Noises of a modern city

Remembering the azan in Singapore

View of Masjid Sultan (Sultan Mosque) from Jalan Pinang, Singapore.

I was walking along Rocher Canal a few evenings ago and heard the azan from one of the mosques nearby, probably either Masjid Malabar or Masjid Sultan. I’ve always loved the music of that call, the intensity of a single soaring voice.

Which is why I think it’s such a pity that the azan is now rarely heard in public in Singapore. I’m not Muslim; for me, it is mainly a loss of music. But I also feel a loss that Muslims in Singapore aren’t able to hear this beautiful call loud and proud, as a regular public expression of their faith.

Why do I miss something I don’t fully understand?

Science has come to Singapore

Excerpt from “NOTES Of The DAY”, The Straits Times, 24 November 1937

“Science has come to Singapore,” declared The Straits Times in 1937 — “the mosques have been wired for sound.”

Excerpt from “Loudspeakers In Singapore Mosque”, The Straits Times, 29 December 1936

This referred to the 1936 installation of a powerful sound system able to broadcast the azan from Masjid Sultan, “audible more than a mile away”. This technology was so new, and residents so up-to-date, that Singapore was “the first city to try the experiment”.

“In future it will be possible to address congregations of between 4,000 to 5,000 people with a good margin of power still in hand,” the writer added in bold, describing the microphones connected by 600 feet of cable to directional-type speakers inside the mosque and external speakers on two of the four minarets.

This sound system was a gift from a “well-known member of the Mohammedan community in Singapore” — unnamed in the article but no doubt famous within the community — and it was such big news that even the person who planned and supervised the installation was mentioned: Mr F. Grainger-Brown, Singapore manager of the radio and valve department of the General Electric Co. Ltd. of England.

The 1936 Straits Times article mentions some nay-sayers, who believed that this electric amplifying system was “incongruous with the romantic conception of the holy cities of the East”. But, much like Singapore today, the residents in the 1930s were won over by this new technology in town. The article concludes:

“The majority believe that the noises of modern city demand an accompanying increase in the power of the muezzin’s voice.”

Five years later, the loudspeakers continued to be a booming success. In 1941, an article in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser describes the evening scene at Masjid Sultan during Ramadan:

“Then suddenly the crescent and star atop the dome over the entrance flash into light. The gun goes off with a tremendous reverberating boom, and an instant later, the crescent and star on the dome are also lit up. The sound of the muezzin is heard from one of the minarets, calling the faithful to prayer, his chanting voice amplified a hundred times by loudspeakers fitted five years ago to each tower. The call, insistent, strong, can be heard more than a mile away by means of the loudspeakers, though sometimes their atmospheric crackling spoils its beauty.”

Reducing noise levels

The English-language press* does not mention the azan loudspeakers again till the 1970s — this time, after a bureaucratic clampdown on noise.

In 1974, The Straits Times reported that Social Affairs Minister Mr Othman Wok criticised two groups (the Singapore Muslim Action Front and the Singapore Muslim Assembly) for “exploiting religious issues to create unrest” and conducting a “smear campaign against the Government”.

The groups had submitted petitions to the government and distributed copies of the petition to the public and foreign delegates at the Islamic Foreign Ministers’ Conference in Kuala Lumpur. Among their criticisms was the claim that “Muslims were the only group affected by the policy on noise abatement”. (Note: The petition was not published in the papers, and I have not read it, so I can only say this was Mr Othman Wok’s characterisation of their petition.)

This was not true, insisted Mr Othman. “Any measures proposed will affect not only mosques but Chinese wayangs and temples, sing-song shows, Indian temples, Sikh gurdawaras, churches and all sources of noise in the community.” Acknowledging that the use of loudspeakers for the azan was “a relatively debatable issue”, he added:

“The Mufti recently held discussions with the Management Committees of 68 mosques to consult them on how best to co-operate with the Government to reduce noise from loudspeakers. … Some suggested that loudspeakers which are presently installed outside of the mosque premises be re-installed within the premises; others felt that the loudspeakers should be left as they are, but the volume be reduced. You can therefore see how some unscrupulous people can distort the facts by making mischievous statements to the effect that the Government is banning the Azan.”

Were the groups genuinely worried that the government was going to ban the azan? Or were they really just “bent on exploiting religious issues to create unrest”? How widespread were these fears?

In the end, it was true that the government did not ban the azan — though the tensions continued. Four years later, in a 1978 article titled “Noise levels and the tensions of urban living”, The Straits Times reports an exchange between then-Acting Social Affairs Minister Dr Ahmad Mattar and his fellow Muslim Parliamentarian Haji Sha’ari Bin Tadin, then-MP for Bedok.

Mr Haji Sha’ari Tadin had asked Dr Mattar to explain the recent action taken by Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS), in fixing sound attenuators to amplifiers used in mosques.

