Robe-wearing DJ NewJeansNim draws complaints from Singapore Buddhists | Music news

Singapore – A popular South Korean ‘monk’ DJ, known for wearing cleric’s robes and combining electronic dance music with Buddhist mantras, is sparking controversy among Singaporeans who say he is denigrating religion.

On Sunday, May 19, the Singapore Buddhist Federation called for the cancellation of NewJeansNim’s two nightclub performances in June. In a Facebook post, it was noted that the DJ puts on a monk’s robe even though he is not ordained; this is “against (the) Vinaya,” or the code of conduct of Buddhist monks. The federation urged authorities to cancel their performance permits to “avoid embarrassing Buddhists.”

Now, the government has gotten involved with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam warning on Facebook that “action will be taken” if NewJeansNim, whose real name is Youn Sung-ho, continues with his usual act. Comments on the minister’s post were largely favorable, with many urging him to cancel the DJ’s performances entirely.

According to a notice from the Singapore Police, Club Rich entertainment venue owner Jackie He told Al Jazeera that the events, which have been sold out, will be “non-religious” and will ensure that NewJeansNim does not use a monk’s habit robe, use a religious instrument or play any music that is related to a Buddhist chant. A member of the club’s management added that Youn had agreed to the terms and noted that Buddhist elements are only part of his repertoire. There has been no official comment from Youn himself.

Kelvin Siau, a lifelong Buddhist, told Al Jazeera he would prefer authorities go further. “He should be banned from entering Singapore. This is to show that Singapore is a strict country (on) religious matters,” said the 42-year-old, who said he found NewJeansNim’s act “disrespectful” and “an insult to the image of Buddhism and monks” .

NewJeanNim performing in Seoul.  He is wearing a robe and has his arms outstretched.  The lighting around her is purple and the crowd is dancing.
NewJeansNim, a comedian and DJ whose real name is Youn Sung-ho, performs at an annual lantern lighting festival dressed as a monk, in Seoul, South Korea, on May 12, 2024 (Juwon Park/AP Photo)

Club Rich is located near one of the largest and most popular Buddhist temples in Singapore. According to a 2020 census, more than a third of Singapore’s population is Buddhist, making it the city-state’s main religion.

However, Leow Yuan Kai, 36, another lifelong Buddhist, was more lenient about the program.

“My friends and I don’t think performance is enough of a cause for concern,” he said. “After all, it’s a nightclub performance with a very specific demographic as the audience.”

irritating the faithful

It is the second time in recent weeks that Youn, a 47-year-old comedian-turned-musician, has irritated Buddhists in Southeast Asia. In early May, a dance club in Kuala Lumpur canceled its second concert “in the interest of social harmony” following complaints from both high-ranking Buddhist clergy and politicians who urged Malaysian authorities to ban it from future events.

By contrast, the shaven-headed, homily-preaching Youn is a rising star in his home country, beloved by Gen Z fans and Millennials. He has also performed in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Youn has even been employed by the Jogye Order, South Korea’s largest Buddhist order, to help spread the faith. Its president thanked him for “spreading a much younger Buddhism among the young generation,” according to the Korea Herald.

Associate Professor Jack Chia from the history department at the National University of Singapore (NUS), an expert on Buddhism in Southeast Asia, told Al Jazeera that for historical and socio-economic reasons, there are significant differences between East Asia and Southeast Asia in what concerns expectations about the roles and conduct of Buddhist monks.

“Buddhists in Malaysia, Singapore and Southeast Asia in general would find it offensive for a non-ordained person to dress and perform in monastic robes in the name of Buddhism,” he said, adding that the performances would also be held at a club that serves alcohol, the consumption of which is prohibited by one of the five precepts of Buddhism.

In contrast, with the decline of religion – particularly Buddhism – in South Korea, the Buddhist community is looking for creative ways to inspire interest in Buddhism among the younger generation. “It’s no surprise that (the progressive Jogye Order) supports innovative methods of promoting Buddhism and is happy to support NewJeansNim’s unconventional Buddhist DJ music,” Chia said.

He also pointed to Japanese Buddhists who have performed Buddhist rock and hip-hop music and even opened bars to attract a younger generation. The music of Zen monk Kanho Yakushiji has also been well received by Buddhist communities around the world.

Racial and religious harmony

Like Malaysia, Singapore is a multicultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society. He is particularly sensitive to anything that might disrupt racial and religious harmony. Authorities often invoke the specter of the race riots of the 1960s, in which dozens of people died. Strict laws give authorities broad powers to deal with those deemed to have crossed “red lines” regarding race and religion.

The conditions of a public entertainment license for an establishment state that the entertainment offered must not offend any race, religion, ethnicity or nationality, or cause discord between different groups. The authorities act quickly on any potential conflict. In 2019, despite agreeing to comply with strict requirements, Swedish black metal band Watain had their performance permit withdrawn after an online petition against their concerts.

The Home Office said at the time that Watain had a history of denigrating religions and promoting violence, which had the potential to disrupt the city-state’s social harmony.

“Singapore’s approach to religious and racial harmony – like many other things – is to act on complaints, often based on hurt feelings,” said analyst Chong Ja Ian from the NUS political science department. “There is a logic that says that if there are hurt feelings, the state must intervene to resolve the situation, ensure and ensure that nothing happens if there is a possibility of escalation.”

Worshipers praying at the Kwan Im Thong temple in Singapore.  The three men have their backs to the camera and look toward the ornate altar.  They are holding incense sticks.
Rich Club is close to the Kwan Im Thong temple, one of the most popular temples in Singapore (File: Stephen Morrison/EPA)

Chong added: “Such an approach may inadvertently encourage various groups to complain as loudly as they can about how hurt they are in anticipation of a crackdown. Less clear to me is what happens to groups and individuals who do not or cannot complain as loudly or stridently, or what happens to society’s ability to adapt to differences.

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