Police investigate CHIJMES 'Chapel Party'

[UPDATE: 5 April at 10:15am: adding statements from Archbishop and MHA]

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has said that the police are currently investigating the now-cancelled "Escape Chapel Party".

In a statement released on Wednesday evening, the ministry said that if the party had been carried out as originally publicised, organisers Creative Insurgence could have breached one of the conditions of its licence to use the CHIJMES Chapel and be liable for sanction, in addition to its licence being revoked.

"There is no excuse for breaking the law, or for insulting or denigrating any racial group or religion in Singapore," a spokesperson for the ministry said. "MHA does not condone any behaviour that denigrates any religion in Singapore."

Archbishop Nicholas Chia, who leads the Catholic church here, on Wednesday also accepted an apology from the company, saying the incident is a reminder of "the need for mutual respect for all religions in our multi-religious country".

Said Creative Insurgence director Aaghir Yadav, "We've used this opportunity to express how deeply remorseful we are for all the upset we've caused to the Catholic community in the days leading up to their most holy of weekends.

"We never intended to offend or mock the Catholic faith and chapel - and are very sorry for the poor judgement we've displayed in our marketing decisions," he added.

In a letter of apology submitted to the Archbishop, Yadav added that they "understand the hurt our actions have caused".

After the venue, timing and promotional material for the party sparked adverse response from several Catholics and other Singaporeans online earlier this week, the company managing CHIJMES, Perennial Retail Management, intervened on Monday to call the party off, before Archbishop Chia called for its cancellation on the same day.

Through its lawyers, the company informed Watabe Weddings, its tenant who runs the chapel space, that they should "take steps to immediately stop the event".

Creative Insurgence later posted a statement on its Facebook wall, which said, "It has come to our attention that Perennial (Singapore) Retail Management Pte Ltd, the landlords for Chijmes has intervened to immediately stop the event planned for Saturday."

"Therefore, despite our best intentions to move forward - after having apologised for unintentionally offending the Catholic community - and to carry on with an event that aimed to showcase the sounds of one of UK's most popular recording labels and super-clubs, we will have to cancel the event."

"We would like to reiterate that we used no religious symbolism in any of our marketing and promotional materials and had no intention to cause any upset."

Publicity for the event commenced last week, and a description on its Facebook event page and website marketed the party as a “sacrilegious night of partying”.

The event was also headlined with a picture of a model dressed in a nun’s habit and a party dress, alongside other pictures of girls dressed in similar habits ending in short skirts. The pictures were captioned “A sneak peak [sic] at what some of our girls will be wearing on the 7th of April”. The publicity photos were removed and the event page was deleted by Wednesday morning.

Catholics who spoke to Yahoo! Singapore on Monday said they found the pictures of the girls in nuns’ costumes offensive and in bad taste, with several filing reports with the police and various ministries, including the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports as well as the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

Law undergraduate Jean Seah was among the first to submit a report to the police and the MHA. In the complaint she submitted, she said she was “appalled and deeply disappointed” at the existence of the event.

She explained that the event not only insulted the church’s religious orders with its provocative nun costumes, it also made a mockery of the venue it would be located at — the CHIJMES chapel is located across the road from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic church where Singapore’s archbishop, Nicholas Chia, is based.

She also said that the 7th of April happens to fall on the eve of Easter Sunday, the most important event on the Catholic church’s calendar, which adds further insult to injury.

“What really gets my goat is them trying to profiteer off making something sacred into something so offensive and crass,” she said. “Freedom to hold a function in such a sacred place comes with the responsibility of using it with respect,” she added.

24-year-old Nicole James, a consultant, added she spotted girls walking around Raffles Place in similar costumes over lunchtime last Friday, presumably to promote the event.

“I was shocked and offended that they were allowed to walk around in such an offensive costume,” she said.

Political science student Benedict Chen noted that no action was taken after a previous incident occurred in Filter Members’ Club, where the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) logo was associated with “one night stands”, alongside that of the Anglo-Chinese School.

“I feel it is getting out of hand because it seems like people look at Christianity as a fair target,” he said. “If the government doesn’t take action on these people, it will seem as though Roman Catholicism is not being protected by the law.”

When contacted by Yahoo! Singapore, Archbishop Nicholas Chia, who heads the Catholic church in Singapore, called for the organisers to cancel the event entirely.

