The state, the godkeepers, and me

As the drizzle continued, I had little choice but to take shelter in the walkway beneath a block of flats, hoping it would let up quickly and I could continue my way to the metro station. Well, it didn’t let up quickly and I found myself getting impatient. And bored.

I decided I would walk to the end of the block just to see if there might be anything interesting there.

Indeed, there was. An old tree had statues of gods planted around it. More were laid out in the planter a short distance away.

It’s not common, but once in a while you see these shrines here and there around Singapore. I’m not sure how they arise, perhaps someone once upon a time saw an apparition emerge from the tree or heard a voice from it. Typically, the vision or voice would have told the recipient which number to buy for the week’s lottery. When it turned out to be a winning number, the lucky man or woman would feel obliged to return the favour by making offerings at the tree. Offerings would include donations of statuettes such as in the photo.

Others would quickly come making offerings of their own in the hope that they too might be blessed with a propitious number.

I’m just saying this in the general; I have no idea if this was the provenance of this tree’s sacredness.

It so happened that I had a camera with me, and I had nothing else to do. The only problem was that it was still drizzling and the light was dull. The colours on the porcelain statues would be so much brighter on a good day.

Never mind, I’d take a few pictures and hope they turn out half-visible, I told myself, especially since I am unlikely to come this way again anytime soon.

Cupping my hand over the camera to protect it from the rain, I strode out towards the tree to take a few shots. There were many things to think about. What setting should I use? How do I compose the shot to provide it with the context of a working class housing estate? In the top picture for example, I deliberately included the bicycle in the frame. How do I aim the camera without a droplet of wind-blown water getting into the lens?

Amidst all that, I also sensed movement among several men who had been sitting in the coffeeshop at the end of the block. One by one they got up from their seats, coming up to the dripping eaves of the walkway, looking at what I was doing. Eventually, there were about ten to twelve of them, together with one woman. Most were middle-aged Chinese, at least two were Indian. All of them had weatherbeaten looks, cheap shorts and cheaper sandals.

My sixth sense told me it wasn’t just curiosity that had roused them from their seats. I was on their turf. They were the keepers of this neighbourhood shrine and they were eyeing me with great suspicion. Did they think I was going to break anything? Did they think I might offend the gods by stepping on certain stones or ledges that no foot should insultingly touch?

I put on my best behaviour, avoided laying hands on the statues and watched where I placed my feet. And finished my mission as quickly as possible, which anyway the rain would have ensured.

A critical decision then awaited me. Should I return to the same block from which I emerged and where now stood a phalanx of the pious? Or should I make a short dash to the next block to escape their suspicions? Deciding that I was guilty of nothing except appreciation of folk religion, I felt that I should most certainly not turn tail. So, putting on my self-confident air, at least to the extent that shoulders hunched against the rain permitted, I strode back towards the walkway with the coffeeshop.

The phalanx parted like the Red Sea to let me through. My cup of self-confidence runneth over, as my self-confidence is wont to do. Instead of walking on, I stopped and re-started my camera to review the pictures I had just taken. From behind me, I could feel men half-leaning forward to glimpse for themselves what images I had captured of their gods.

Slowly, I turned my head to give the guy on my left a greeting nod. He nodded back with a nervous smile. At that, the rest of the men leaned in closer, in a semi-circle around my back. I had now acknowledged their presence and they must have felt entitled to check out my pictures without restraint.

The woman was the first to speak. “Why are you taking photos?”

“Because they are pretty,” I said, “and you seldom see similar sights in Singapore.” As I replied, I held up my camera’s display and showed her this picture:

Actually I hated the picture; the light was no good. I should have used a fill-in flash, but in the drizzle and without an umbrella, there was really no way I could  fiddle around to do so. But I gambled that she knew nothing about photography, and that since it was her god, she would of course think it was a pretty picture. How could she say otherwise?

“Yes, it’s very pretty,” she said and then asked the question that everybody wanted to ask but didn’t know how. “Are you from the government?”

“No,” I said, notching my voice a few decibels up and spicing it with a note of protest, “I’m not from the government.”

The men rose in chorus: “He’s not from the government.” Smiles beamed all around, tension lifted like a bunch of balloons and general agreement was reached that indeed their shrine was a beautiful one.

Matter resolved, I snapped my camera shut and walked out into the rain.

The small crowd went back to their plastic chairs in the coffeeshop and to the soap opera playing on the television hung from the ceiling, relieved that the government was not yet going to demolish their illegal shrine, chop down the tree, offend their gods and otherwise deny them the opportunity of divining the next lucky number.

10 Responses to “The state, the godkeepers, and me”

  1. 2 Lee Chee Wai 18 March 2011 at 10:58

    Sorry about that … facepalming was the very first and last thing I could think about and then I remembered your blog was not facebook. So, I’d clarify:

    1. Being an atheist, I’m still unhappy about how entrenched and arbitrary superstition and superstitious beliefs (religious or otherwise) are in Singapore.

