Art should be celebrated, not banned

8 Apr 2019

By Edwin Chan

Lifestyle Editor


On 7 Mar, Swedish metal band Watain was banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) from performing in Singapore, just hours before their scheduled show. The cancellation sparked anger online, with many netizens questioning if the government was prejudiced towards heavy metal music.

Ironically, weeks before, several forum letters had been submitted to The Straits Times questioning why the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) had allowed the concert to proceed in the first place, given the violent and religiously offensive content of the band’s music.

Subsequently, the statutory board published a statement saying that it consulted with the MHA prior to the concert and a decision was made to allow the concert to proceed, under the condition that it had a rating of Restricted 18.

But on the day of the concert, the IMDA decided to cancel the concert, citing reasons such as the “band's history of denigrating religions and promoting violence, which has potential to cause enmity and disrupt Singapore's social harmony”.

The decision to implement this ban can have repercussions on several levels. On a societal level, it could result in strains in our social fabric, especially among groups with differing beliefs and faiths. Some people might feel like there is preferential treatment for particular groups, such as those that have more conservative values.

In the long term, should we resort to the frequent banning of materials, it can cause a decline in Singapore’s art culture.

Minority voices in secular Singapore

The last minute ban sparked intense conversations online about censorship versus a complete ban of the concert.

Many netizens speculated that an online petition started by a “Rachel Chan” a day prior to the concert prompted the MHA to consider their decision to ban the show; the petition gathered more than 16,000 signatures. Chan said that she started the petition as she believes that Watain songs are satanic and do not honour Jesus Christ.

But the irony is that the attempt to prevent people from consuming controversial content only resulted in more people knowing about it.

What was once a small-scale concert of 150 people to be held at a corner of an industrial estate at Paya Lebar has become the talk of the town. The band’s Spotify page now shows that it has over 4,000 monthly listeners in Singapore, the highest number from any country.

The move to ban Watain’s performance over the lyrics of their songs could potentially lead to societal strains. For a vocal minority to air their displeasure towards Watain due to religious reasons and eventually succeeding in banning the concert challenges the notion that Singapore is a secular nation.

Others who share a different faith might feel that a particular group’s views are more valued than theirs and this misunderstanding could lead to resentment.

People who want to promote their religious beliefs may push for a ban in other genres of music or art. As a result, we might no longer be allowed to enjoy art forms such as comics by Joan Cornella, which usually consists of dark humour and phallic symbols, and lighthearted racial jokes by popular stand-up comedian Russell Peters.

These unconventional art forms are important to our society as they bring about several benefits.

In a Straits Times article published in March 2017, Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun said that these types of content “represent adventure, exploration” and “offer new ways of seeing”. He also believes that unconventional art “brings new knowledge, understanding and change”. If we continue this trend of a minority group wanting to ban art, we could lose the liberty to consume such materials.

Furthermore, a strict control of art could lead to a decline in our local arts scene. In line with Singapore’s attempts to strengthen the arts scene in recent years, there is a need for us to celebrate art instead and allow people to exercise their own judgement.

Growing the arts scene encourages creativity and allows people to explore their passions. Some of the values and skills attained from the arts cannot be taught formally in classrooms.

Also, a strong and flourishing arts scene can in turn create stable jobs for artists. To facilitate this growth, we can start by allowing the consumption of various art forms with little restriction.

Enjoying art purely for its content

While some music or art form may contain controversial or darker themes, I believe one can still enjoy the product without being influenced by the content of the art or the beliefs of the artists. These themes need not necessarily reflect a lack of values or ethics in their creators.

Famous rock band Guns N’ Roses wrote Mr Brownstone, a song alluding to their heavy use of the heroin drug. On top of that, most members of the band were former drug and alcohol abusers, and have written many songs about their lifestyle.

Yet, the band is known to be charitable, contributing a portion of their proceeds from their Hawaii show in 2018 to to benefit the Andy Irons Foundation, an organisation that plans programmes to help youths with mental illness, substance abuse, and learning disabilities among youths.

Similarly, when Gal Gadot landed the movie role of Wonder Woman, it did not sit well with some Palestinians due to her former career in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They found it ironic that Gadot is presented as a heroine despite being part of a force that is responsible for the deaths of many of their own in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, I strongly believe that one should be able to enjoy the movie without having to subscribe to her set of personal beliefs. It is the responsibility of every individual to discern between the content of a craft and the artist’s belief system. To say that one would pick up the behaviour of the artist through their art might be rather far-fetched.

It is worrying if we continue to place the power in the hands of the vocal minority to influence the arts based on their own perception of the content. More often than not, the lyrics and themes of songs are not literal. The misunderstanding of any art by the vocal minority is unfair to those who can appreciate the nuances in them.

Ms Linda Ong, a member of home-grown metal band Lunarin, shared with The Straits Times in an article published on 10 Mar that “art is never to be taken at face value and there is so much subtext and nuance when one studies and appreciates it”.

In the same article by The Straits Times, Mr Ross Knudson, the co-owner of show promoter LAMC Productions, said that the ban will affect the music market because niche and underground gigs cater to fans who like acts that are less mainstream.

Fans who appreciate the nuances and artistic expressions of such music will now have less opportunity to enjoy these performances in Singapore.

To ban or not to ban

There is a grey area in drawing the line when it comes to banning art.

Despite the organisers and Watain promising to have "no denigrating of any faith" nor any promotion of "cult practices" at the show, these promises did not seem to have been considered by the MHA as it went ahead with the ban. The move to ban Watain could open the floodgates to many more of such similar decisions.

An example of how censorship would be more apt compared to a ban would be the case of Miss Universe 2018.

In the Singapore re-telecast of the programme, a particular statement by Miss Philippines Catriona Gray supporting the moderate use of marijuana was censored. Even though our nation takes a strict stance on drugs, viewers were not denied of watching the entire beauty pageant just because of one statement.

Censorship can sometimes be necessary to prevent people, especially impressionable youths, from picking up bad habits or behaviour. However, viewers should ultimately be the ones to decide what content is suitable for themselves based on the recommended IMDA ratings. An excessive control over art through bans could result in a decline of our arts scene and culture.