WATAIN: The Satanic Panic of our Church & State

Looking back, the choice to ban the concert seems like an odd one indeed.

It seems quite unnecessary since Watain (or any potentially unruly fans) can be prosecuted under the law should they publicly incite any violence against Christians while in Singapore. So it seems like the authorities were taking this step solely as a pre-emptive measure – just in case the concert leads to social unrest.

But if we go by this reasoning, why allow Watain to step into Singapore in the first place? After all, they don’t have to be performing music to spread anti-Christian sentiment (if they really wanted to). And if the concert were banned, wouldn’t that upset Watain and their fans even more? Wouldn’t that make them more likely to express hatred for the state and the Christians that petitioned for the ban? Thinking this through, we begin to realise that social unrest seems all the more probable if the ban were put place, as compared to without it.

Therefore, this ban seems completely counterintuitive! But it makes sense to ask – why did the policymakers push for it then? Was it merely an oversight, or does the ban really serve another function? Perhaps the ban is more symbolic than we would like to admit. Like the rainbow that God gave Noah, it’s a message from the policymakers to conservative Christians that the ruling party has got their backs. This can be summed up by two words: political expedience.

For those who attend or have attended churches, you’ve probably heard Christian leaders speaking about how Christians should pray for God to guide the leadership of our nation. Amongst the more conservative ones, such a statement may express a fervent desire for Christian morality to inform public morality and policy. Of course, in a more innocent context, some Christians say this more generally as a wish of wellbeing, a plea for God to continuing watching over the nation.

In both cases, however, such expressions point toward something more alarming – they hint at the way many (though not all) Christians view the role of public policy in Singapore. By expressing a desire for God to intervene in public policy, Christians (as voting citizens) are indirectly saying that their own evaluation of the government’s performance should be based solely on Christian principles and church teachings – in other words, a narrow bunch of interests.

By expressing a desire for God to intervene in public policy, Christians (as voting citizens) are indirectly saying that their own evaluation of the government’s performance should be based solely on Christian principles and church teachings”

This is very different from considering the interests of our society as a whole. For example, if we were to take a more inclusive viewpoint, we would consider our own religious interests, but also the interests of marginalised groups and those who disagree with our views. This, we argue, is the rightful responsibility of all voting citizens – to keep leaders in check and prevent them from keeping themselves in power by appealing only to majoritarian interests. After all, if we were voiceless and side-lined, we would want others to look out for our needs and views as well. If everyone fights only for their narrow ideals, society would crumble into nothing but squabbling factions.

Sadly, the policymakers know that many Christians are putting religion first when deciding whom to vote for, with the church’s conservative beliefs drawing up their scorecard. According to a local study on religion by the Institute of Policy Studies (in 2014), 72.3% of Protestants feel that their religion has a “considerable influence on (their) views in other areas”. A whopping 72.9% of Protestants “try to find out what God or (their) religion thinks” when making decisions about life choices. In both cases, the percentages for Protestants are highest amongst all the religions surveyed (followed in second place by Muslims). It’s therefore not far-fetched to say that Christians (especially Protestants) are most likely to impose a strong religious agenda on public policy since strict conformity to religion is central to the way they live their lives.

Moreover, many high-profile policymakers are Christians themselves and are more than familiar with Christian socio-political rhetoric. Therefore, to avoid losing their Christian voter base, it makes sense that they would clamp down on bands like Watain when a church-led petition is explicitly making the rounds online. Had the Watain concert been given a green light, it’s not hard to imagine that some church leaders might start saying things at the pulpit like ‘Wow, the state supports satanism now? Perhaps it’s a sign that our current leaders are no longer God-ordained.’

One may say, it’s only fair that Christians look out for their own interests. This seems to make sense – but the problem lies where certain parts of the Christian belief system are arranged in a way that always produces a ‘zero-sum’ orientation. ‘Zero-sum’ means either-or: there is no in-between. This force-fitting of situations into black-and-white categories is what makes certain belief systems turn from lively and rich traditions into dangerous rulebooks that people follow unquestioningly. Be Christian and LGBTQ at the same time? No way – choose one. Living a good Christian life and accepting the rightful diversity of those around us? Incompatible! Are you a true believer or are you ‘backsliding’? Thinking in a ‘zero-sum’ way closes any possibility of looking at issues from a broader, more inclusive perspective.