    2. I cannot believe the first thing they’d think of is that you might be from “the government” and presumably by extension, some arm of law enforcement. I am also not 100% certain the shrine itself is illegal. I can also see an NEA officer wanting to check the spot as a potential mosquito breeding ground without really requiring the objects be removed. I wonder what those people would think. Do we all have a tendency to associate government officials as a harbinger of subsequent law enforcement action?

  2. 3 Interesting 18 March 2011 at 17:18

    Well, they are safe till after the election.

    Seriously though, if someone wants to worship a tree, how does the government justify not allowing them to do so?

    I was at a friend’s place recently and he just bought a landed property. He was very proudly showing me what he had done to a small patch of land outside his house along the main road. I was joking that NParks will come and tear down his landscaping efforts. My friend was pretty confident in saying that NParks “encouraged” such endeavours.

    How does this differ from the godkeepers whom you mentioned above? What is the criteria to decide what should be demolished and what should be kept? Who decides and why?

  3. 4 Pat 18 March 2011 at 17:33

    Hi Alex

    You articulate yourself so well !

    Secondary school students should enjoy articles such as this, to improve their essay/composition writing skills !

    I have learnt a lot more about “Singaporean culture ” by reading articles like this .You should be a consultant to the the Straits Times.

    Please continue your good work.KEEP IT UP!

  4. 5 ape 18 March 2011 at 18:02

    The moment I read that your actions had attracted the crowd, I guessed that they’re worried you’re from govt. Why they (and I) felt that way, I don’t know. Perhaps we felt that govt always take actions against anything unusual?

  5. 6 Gard 18 March 2011 at 19:18

    I wish to offer a perspective not explicitly mentioned in your article.

    If you were to do this in a HDB flat common corridor, taking pictures of objects (usually flower pots), the owners of these objects would have paid the same curiosity about your activities.

    In which case, the question ‘are you from the government?’ would be interpreted as ‘are you from the National Environment Agency (NEA)?’

  6. 7 Sloo 19 March 2011 at 00:41

    There really are quite a number assumptions in this piece but the most glaring has probably got to be about the divination for lucky numbers. Temples have been known to sprout around trees here, in particular banyan trees. There are many reasons why the faithful may consider a particular tree ( spring, shrine, monument) significant, religious or lucky. Somehow even with the disclaimer, to attribute the tree shrine to material greed is somewhat insulting.

    To end this post, I’d like to make the assumption that wariness over govt interference may have more to do with the awareness that these people have regarding our govt being dominated by Christians and perhaps more intolerant of their faith.

  7. 8 Anon 19 March 2011 at 01:36

    I know this place. The truth is there is an illegal 4D station on the 2nd floor of this block. If you dont believe me, walk up and it’s a unit along the corridor. The coffeeshop with old folks sipping tea throughout the day offer excellent surveillance for any suspected policemen, plain clothes or not. They are of course paid to sit there in shifts.

    Yes, you are quite right that you could possibly be harmed, taking pictures around there. These folks could have smashed your camera and chased you away with some broomstick, giving you the perfect reason that their deities are offended.

  8. 9 meiming 19 March 2011 at 22:00

    There are some common words among our folks, in Alex case, I am sure they asked in Hokkien, “Li Si Cheng Hoo Lang?” It was even more colourful during the colonial time, for example, in a court of law, when the court interpreter referred to the Magistrate or Judge in Hokkien, he would say, “Ong Kay” meaning “Royal Family”.

  9. 10 ed 20 March 2011 at 10:14

    Hi Alex

    Your encounters remind me of several incidents where I saw the erection of these shrines around disused or unsupervised terrains in the country. You may want to visit another community located along the now defunct clementi railway line (along ave 6). More info may be found here…

    This place is marked by several shrines built to honour different types of spirits, even to wandering ghosts. One is dedicated to our local syncretic deity, Datuk Kong (which has another shrine in Ubin). It is of great interest to anthropologists keen on indigenous folk religions established here. Some academics even argue that this deity (which dispels and blends the belief systs from islam, javanese animism and folk taoism) is unique only to Singapore.

    It was an interesting case of ordinary people coming together to foster a spontaneous community spirit by aligning their appreciation in folk beliefs with other practices like gardening and farming. In fact other residents are welcome to come by and collect the veggies for free or light a joss stick or 2 to ask for blessings. These activities would have required permit from the HDB if they had proposed it along open estates.

    These small projects take place without the interference from overt government endorsement or other PA initiatives. The same communities find special solace in a remote corner where the State is believed to have no power to supplant their joint offerings and beliefs. As of today, some believe the railway line is still under Msia’s jurisdiction.

    In a country where the ruling party is known to actively solicit public support for many of its initiatives (vice versa), it was good to discover that many others continue to thrive on their own, away from the prying eyes of state surveillance.

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