“Such an event is scandalous to the Church, and should not be held in the chapel,” he said.

Chia added that the organisers, Creative Insurgence, have apologised to the archdiocese for “upsetting” the Catholic community, however, and later removed the promotional material — which consisted of the pictures of girls in nun costumes, as well as its description of the event as “sacrilegious”.

Responding to Yahoo! Singapore’s queries on Monday, director at Creative Insurgence Aaghir Yadav said the party was actually intended to occur earlier this year, over the Chinese New Year weekend, but was postponed to the next public holiday weekend, which happened to be Good Friday.

“The overlap with Easter weekend was not intended to be offensive. We have since been in touch with the Archbishop’s office to explain our position and have apologised for offending anyone unintentionally,” he said.

He added the main concept of the party was to help UK-based club brand Escape gauge the viability of setting up a franchise club here.

He also maintained that the party has no theme, but is instead focused on the music of the Welsh label, saying that the fact that it would be held in a chapel led them to follow the theme in some of its promotional material.

“We would like to clarify that the images contained no religious symbolism,” Yadav added, saying he realised that his image of two of his friends in nun-inspired Cosplay costumes had “unintentionally upset some people”, hence the decision to remove it.

“This also applied to teasers that said nuns will be at the party — we meant the secularised, costume version that contains no religious symbolism. However, in light of these sensitivities we will not be doing this as well,” he said.

Yadav reiterated that the agency’s actions were “certainly not intended to be offensive”, also saying that they will no longer be having “costumed nuns” at their party, and will be advising its attendees to avoid dressing up in religious-themed costumes as well.

Seditious act?

As police investigate the details of the agency’s publicity material, which some Catholics said have violated Singapore’s Sedition Act, assistant law professor Jack Lee said there does seem to be legitimacy to their claim, although noting that the tendency of people to make police reports over such matters is “not a healthy trend”.

“The advertisement technically falls within the definition of uttering seditious words or publishing a seditious publication since a seditious tendency is defined as one that ‘raise[s] discontent… among the citizens of Singapore or the residents in Singapore’,” he said, adding that once it is proven that the material in question has a seditious tendency, the intention behind its creation, whether deliberate or careless, is no longer relevant.

However, he said the measures taken by the agency should be a sufficient response to expressed public sentiment, as their actions seemed more to be done in thoughtlessness rather than to have calculated intent to insult the Catholic or wider Christian community here.

“People have already expressed their unhappiness with the advertisement online and the organisers have apologised, so it doesn’t seem necessary for this issue to be blown out of proportion,” he said.

‘A moment of folly’

Others also called for calm following the backlash that ensued online, saying that the agency has already responded to the complaints from members of the public.

21-year-old Kevin Chan acknowledged such an event would compromise Singaporeans’ freedom, but pointed out that the authorities “have intervened early enough”.

“Clearly, this was just a moment of folly on the part of the organisers, and since the necessary action has been taken, and the organisers know their boundaries, there isn’t much need to pursue the matter any further,” he said. “We as Catholics are taught to forgive, aren’t we? Let’s let the matter rest.”

A 57-year-old Catholic teacher, who declined to be named, also pointed out that the CHIJMES chapel had already previously been de-consecrated, and so other secular events could appropriately be held there.

She disagreed with the agency’s promotional strategy, saying, “I don’t think people who use CHIJMES for secular events should make references to what the chapel was used for.”

The former student at CHIJ Victoria Street added that this was likely a lesson learnt for the event’s organisers, noting also the need for people to be more tolerant to such situations.

“I think we need to be more understanding as a multi-religious society. Some people make mistakes, but as long as they show that they have reacted to adverse criticism, then it’s okay with me,” she said.

Non-Catholic Singaporeans whom Yahoo! Singapore spoke to reflected divided opinions on the issue as well, with some agreeing with the Catholics who were offended, and others saying that the party should go on.

"I think it's insulting, and the theme should be changed clearly, or the event cancelled altogether," said 25-year-old Sufiyan Sulaiman, a final-year university student.

Free-thinker Cheong Wei Ming acknowledged the tactlessness behind the organisers' initial conceptualisation of the event, but lauded their remedial actions.

"It was well-meaning of them to apologise as promptly as they did, and we should allow the event to go on with their proposed remedies," he said.