Even though the Watain concert was initially granted a restricted license, it was eventually cancelled as many Christians found the band “deeply offensive and denigrating”, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on Monday (1 April).
While delivering a 90-minute Ministerial Statement on restricting hate speech to maintain racial and religious harmony, Shanmugam addressed the cancellation of the Swedish black metal band’s concert. He noted that Christian leaders whom his ministry consulted did not want the concert to go ahead under any circumstances because of what Watain stands for.
“So when we concluded that this was the mainstream view, widespread and assessed the consequent security issues, we decided the concert had to be cancelled,” said the 59-year-old. “It’s not just about the reaction of the Christian community, but the wider security implications of that reaction.”
Controversy erupted when Watain’s concert at the Ebenex Live Space on 7 March was cancelled on the day of the performance due to “security concerns” raised by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). It followed a petition raised on the Change.org website the day before, calling for Watain and Swedish death metal band Soilwork to be banned from performing in Singapore.
The petition garnered more than 17,000 signatures. Shanmugam also noted in an interview that the band’s music is “very offensive towards Christians, Jews, supportive of violence, including encouraging the burning of churches.”
Why did the concert go ahead initially?
The minister revealed that the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) received an application from the Watain concert organiser at the end of December 2018. While MHA registered its objection to the concert, IMDA proposed that the concert go ahead under “detailed licensing conditions and requirements”.
These included an R(18) classification, removal of potentially sensitive songs, no religious symbols used during the event, and the concert should not denigrate any faith or promote any cult practice, nor advocate or promote violence in any way. The decision was then left to IMDA, which issued a restricted license on 5 March.
“The initial assessment was that if the band did not perform offensively in Singapore, that should be acceptable. We thought that if we imposed conditions, and there were only 200 people there, that would strike an appropriate balance” said Shanmugam. He also conceded, “It was a judgement call…so when you make assessments, the reality can sometimes turn out to be different.”
Also on 5 March, MHA then received reports of mainstream Christians being “very concerned, offended”. Following consultations with Christian leaders and leaders of other religions, as well as Members of Parliament, MHA advised IMDA to cancel.
“It was my decision that MHA should so advise IMDA,” said Shanmugam.
Citing a subsequent Reach survey, the minister asserted that the assessment of public sentiment turned out to be correct. Of the respondents who were aware of the cancellation, 64 per cent (Christian and non-Christian) agreed with the decision.
About 86 per cent of respondents who were Christians affirmed the decision, as did 70 per cent of Buddhist and Muslim respondents. Conversely, 28 per cent thought it should not have been cancelled.
Shanmugam also recognised that not all Singaporeans agreed with the government’s decision, with some saying that churches and the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCSS) could simply advise their members not to attend the concert.
He said, “The argument in essence is: why should I not listen to what I want to? Why should you or the government or the church tell me what I can listen to and what I can’t listen to?”
But he stressed that the government has a responsibility not just to the individuals who like the music, but also the majority of Singaporeans who would be offended. “And it’s not just one Watain concert. If we allowed this concert, we will have to allow other such concerts..then what about political and religious discourse?
“The question then would be: do you agree with the evidence that hate speech, hate music can cause deep splits, divisions within society? That it can normalise hateful sentiments, allow discrimination Will they accept that over time, the fault lines of race and religion will be greater?”