would even sometimes join in the fun. By practicing racial tolerance, we singaporeans make singapore a much more fun and vibrant place to live in.

  • Shem replied:

    hmm to sum it up, I agree with valerie in the case of communications bringing ppl together. It take 2 hands to clap after all~

  • carol replied:

    Despite the many claims of being a country that supports the phrase ” freedom of speech”, Singapore is in fact one of the more uptight countries when it comes to controversial issues such as expressing one’s views regarding the various races. However, there is of course a valid reason behind as to why this is so in our country. This is simply because,Singapore is a multi-racial country. Besides that being the case, she is also a small country who relies mainly on her people for economy growth and country development. Hence, it is imperative that there racial harmony is present at all times.

  • Lina replied:

    In terms of cultural expression, I believe that Singapore still has certain restrictions. Granting full liberty to each culture is an ideal notion that is impossible to achieve in Singapore. By allowing one culture to express itself freely, the same must be allowed for another so as to avoid double standards. However, as a multiracial society, granting permission for each culture to express itself freely will result in possible chaos if members within the culture have no limitations in expression. A form of law and order has to be achieved through the imposition of rules and regulations, as mentioned in this incident which you have highlighted.

  • Jennifer replied:

    Hi there. With regards to your post on Thaipusam, I think that the bans ought to be imposed so as maintain some form of order. It is a legitimate concern which, in my opinion, is not intending to cause any racial/cultural divide. I understand that there was an uproar when the bans were imposed because of the supposed lack of equality. But I definitely do not agree that such an imposition highlights any form of discrimination.

  • papaya replied:

    In my opinion, actually i think that the cultural expression in Singapore is quite biased. I think the Hindu Endowments Board banned those recorded music, sounding drums and gongs is because of the pressure from the Singapore government, which decided on this because of several complains from the Chinese or other races, which didn’t understand about the reason for those ‘noise’ that they perceived as.

    however during Chinese New Year, there are sounding drums and gongs too for performances such as lion dance which represent prosperity and good-luck for the Chinese. Those are often played at the door steps of their houses which will always disturb the neighbors living in the vicinity. However from what i know, the Singapore government didn’t ban the sounding drums and gongs officially, which is why i said that the cultural expression in Singapore is biased because Chinese is the majority in Singapore.

  • Yuanxin replied:

    I think that this issue is definitely subjective. If you feel strongly for freedom of cultural expression in Singapore, you would be more inclined to view these bans as a form of discrimination and unfairness towards the minority culture. But people who are ampathetic about this issue would think that the bans were legitimate. It’s all about perspectives. Therefore, it is rather unfair to accuse the organization responsible for imposing the bans as being discriminatory.

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