I was shocked to hear the story related by PM Lee in his National Day Rally speech in Mandarin about the Malay wedding and the Chinese wake. For those who didn’t tune in that early, here’s a rough translation:
A Chinese grandmother died. The family decided to hold wake at the void deck of the next block. But without waiting for approval from the town council to hold their wake there, they proceeded to set up their wake. Coincidentally, that void deck had already been booked by a Malay family for a wedding. The invitations had been sent out. Now they discovered their wedding location had been snatched by another party. The Malay family of course felt very unhappy. The town council staff attempted to resolve the matter by asking the Chinese family to relocate their wake to another void deck. But the Chinese family was unwilling to accommodate. They felt that even though the coffin had not arrived, the wake had already been set up and tearing it down will bring bad luck. So a problem arose. Obviously the party in the wrong was the Chinese family. But they were unwilling to move. Fortunately, with the intervention of the MP and town council staff, the Malay family very graciously agreed to move their wedding to another block. As a gesture of gratitude, the town council waived the rental charges, and also helped them put up signs redirecting wedding guests to the new location. This happened last year.
My shock is not so much with the incident per se, but the outcome. As PM Lee said, the Malay family clearly had the right to use the void deck, and the Chinese family was in the wrong. Why then did the town council staff and the MP even consider asking the Malay family to move their wedding? There is a process for booking void decks and it is on a first come, first served basis. This should have been a straightforward decision that the town council staff could have made on their own without even calling in the MP.
Instead the MP intervened and presumably was the one who persuaded the Malay family to move, offering to waive their booking fee for the new location. Under those circumstances, I can’t see what choice the Malay family had. The Chinese family, the MP and the town council were fortunate that the Malay family was so accomodating, and didn’t kick up a fuss, insisting on their rights. Basically the town council footed the bill for the rental of the void deck because of the Chinese family’s intransigence.
However as a matter of principle, was that the right thing to do by the MP? By citing this example, what kind of message is PM Lee inadvertently sending? The message I got was that when interests collide, the minorities inevitably end up being the ones who give in.
This is not the system of fairness and equality that I want for Singapore. PM Lee mentioned in his English speech that he had circulated his text on race and religion to the entire Cabinet for their inputs. I’m surprised then that the Cabinet let this pass, which I feel diminishes PM Lee’s message of the importance racial sensitivity.
Asking around friends and family, I found out that it is indeed a common practice for Chinese families to set up wakes before town council approval is obtained. The reason is that the wakes need to be set up on the day of the death and town council approval may not be obtained so fast. It is also true that some Chinese believe it is bad luck to move the wake even before the body arrives, although this is not a widely known practice. Given these circumstances, town councils should either (1) make it clear that it is an offence to set up a wake in the void deck before approval is obtained, or (2) put up notices whenever someone makes a booking, so that the next family that comes along will look for another void deck to set up their wake. The notices could be placed on the noticeboards next to the lifts, or on an online booking portal.