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Watain: Do unto others?

Like many others, I have never heard of the Swedish band, Watain, until news broke over the weekend about the last-minute cancellation of its concert. I didn’t even know there was such a music genre known as black metal. I only know of “heavy metal”. So the Streisand effect seized me and I went to look for its lyrics. The titles of the albums ticked me. They sounded more like theatrical desperation than Satanic conversion.

So many people have weighed in on the G’s decision to stop the concert on the grounds that it is a band which celebrates devil worship and to have it perform here would be detrimental to social harmony and a threat to security. Online, the reaction is mainly negative. The prevailing view is that the G had succumbed to hysterical moral panic from conservative Christians. The band, after all, would be playing to a small crowd of 150 people, aged 18 and above, and it had agreed to strictures set by the IMDA. You can be sure the lyrics would have been sanitised to be inoffensive and the performance would be sans carcasses and blood.

Obviously, the G could have done better managing the issue. The Home Affairs ministry, which had been consulted about the performance, didn’t seem to have pressed its concerns hard enough with the IMDA before the green light was given. In hindsight, even its boss, Mr K Shanmugam, said he couldn’t see how the band could be allowed to perform given its history. But since the initial go-ahead, it seemed some kind of pressure built up to prevent the performance from happening. Whether it was the 18,000-strong petition, clerics, MPs or “people in the community” Mr Shanmugam said he spoke to, the cumulative effect was that the plug was pulled on the performance – and there were some 150 disappointed people, including foreigners, and an event organiser left holding the can.

So it is not the performance Wattain was to give, but the band itself that was the problem. It’s a persona non grata.

There is a point, however, Mr Shanmugam made that doesn’t seem to gained traction – he talked about being even-handed in the way religious groups are treated.

This is what he said: “The Christian preachers, when they talk to me, say ‘you are very, very strict when it comes to anti-Muslim, anti-Islamic messages…They said: ‘What these people are saying is far worse, it is a hundred times worse about Christianity – how come you would allow that? They said: ‘You treat the Muslim community differently than the Christian community.’ I looked at it and I thought that there is some truth to what they say, I won’t say that it is completely true but it is an approach.”

I am a Catholic and that above statement resonated with me. I don’t think we can deny that we treat the sensitivities of the Muslim community very seriously. It’s not just here but the world over. I have yet to hear of an anti-Islamic band or entertainer in existence. Please tell me if I am wrong. The French publishers of Charlie Hebdo which depicted the Prophet Mohamad in a bad light in its magazine found out in 2015 what sort of fiery blowback there could be.

But Christianity has become some kind of convenient patsy, with books, art, movies and bands that denigrate or poke fun at its history, icons or rituals. I suppose Christians are less affected by such slights, whether artistic or not, and wouldn’t erupt into violence nor start picketing performances. (Hey, they’ll probably need a police permit here!) I’ll stick my neck out and say that they are probably feeling more defensive now, as more and more sexual abuses by Catholic priests come to light.

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Over the years, we’ve seen shades of Christian activism at work, whether over Harry Potter books, Dungeons and Dragons game, Pink Dot, homosexual penguins in the National Library, the temporary takeover of feminist organisation Aware, or getting gay performer Adam Lambert to front New Year celebrations. We’ve also heard what they said about the Disneyland decorations for Orchard Road during Christmas time.

I can only surmise that their grievances have reached a point when the G must act – even on the entertainment and cultural front. Already, the G is tough on errant preachers, foreign and local, of any religion, who seek to demonise other communities. They’ve been given the boot. In fact, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act is set to be amended.  I worry that rather than cementing the distance between Church and State, the State would presume to act on behalf of society to police the activities of religious leaders. Already, sermons at mosque are vetted by the Islamic Religious Authority.

What about the arts and entertainment? In a letter to ST, an IMDA spokesman said that in assessing and classifying content for arts performances and concerts, “IMDA aims to protect the young from unsuitable content, maintain community norms and values, and safeguard public interest, while enabling adults to make informed choices”. It seems that the “sanitised” Wattain concert checked all the boxes. However, while we can argue about whether the State should be policing morals, who can argue against the need to uphold law and order, security concerns and the maintenance of social harmony? Should we expect the G to lay down all the evidence of threats? It would be break from the norm. (We can’t even know who hacked the SingHealth database.)

This is a problem we have in Singapore. Any group which pursues an agenda needs officialdom on its side. That’s what we’re used to, wanting officialdom to take the lead. In freer communities, the band would probably be allowed to perform and detractors allowed to protest. Yes, it’s untidy and divisive. It’s something we don’t like.

The only way out is for the G – and its agencies – to agree on where the boundaries are so that they can nip problems in the bud. In this case, to decide early enough not to let Watain play. But that would mean closed door discussions away from the public eye with the public clueless about the protective/paternalistic net that has been cast over it. That’s not good either.

I think Mr Shanmugam would do better to say that the G made a mistake, apologise to the fans, make reparations  to the event organiser and say it would never happen again.

But then, we’d be deprived of much needed civic discussion then, won’t we?



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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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