Thursday, 10 April 2008

Don't You Oppress Me

It's a line from Monty Python's film The Life of Brian where Stan, played by Eric Idle, declares to his fellow subversives of the People's Front of Judea that he wants to be known as Loretta and have babies. Reg (John Cleese) points out that he can't have babies, being without a womb necessary for gestation, and Stan/Loretta indignantly replies with "Don't you oppress me". It's an effective response, claiming victim status over a factual refutation.

I'm reminded of this exchange while sitting here, coughing, eyes watering as my (Chinese) neighbours burn hell money, joss papers and other offerings to discharge their filial duty towards their dead relatives. Lighting the fire on the landing of the HDB means using a wok or old oil tin as a container. The conflagration is intended to be smoky (think transubstantiation); smoke & ash gets blown by the wind, mostly it seems, in through my front door. My computer is turning grey and the keyboard is the same colour as your tongue when you have a nasty bout of flu. (Ed. this post was written before my current cold and has an ominous Dorian Gray feel to it)

Googling around the forums, nuisance burning is a common topic of debate. Asthmatics have it really bad, having to retreat indoors, put the air con on and wait it out. Even reasonable, intelligent posters display cognitive dissonance, either claiming they do their offerings at a temple, or away from other people or just go for the "don't you oppress my religious freedom" line. It's not strictly religious but "don't you oppress my traditional beliefs" is less persuasive.

You might imagine that such anti-social behavior wouldn't be permitted in tidy Singapore; let's find out. First, ask a policeman at the local kiosk: "So long as the fire doesn't burn property (the building) then the Environment Agency says it's Okay." That's clear enough. The NEA are responsible for enforcement and any burning that is a nuisance can be reported and NEA officers will investigate. Let's check their NEA website FAQ:

Q: are people allowed to burn joss-papers and candles in public places?

A: The public must clean up the place after they have made their offerings. When burning joss-papers, candles, etc. they should use containers. Residents in town council estates should make use of the burning pits and containers provided by the town councils.

To minimise problems when burning joss-papers, candles, etc., the Government introduced the following control measures on 1 March 1998:
• Joss sticks shall not exceed 2 metres in length and 75 mm diameter. For large joss sticks up to 2 metres in length and 75 mm in diameter, no more than six may be burnt at any one time.
• Candles shall not exceed 600 mm in length. For large candles up to 600 mm in length, no more than two may be burnt at any one time.
• The burning of large joss sticks and candles shall not be within 30 metres from any building.

Ignore the stuff about big candles, that's not the issue. The key phrase is "Residents in town council estates should make use of the burning pits and containers provided". Near all HDB blocks there are permanent brick incinerators and semi-permanent oil-drum burners. These are almost universally eschewed in favour of tins on the landing, grass verges or the old favourite, drain gratings.

In my technical work, "should" is a command, equivalent to "must". But this is just an FAQ, let's call the NEA helpline to confirm. Susie was very nice but only had the same information available to her. When pressed, she confirmed that she understood "should" to mean "must".

So the local police (all 3 of them) and the NEA are inconsistent. The bobbies push a softly-softly "it's Okay" to inquisitive foreigners. The NEA confirm the legal position and will investigate but with what vigour or success? Enforcing environmental nuisance (fires, noise) is notoriously hard as a couple of visits by officers are rarely coincident with the problem or sufficiently threatening to induce a change of behavior.

The Government clearly follows a tolerant, low enforcement policy lest they offend their constituent's traditional beliefs (behaviors). This is another example of how Singapore's international stereotype of an uptight, rules-obsessed society of automata is naive. <cough>.