SINGAPORE: Last month’s Watain concert was cancelled at the last minute after many Christians offered feedback following its initial approval, said Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam in his ministerial statement on hate speech in Parliament on Monday (Apr 1).
The Swedish metal band had been scheduled to perform at the EBX Live Space along Pereira Road on Mar 7, but the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced just hours before that it was scrapping the gig following security concerns raised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
Breaking down the sequence of events that led to the cancellation, Mr Shanmugam said that IMDA first received the application from the show’s organiser in December 2018.
READ: Restrictions needed on offensive speech as it creates conditions for discrimination, says Shanmugam
MHA was informed of the application and after considering it, told IMDA that it objected to the concert.
IMDA then requested a reconsideration of MHA’s position, proposing its detailed licensing conditions and requirements for the concert, including that it would be classified R18, potentially sensitive songs would be removed, there would be no use of religious symbols as well as references to religion in the band’s on-stage dialogue, and that the content would not denigrate any faith or promote violence in any way.
“MHA then informed IMDA that while it was still concerned, it would leave it to IMDA to decide on issuing such a restricted licence,” said Mr Shanmugam, adding that the licence was then issued on Mar 5.
But two days later, MHA asked IMDA to consider cancelling the concert and the latter agreed.
The initial assessment was that it would be acceptable if Watain did not perform offensively in Singapore, said Shanmugam. But in the days after the licence was issued, “MHA received reports of mainstream Christians being offended,” he added.
The minister said his officers then met with Christian leaders as well as leaders of other religions, and also received feedback from Members of Parliament, both Christian and non-Christian.
“Given that many Christians felt this was deeply offensive, denigrating, MHA advised IMDA to cancel. It was my decision that MHA should so advise IMDA,” said Mr Shanmugam.
"My officers and I took into account the reaction of the Christian community ... and the broader security implications of that reaction, both in the medium and longer term," he added.
Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that the reality of the matter “turned out to be different” from the initial assessment.
“The band comes from a largely Christian country … With the restrictions imposed, (we) assessed that the concert should be alright. Our assessment was different from what actually transpired,” he said.
The minister then explained why Watain’s material could offend Christians to the point that they did not want the band to perform in Singapore under any condition.
“Because of what Watain stood for, its philosophy,” he said, before presenting a quote attributed to the band’s frontman Erik Danielsson, which read: “Movement by default has potential to attract fanatical people with relatively extreme and controversial ideas, that much has been clear since the beginning.
“Anyone who believes that is wrong or strange has a very naïve conception of Black Metal.
“I would have hated to see Black Metal become a political movement where the lawlessness, violence, crime, madness would have been motivated by anything else than the love for the Devil and the primal urge to express it.”
“So he knows that his music attracts fanatics with extreme ideas,” said Mr Shanmugam. “He is aware of the lawnessness, violence, crime, madness that can follow.”
Mr Shanmugam also shared Mr Danielsson’s views on Christians, namely the quote: “I wish we could have a little more daring opponents and enemies. All of our enemies are Christian sheep who don’t dare to confront their enemy. We go about doing our thing, pissing in their living rooms while they sit still and watch their TV shows.”
Finally, Mr Shanmugam shared Mr Danielsson’s response when asked whether he was concerned that a fan would misunderstand the material and “go and start shooting in a mall".
“That wouldn’t be a misunderstanding, that would be taking things in the very right way and I totally encourage any kind of terrorist acts committed in the name of Watain, absolutely, that’s the way rock and roll works,” Mr Danielsson was quoted as saying in an interview.
Mr Danielsson was also reported to have said that he had “always been encouraging music to take a physical form”, citing the church burnings in Norway in the early 1990s. “To me it’s the very natural consequences of rock and roll, in the end, being the Devil’s music,” he said.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST GOVERNMENT’S APPROACH
Mr Shanmugam said he recognised that some Singaporeans disagree with the Government.
“They say that the Government is being self-righteous in trying to govern other people’s lives and decisions, that the audience can listen to metal music without being influenced by a band’s beliefs and that NCCS and churches can advise their members not to go to the concert. No need for a ban,” he said.
“Seen in isolation, these are valid points. The argument in essence is ‘why should I not listen to what I want to?’ ‘Why should you, the Government or the Church, tell me what I can or cannot listen to?'
“However, the reality, as we have seen, is not so simple,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam said the issue was not about the Government telling its citizens what music to listen to, but whether Watain should be given licence to perform publicly in Singapore.
“The government has the responsibility to not just the individuals who like Watain’s music, but also the majority of Singaporeans who would be offended,” said the minister.
“And it is not just one Watain concert. If we allowed Watain, we will have to allow other such concerts. Then what about performance arts, drama or other visual performances?" he said.
Mr Shanmugam also asked if those unhappy with the ban of Watain would be willing to accept the consequences of their position - that over time, the fault lines of race and religion would be greater and that hate speech could become normalised.
The minister also cited such forms of entertainment as Malay Power music, which “calls for an end of immigration to Malaysia and for non-Malays to be expelled from the country”.
“If we allowed Watain, do we also allow Malay Power music?” he asked, adding that while Chinese Power music did not exist, it could.
Mr Shanmugam also cited French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a Danish publication that ran cartoons titled The Face of Muhammad in 2005. The former’s office came under a deadly attack in 2015, while the latter led to Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria being set on fire.
“If you put it in these terms and that you accept the consequences, you will be in a small minority. I don’t think many Singaporeans will support such a position,” he said.
“NO VALUE JUDGEMENT” ON BLACK METAL MUSIC: SUN XUELING
In banning the Watain concert, the Government was not making a value judgement on black metal music, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs Sun Xueling also said in Parliament.
Speaking during the debate on Mr Shanmugam’s motion, she explained the fact of the matter is that MHA was principally concerned about the words and the message that were being put out by the band, and the feelings, in this case, from the mainstream Christian community.
“It was not a value judgement on the genre of music,” she said, even as she outlined several learning points from the episode.
For one, she said, Government agencies need to explain to the public that they are not making a value judgement on the art form.
Agencies also need to be seen to be acting even-handedly towards different racial and religious groups, she added.
“Minister Shanmugam has shared that bans on religious preachers in the past have been imposed on religious preachers across different religions,” she said. “This even–handed approach is a point that is important to various racial and religious groups, and needs to be repeated often.”
Ms Sun also stressed the need to look at processes and see how a repeat of the Watain episode can be avoided.
She pointed out that while a judgement call has to be made on whether music and performances harm racial and religious harmony, such judgement calls should take place as early as possible to minimise confusion to arts practitioners.
Such a move will also minimise the misunderstanding that the Government makes decisions based on pressure from religious groups.