Sound, Space and Control
202 years had passed since Stamford Raffles, the British statesman that established Singapore as a trading post for the British East India Company, first set foot onto the island. However, the fact remains that some things do not change. An example of this is the island’s position as a thriving port city that is overflowing with activity and diversity, even before the arrival of the British who had tried to sell the myth of Singapore as a humble, sleepy and even obscure fishing village. Another unchanging aspect of Singapore’s history is the country’s relationship with sound, particularly in relation to how it affects the access and use of space.
Demonstrating this is the dismissal of an assistant director at Singapore’s National Trades Union Congress in 2012 for racist remarks made on her personal Facebook page. Implicit in her post is a complain about the noise made by Malay weddings which typically involves live music and even karaoke. Such complains about noise are not new to densely-populated and multi-racial Singapore as they parallel letters published in the Pinang Gazette in 1838 bearing highly offensive remarks on Hindustani musical practices that are not worth repeating here nor anywhere else. Even though the two incidents took place centuries apart, ongoing studies on how sound affects life in the city-state so that policies that can better manage religious and interracial tensions sheds light on their contextual similarities being multiculturalism and the lack of space. Altogether, they emphasise the need to consider the physical and geographical domains through which sound is experienced in order to properly understand how sound had affected life.
Of note is Singapore’s strategic location amidst the Indian-Chinese trade route and its scarcity of land which together amplify the significance of space in examining how sounds affect life. Particularly, because of its strategic location, Singapore was a microcosm of the great diversity within Asia and the significant amount of cross-cultural contact taking place. Aside from being very multicultural as the first census carried out in January 1824 would suggest, it also faced significant traffic as per the almost 10-fold growth of the population by 1871. Furthermore, it’s strategic location also meant that it had a particularly unique colonial experience where extra focus was placed on ensuring that it remained a well-oiled money-making machine for the British empire. In light of its small land area, this quickly translates into a desire to regulate space which can be seen early on from the precise instructions delivered by Raffles, on how land should be allocated within 5 months of his arrival. These plans were based on their colonization of earlier towns and they were also intended to prevent haphazard growth. Though they were only properly mapped out in 1822 by Philip Jackson and published in 1828, space was still largely developed according to their precise vision for Singapore.
Problematizing this town plan which covers a very small amount of space — being no more than a 40-minute walk from one end to another — is Singapore’s kaleidoscopic nature. Herein, the attempt to box communities into neatly parcelled out portions of land thereby translates the coloniser’s concern over the scarcity of land available for development into the people’s scarcity of land available for their personal enjoyment. Since many of these new neighbours practiced cultures that were often alien to one another, the fact that sound bleeds inevitably create trouble for the management of the colony as seen by the growing demand for government action to regulate noise.
The colonial administration’s motives in regulating soundscapes is partly benign, since loud and uncontrolled sounds were seen as detrimental to sleep and mental health and a distraction to intellectual pursuits. Nonetheless, the British’s contempt towards native practices like its “napping culture” had also been observed alongside their hypocritical desire to foster “moral and ethical values of British culture” even though London was considered the noisiest city in Europe without specific laws to deal with excessive noise. Even so, not enough emphasis had been placed on fear being their concern over large gatherings and uncontrolled crowds especially when directed towards colonial authorities.
To look into how fear impacts upon regulation of soundscapes, a paracolonial perspective focusing on local cultural activity taking place alongside the colonial presence is useful as it confronts the centre-periphery model that had dominated post-colonial discourse. Furthermore, by not essentializing the colonial experience, a deeper understanding on how sound and affect is mediated by access to space can be achieved.
Particularly use for developing this paracolonial perspective is the history behind Chinese Street Opera because of it’s cross-cultural dimension. Introduced into Singapore by Chinese immigrants as part of their religious rites as early as 1842, they were typically performed on temple grounds during the celebration of customary festivals. Even though each dialect group staged such shows according to the respective styles of their home province, they were still enjoyed by the general public. In fact, the popularity of such shows had likely spread beyond the already diverse Chinese community for even though they were known in Mandarin as ‘Jiexi’, meaning “street show”, they were anglicised as the Malay word ‘Wayang’.
True to its cross-cultural appeal, wayang performances gathered large crowds that made the authorities worried. Moreover, sound had induced fear, not just in its immediate recipients, but also in those managing the spaces sound has brought the people to. To curtail wayang performances the colonial government introduced the 1856 Police and Conservancy Acts, a controversial and poorly substantiated law which also restricted assemblies and processions. Even after strikes in both Singapore and Penang, the requirement to obtain a public licence from the police for any performance remains unchanged even today. Though wayang continued to flourish as dedicated theatres opened, it must be observed that the banning of street performances in spite of its religious significance contradicted Penang’s 1807 Charter of Justice protecting the religious practices of the local population which had since been extended to Singapore. Considering too the banning of the Muharam religious festivities in 1866, a clear pattern of behaviour showing the prioritization of colonial objectives over local culture may be observed. Following from these historical episodes, Singapore’s highly regulated relationship with space can be linked to the colonial regime’s failure to design any other solution aside from such draconic measures on how space can be accessed and used. Given the long-lasting impact of such regulations, the people’s relationship with space can be said to have been regrettably complicated by the sound that emanates from those spaces.