For example, you don’t hear LGBTQ activists in Singapore calling for gay Christians to renounce their religion. That’s because Christianity can be made compatible with a gay identity – the Free Community Church is a good representation of this. We often think of religions as static sets of beliefs and morals that don’t change over time, but that’s not true! For instance, Protestantism only came about during the 16th century because certain groups of Christians in society felt that they disagreed with the teachings of larger Christian society at the time (the Roman Catholic church).

Religion – like any set of beliefs – is always evolving and changing with the times. We shouldn’t try to cling on to it in a rigid way that excludes the views of those who disagree. The more religious believers hold on to a stubborn way of thinking, the easier it is for people in power to manipulate religion for political and personal interest. Recall that even after City Harvest Church pastor Kong Hee was convicted of Criminal Breach of Trust, many of his church supporters were as reluctant as ever to see him as a criminal. While they saw him as a martyr, most of us outside of CHC saw them as fools. But such dogmatism can bring far greater dangers – and it’s not just Christianity and Islam that are weak to such political manipulation. Buddhists in Myanmar openly preach for the persecution of Rohingya Muslims – which is very ironic given that the interdependence and impermanence of all things are core ideas in Buddhist philosophy.

“The more religious believers hold on to a stubborn way of thinking, the easier it is for people in power to manipulate religion for political and personal interest.”

In Singapore, political convenience ensures that no single religion is legally allowed to censure another religion (of course, within what the state unilaterally recognises as a ‘religion’ in the first place). Given Singapore’s multicultural society, it’s not politically convenient for any single religion to be given a free pass. But the same thread of political expedience can be seen rearing its ugly head in other places where certain religions dominate the population – think about Malaysia and Indonesia’s shift toward political Islam and the openly Islamophobic stance that many US policymakers take.

As for Singapore, the laws here demand respect for all races and religions in our multicultural nation. But this comes not from a sincere willingness to affirm the diversity and beliefs of others, but only insofar that conflicting groups don’t mess with the status quo in society and cause problems for the government. This means that religious groups cannot condemn other religions – that is true. But they can freely call for the oppression of other marginalised groups in society as long as such calls don’t threaten the power of the ruling elite or make them look bad. (In other words, if you hit your opponent and they’re too weak to hit back, then feel free to knock the crap out of them.)

Who knows? If you’re a politician, and you know that the majority of your voters are very conservative and increasingly refuse to be open-minded about public policy, wouldn’t you bend the policies to ensure their interests are protected? Or would you stand by your values and risk losing the election? And even if you don’t become a populist yourself, what if other parties beat you to it by playing the same dirty game? It’s hard to imagine how anyone in Singapore would benefit from this.

So by affirming the stubbornness of certain groups in society, rather than encouraging a culture where people learn to be more open-minded – is the state really protecting ‘social harmony’? Or doing the opposite? The metalheads have shown that they’re really a peaceful bunch of people, even after being slighted by the state and vocal Christians. So if they’re not the ones posing the threat to social harmony, who is? When Shanmugam says that the ban is required because ‘social harmony’ must be protected – is he really saying that if the government doesn’t ban such events, then religious conservatives have a free pass to throw tantrums, speak offensively, start riots, or find other ways to disrupt social harmony?

Social harmony is not built by creating policies to blindly affirm all religious beliefs regardless of how hard-line and discriminatory these beliefs may be. What needs to be done is for everyone to step back and learn to question their beliefs – including beliefs as deeply and intimately held as religion. Only then can we save religion from being corrupted by the interests of power.

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References:

IPS Working Paper 21 – Religiosity and the management of religious harmony (https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/workingpaper21_180614_v4.pdf)

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