From ‘Restrict incense burning to places of worship’, 15 June 2015, ST Forum
(Madam Wah Yan Chan): I AGREE with Mr Mckeena Neo (“Common corridors not the place for burning incense paper”; June 2). While our forefathers may have burnt joss paper and incense sticks as a sign of devotion, they probably did so without knowing that such burning produces a cocktail of harmful carcinogens that may cause conditions such as asthma and, in the long term, can lead to life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer.
Causing inconvenience and harm to others should never be justified on the bases of religion and tradition. Surely Singapore should have a law prohibiting the burning of incense and joss paper in common areas and restricting the practice to designated places of worship.
There are regulations in the Environmental Public Health Act that stipulate how many joss sticks and candles with specific dimensions may be burnt in premises such as an ‘enclosed space’ or a temple. When burning cancerous joss paper, however, the public is merely advised to use burning pits and containers provided by town councils and clean up their mess after satisfying the gods, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it just outside your HDB flat. The writer above is clearly convinced that burning joss paper increases one’s risk of cancer and should be banned from public areas. The problem is she’s somehow OK with people getting cancer in ‘designated places of worship’.
Whether or not joss paper has the same risk as cigarette smoke is up for debate, since I believe no one has done extensive epidemiological studies on joss paper as we have for tobacco. What is certain, however, is joss paper is a potential fire hazard, especially if people are appeasing their ancestors near a PETROL STATION. Even burning them in bins as recommended by the authorities may lead to explosions in your FACE if there’s a stray aerosol can lying within. In 1976, a blaze ripped through a Jalan Ubi village, rendering 16 locals homeless. It started when burning joss paper flew into a mattress factory. If only the Fire department had SPRUNG into action faster then.
You may think we’re relatively safe because we don’t live in attap houses anymore, but God help you if a stray hot ash lands on your curtain. You could say a lit cigarette may cause hell on Earth as well, but the trajectory of burning ash in the wind is more unpredictable, and it’s harder to catch the culprit because it could have blown in from anywhere. It could be a little girl behind it following her parents’ instructions to send money to Grandma’s account in the Netherworld. Do we, then, need to wait for someone to perish from a freak joss paper fire, not to mention asthma or lung cancer, before we do something?
Curbing a religious practice may have, well, inflammatory repercussions, and may explain why the authorities are slow to crack down on joss paper burning, even doing little to stop worshippers from aggravating the haze and pissing off asthmatics some years back. Interestingly, one of the stories behind how joss paper was invented involves a con-job by a paper inventor Cai Lun, who tried to boost paper sales by faking his own death and getting his wife to bribe the King of Hell to return his soul through joss offerings. Today, it has morphed into a custom of filial piety and endearing superstition, though one incompatible with our bid for a ‘clean and green’ future. Then again, we’re still seeing ever more cars on the road, trees being cut down to be replaced by condos and people continuing to smoke like chimneys because the government has banned all ‘smokeless’ tobacco products. At least the burning of joss paper, for all its environmental damage, is a small price to pay if it stops ghosts, demons and the evil dead from popping out of hell portals in what’s left of Bukit Brown and haunting the shit out of us all.
I forsee the practice dying out by the next generation anyway, provided we all don’t die of joss-induced cancer, asthma or in a fiery inferno anytime soon.