Echoing Mr Othman, Dr Mattar said: “The government’s policy on sound amplification affected not only mosques, but also Chinese wayangs, Hindu temples, churches and all public gatherings where sound amplification systems were used.”

He appealed for understanding, pointing to scientific research, the need for harmony, and efforts by MUIS and his ministry.

“Amplifiers used at such places were to be fitted with sound attenuators by the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research. … Research had shown that there was a direct relationship between growing tension and noise level of urban living. … Officials from the MUIS and [my] ministry had been testing different levels of sound amplification for the Azan (the call to prayer) and decided that an acceptable sound level was 60 dBA measured from a distance of 10 metres from the sound sources. Tests of this sound level could be heard clearly from a distance of 100 metres from the mosque.
Since Aug 15 last year, [my] ministry had arranged for the Azan to be broadcast by Radio Singapore five times a day. This had meant re-starting up the station about an hour earlier than its normal broadcasting time in order to be on the air before the first Azan.”

The full Parliamentary record of 27 February 1978 gives a little more detail. In his answer, Dr Mattar had also referred to this move being a part of the government’s Community Noise Abatement programme aimed at controlling community noise. He added:

“MUIS officials are visiting mosques to explain to Mosque Management Committees the reasons for fixing sound attenuators to control the decibel levels of external loudspeakers of mosques. Almost all mosques have accepted the reasons and have been cooperative. To-date, 61 sound attenuators have been fixed. Sound attenuators are not required for 21 mosques which do not have loudspeakers mounted externally. The exercise has been completed.”

Almost all mosques accepted the reasons and were cooperative. What happened to those who weren’t? And what did Mr Sha’ari Tadin think? There was no reply recorded. And it has never been mentioned in Parliament again.

Removing the azan from public space

Today, the azan remains — broadcast quietly in the mosques, and on radio for those who tune in. It is as good as silent in the public soundscape.

Speaking at the opening of the inaugural Muis International Conference on Muslims in Multicultural Societies in 2010, then-Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong acknowledged another reason for the government’s azan policy.

Describing the “critical contribution made by our Muslim minority” in Singapore, he said:

“Singapore, being a city state, is one of the world’s most densely populated countries. With people living in high-rise apartments and in close proximity, the call of prayer or azan amplified through loudspeakers at mosques during the early dawn or in the evening had to be modified. If not, it would have been an issue with the majority non-Muslims and would make it difficult for them to accept the building of new mosques in their vicinity.

So it seems it was not just because the urban environment was getting increasingly noisy, but because of a numbers game — because “it would have been an issue with the majority non-Muslims”, because it would have been “difficult for the non-Muslims to accept the building of new mosques in their vicinity”.

This is an unsurprising narrative, given what we know of Singapore’s race relations, Chinese dominance and cultural politics today. But were the non-Muslim Singaporeans then really so intolerant of the azan? Was the azan that loud and disruptive?

In 2002, then-Minister of State Dr Yaacob Ibrahim painted a slightly more nuanced picture. In a speech to the NTU Muslim Society, he said:

“At a certain place in Singapore, the Chinese community and the mosque committee have reached such a level of understanding and appreciation that when the mosque changed a particular practice it attracted the attention of the Chinese community. This practice was related to that of calling for prayer. The mosque had to lower the volume and turn the speakers inwards. The Chinese there who were used to the previous practice were surprised. More telling was the different reactions between the members of the long standing Chinese community there and new Chinese homeowners in that area. The former was more tolerant of the mosque’s presence than the latter. But over time with continuous interaction and mingling the mosque and the latter group reached a better level of understanding and appreciation.” (my emphasis)

So it seems the long-standing Chinese community was actually fine with the public azan. And while the new Chinese homeowners were initially less tolerant, over time they reached a better understanding and appreciation. Still, the azan was still removed from public space.

In his speech in 2010, then-Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong described this gradual erasure:

“The changes were made incrementally. First, the loudspeakers were tilted inwards and away from nearby houses, and limits were set on their volume levels. Later, a radio frequency was allocated to allow the call to prayer to be broadcast over the radio. In this way, all Muslims who wished to receive the call to prayer could just tune in to their radio. Over time, the mosques did away with loudspeakers. This showed the pragmatism of our Muslims and their sensitivity to the feelings of non-Muslims.”

If Singapore had taken a different path, we might have had a noisier, more chaotic urban environment where the azan, the temple gongs, and the church bells would intermingle loud and clear.

I have never known that Singapore. My Singapore is pragmatic and sensitive, one of enforced invisibility, reduced risk, minimum noise.


*Disclaimer: I wasn’t able to read any Malay-language coverage on this issue, so I’m sure there are huge gaps in my knowledge. I welcome more information and thoughts on this subject.

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