It’s that time of year again and you can smell it in the air. A large population of Taoist Singaporeans (including those who claim to be Buddhists put also engage in some Taoist practices) pay their respects to the deceased ancestors by burning incense papers and “hell” money, among a host of other rituals.
Many town councils have provided drums and cage-like receptacles to accommodate the burning of “hell” money. However, these resources are not used, and some Taoists believe that sharing would not result in the proper distribution of “hell” money, and they cannot be certain if the “delivery” of the money will be made to the right person. They prefer a way to make their offerings that is more exclusive, so to speak.
The smoke from the burning is already an inconvenience much tolerated by most Singaporeans and the authorities. But there are Taoist Singaporeans who burn their incense over drain grills and the sides of pedestrian footpaths, posing obstructions to public use. It is also a little farfetched, but nevertheless a legitimate concern that prolonged burning and heat might affect the function and stability of these grills. In the end, much like illegal parking on the roads near Mosques on Friday afternoons, the authorities have their hands tied on governing Taoist practices, if under any rubric outside religion, would have constituted littering, vandalism and arson.
I believe that the Taoist federation and relevant associations and community leaders should encourage devotees to exercise greater conscientiousness and civic-mindedness when they pay their respects and burn “hell” money. It is not only about providing spaces, and drums for burning, but also the general education.
The government can still intervene by consulting the federation and community leaders to ensure that more civic-minded practices. It is a touchy issue and votes are at stake, considering a large portion of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans engage in the Taoist practice of burning “hell” money.
If there are Taoists who feel they need an exclusive place and drum/bin to burn their offerings, they can be provided with the necessary resources to do so, to minimise the inconvenience caused to those of different and no faiths. Since this is, on a large scale, a yearly affair, it would be good to have a rental service for drums and receptacles that would accommodate Taoist demands.
Taoists have the right to make their offerings, as do other Singaporeans have the right to use the pedestrian footpath. A government that is sensitive/respectful to multireligiosity in Singapore has to unequivocally stand firm on the rule of law, and disallow burning of “hell” money on pedestrian footpaths, but at the same time, providing many alternatives for Taoists to freely practice – such as the provision of infrastructure, services and collaboration with the relevant community leaders and associations. With a mix of education, resources and equally as important, government action/policy, I am sure we all can coexist.