A public education campaign based on reframing the burning of joss paper offerings as a cultural practice rather than a religious requirement was launched during the lunar 7th month in 2022.
Following the campaign, the Municipal Services Office (MSO) said it received 13 per cent less feedback about joss paper burning in 2022's lunar seventh month as compared to the same time period in 2021.
Residents increasingly dissatisfied about joss paper burning
Speaking to the media, the Senior Minister of State for National Development Sim Ann said joss paper burning has typically been framed as a religious practice in the past.
As such, the government agencies have largely taken more of a light-touch approach with their messaging on the matter.
This includes appealing to the public to be considerate to their neighbours and also encouraging greater tolerance for other's rites and rituals in a multi-religious society when dealing with joss paper burning feedback.
However, MSO noticed that residents are becoming increasingly dissatisfied about joss paper burning and the amount of feedback arising from the practice had been increasing from 2015 to 2020.
They were voicing their concerns about the disamenities that the smoke, ash and smell resulting from burning joss paper indiscriminately would have on the cleanliness within housing estates and on those living there.
Reframing joss paper burning as cultural practice
This led the government to consider approaching the practice of joss paper burning differently by reframing the practice as a cultural one instead of a religious requirement.
This strategy allows them to "update" the practice to accommodate other social priorities, such as environmental protection and civic consideration.
The relevant government agencies consulted stakeholders within the Chinese community, such as religious leaders, cultural experts, media personalities, and influencers and industry representatives from the religious goods and funeral industry respectively, who said it was appropriate to reframe the practice accordingly.
"We saw that it is appropriate to think of joss paper burning as a cultural practice rather than a religious requirement. This perspective was confirmed by the cultural experts and influencers within the Chinese community whom we consulted," said Sim.
During their focus group discussions, Sim said the stakeholders had observed and were concerned about the issues that indiscriminate joss paper burning can cause in the immediate environment.
They agreed that it is worthwhile to guide the public on how to burn joss paper while sticking to the traditional custom.
Sim said stakeholders are also generally prepared to work on correcting misperceptions that the public have about the validity of certain forms of this practice.
Public education campaign to "forge consensus"
This led to the formation of the Alliance for Action (AfA) on Norms for Joss Paper Burning which was set up in July 2022.
Described as a "people private-public collaboration", the organisation is led by Singapore Buddhist Federation's chief executive Kua Soon Khe and Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations's treasurer and Singapore Foochow Association chairman Hong Poh Hin, with Sim and MSO acting as an advisor and secretariat respectively.
Its goal is to forge a consensus within the Chinese community on the "desired norms for the traditional custom of joss paper burning".
One such way is through raising public awareness through public education campaigns, where the key messages were created in collaboration with key opinion leaders in the Chinese community, including AfA members.
The key messages were:
- Let’s be kind to our environment and neighbours when burning joss paper;
- Please burn small quantities of joss paper at a time to ensure complete combustion and reduce smoke and ashes;
- Traditionally joss paper should be burnt during worshipping, and not tossed or scattered; and
- Please clear up your offerings after prayers.
Unlike previous years, these multi-media messages were conveyed on multiple channels and platforms, such as on social media, on digital display panels in HDB estates, and posters in joss paper retail shops and major supermarkets amongst others, on top of the usual mainstream broadcast and print media.
13 per cent drop in joss paper burning feedback and fewer complaints
The public education campaign on joss paper burning started along with the lunar seventh month in 2022.
There was a 13 per cent drop in the volume of feedback arising from joss paper burning during 2022's lunar seventh month, from 3,441 in 2021 to 2,999 in the same time period in 2022.
This was comparable to the feedback levels in 2015, before the subsequent years of continuous annual increase.
Many town councils and grassroots advisers also gave feedback, saying that there were fewer in-person complaints from residents regarding the matter in 2022.
Sim said this was "very encouraging" and exceeded expectations as AfA and MSO had estimated it would take between three to five years for the public to take and adapt to joss paper burning as a cultural practice.
Public education campaign during 2023 Lunar New Year
She added that AfA plans to continue with the public education campaign come the Lunar New Year in 2023, where there will be another small peak in joss paper burning.
They will also look into issues, such as the commemoration of the Jade Emperor’s birthday, Bai Ti Gong, during that period and focus on tackling the perennial concern of individuals who prefer to burn joss paper along the HDB common corridors.
Top image by Rachel Ng