Insensitivity at our void decks

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.

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

20 thoughts on “Insensitivity at our void decks”

  1. If viewed strictly through the lenses of legality and fairness, you are probably right that the wedding should have been held at the void deck in contention.

    But in this case, what happened was not an adjudication of what legally right nor a determination what is fair. If it were either, then as you rightly pointed out, the first-come-first-served principle should have applied.

    More importantly, what happened in this case was a mediated settlement. In Mediation, while legality and fairness are important considerations, the overriding objective is finding a solution that everybody is agreeable to and preferably at the same time minimising unhappiness all round.

    Imho, the wedding couple had every right to insist that their original reservation be honoured and the bereaved family should have checked before setting up the funeral wake. But at the point when the authorities were notified of the situation, what’s done, has already been done.

    What should be lauded here is the wedding couple’s graciousness and empathy with the grieving family. For the future, the authorities should look into effective ways to avoid such misunderstandings. Perhaps funeral directors should be required (failure results in some penalty) to consult some booking database before setting up, private bookings be better publicised (allowing more neighbours to join in the festivities in this case).

    Please note that I have deliberately chosen to avoid using racial adjectives in my comment above as I believe that the mediation principles apply regardless of which races the different parties belong to. That said, the PM is also right to use the racial adjectives in the interest of full disclosure as some might choose to ascribe importance to them.

  2. Well, when one have the difficulties in drafting a profoundly inspiring speech… just go bloody straight to the point! This would be one of his many that would find their way into his memoir. The Collection of my Clouded Thoughts.

  3. The council should impose a surcharge on such fait accompli acts as that of the Chinese party, equivalent to the charges payable by the Malay party.

  4. while I am not a fan of PM Lee, I thought the message in this message on graciousness on the part of the Malay Couple was exemplary!

    I speak for many Chinese – when my dad pased away, our family set up tent immediately. I would not know what else to do next. But as a learning lesson, maybe it is good for Town Councils to be clear on procedures for such matters – it cannot be that the Malays have to be gracious all the time.

  5. It is not possible to check with the Town Council prior to setting up the funeral wake if the death occurs in the night.

    But such things could be overcome if the Town Councils published and have timely updates on their websites on the bookings of void decks.

    Goh Meng Seng

  6. My Malay friends all reported saying that when they booked the void deck to hold their wedding, all were told by the CCs/Town Council that in the event of a sudden Chinese funeral, priority will be given for the funeral, and the wedding will have to be moved elsewhere.

  7. me – Oh my goodness are you serious?! Can you tell me which TC these are and when they told your friends? This needs to be investigated.

  8. I am curious as to why you are relying upon an anecdotal translation of the Chinese speech, when there was an English version right after. Surely that would have been a useful way of checking if your rough translation was accurate?

  9. i am not sure if anyone wants to hold a wedding knowing there is a dead person lying there just a few hours ago. Would you? I personally might have chosen to move.

  10. Concerned Singaporean – What do you mean by “anecdotal translation”? I translated it — my lousy Chinese notwithstanding — because I knew there would be some differences. For eg, PM said “显然,理亏的是华族家庭 – Obviously the party in the wrong was the Chinese family”, but the English translation, which the newspapers printed, was: “The Chinese family had a weaker case”.

    Being in the wrong and having a weaker case is clearly not the same.

    anon – The dead person hadn’t arrived yet. It was just the wake that had been set up.

  11. This could be a case of lost in translation, which is quite common when you try to translate a Sino-Tibetan language into an Indo-European one.

    The banana skin (pardon my use of a translated Chinese phrase) here is the word “理亏”, which literally means “logic/reason loss/deficit” or more properly, “lacking in logic, reason”. The word 亏 also means “treat unfairly”, especially when used with the word “欠” to give “亏欠”. This makes the translation “weaker case” somewhat acceptable. I could have used the same translation if I were in a hurry and did not double check my work.

    Personally, I’ll go with how Ci Ba defines “理亏”:
    “be in the wrong”

    which you can access via:

    So it is 1-0 to Gerald.

    For those of us who yearns for a lighter moment, try using Google translate. It translated the sentence “显然,理亏的是华族家庭” incorrectly (and made me smile), but used the word “wrong”.

    An Old Friend

  12. Very rarely do we discuss anything that has to do with the Chinese language… and this would be an opportune time to make a wish:


  13. Good point Gerald.

    Every example of “religious or racial harmony” given is of a minority adapting to the majority culture – the Malay family giving up the right to their planned wedding (I am sure that anyone who has ever been to a Malay wedding and carried food up and down the stairs will know what a hassle it must have been to move to another block!), the non-Catholic student tolerating the Catholic school where 100% of the teacher’s salaries are paid by the secular government including 90% of tax payers who are not catholic etc etc

    I guess that is what we have gotten used to the Singapore definition of harmony – do what the majority wants you to do!

  14. It seems that the TC and MP chose a pragmatic way out of the situation. Suppose the Malays insist on their right to use the void deck. Eventually, the TC and MP will have no choice but to force the Chinese wake to be relocated, since the legal right is on the side of the Malay wedding. What would happen next?

    I would presume that the Chinese will be extremely upset about the whole arrangement, and that will generate some ill-will towards the Malays in concern at the minimum. Worse, it will nest a prejudice in the hearts of the Chinese against the Malay race in general. This may turn out to be very bad for racial harmony (or at least racial tolerance) in Singapore.

    So from a legal and ideological (first-come-first-serve) viewpoint, you’re right. But from a pragmatic perspective which most of our TCs operate with, this solution seems to be the best. Of course, there is a possibility that the Malays will, because of this decision, harbour some ill feeling towards Chinese, but from the TC/MP’s pragmatic perspective, this possibility ranks lower in terms of probability than the other case.

    However, though, I’m not sure why the PM chose to raise this issue. Maybe it fits in into his point about racial harmony, but since I have yet to read his ND speech, I won’t know.

  15. Hey Gerald, by no means do I support all that our gahmen does, and agree that this was not the best example for a speech. However, in this instance I believe they did the right thing. First, one family is bereaved, the other is celebrating. Honestly, regardless of race, which would be more understanding? If you have experienced loss, you’d know it unplanned and unwanted, and to have someone throw the book at you is rubbing salt on the wound.

    Think that while rules exist and should be enforced, there is enough bureaucracy in SG, do we really need more notices/fines? Instead, compassion and flexibility should be the new direction. In this case, not only should the Malay family have gotten free relocation, but also town council workers to usher guests to said location. Kudos for suggesting a alternative solution, rather than the average complaining Singaporean. Keep blogging!

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