MARCH 20 — Last Friday, I made my way to the Holy Tree Balasubramanian Temple to take part in the annual Panguni festival.

It’s a simple ceremony: you collect a pail of milk and hold it above your head as you walk (these days, just around the perimeter of the temple).

Once you’ve completed the round, you hand the milk over to the temple priests who are standing by a statue of the main deity. They then pour the milk over the statue and this constitutes an offering to the gods.

I enjoy attending these ceremonies because I feel I am participating in the community and in a part of the history of Singapore.


The temple dates from the 1960s but the Panguni festival has been celebrated here for longer. Before the Balasubramanian Temple, it was celebrated in the small jungle shrines that dotted what were forested areas in the north of Singapore.

Since the 19th century — the dawn of modern Singapore — people have gathered to receive blessings in this way.

It’s never been a particularly big festival, unlike the more famous Thaipusam and Chingay parades which are known across the country. This is a local festival.


Attracting a few hundred or perhaps a thousand people usually from the northern suburbs, this sort of local festival is the bread and butter of local culture.

It’s what makes Singapore real, not just a business centre or successful port — these are the little rituals and acts of connection to the past and our ancestors that tie us to this land.

No foreigners or tourists really frequent the event. Even expatriate Indians living in Singapore haven’t really heard of this temple out in Sembawang.

So, at this sort of festival, you see the core local community — people whose parents grew up in the area.

I remember attending the Panguni festival as a child and it was exciting. Colourful and a little chaotic.

A highlight was the fact that you got to see kids from the other schools; a lot of the boys from the local Tamil community, at least the ones who attended school in the north would turn up.

Of course, as you grow up you find other ways to meet boys and other ways to fill your time that don’t have anything to do with temples and festivals.

For many years, I did not attend but this year a good friend told me she was attending, and I told her I was keen to participate.

In these days of Covid-19 so many of these little local traditions are under threat as people stay away — not willing to contend with social distancing measures and used to doing everything on Zoom.

How many people take the time to attend ceremonies like these? So, I put on a yellow salwar kameez and joined my friend on a pleasantly cool and breezy morning.

And I was pleased to find the event lively and well attended. There was a reasonable queue outside — a few hundred people perhaps.

My mother saw many of her community friends though I have to say my generation was rather absent — leaving questions about the future of the ceremony still open.

Honestly there’s a long distance between simply attending a festival and working to understand and preserve it.

If these traditions are to carry on, people of my age and generation will have to step up to run them and support them as the older generation won’t be able to do the heavy lifting for much longer.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.