Robe-wearing DJ NewJeansNim draws complaints from Singapore Buddhists

The South Korean performer has been praised in his homeland for boosting interest in Buddhism, but Southeast Asia has been less welcoming.

NewJeansNim at the mixing desk in a club. He is wearing a pale grey robe. He has headphones on and one hand in the air
NewJeansNim performing in Seoul earlier this month at an annual event to mark the Buddha's birthday [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

Singapore – A popular South Korean DJ ‘monk’, known for donning a cleric’s robes and combining electronic dance music with Buddhist mantras, is stirring controversy among the faithful in Singapore who claim he is denigrating the religion.

On Sunday, May 19, the Singapore Buddhist Federation called for NewJeansNim’s two performances at a disco club in June to be cancelled. In a Facebook post, it noted that the DJ dons a monk’s robe even though he is not ordained – this is “against [the] Vinaya”, or the code of conduct for Buddhist monks. The federation urged authorities to cancel his performance permits in order to “avoid bringing embarrassment to Buddhists”.

Now, the government has got involved with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam warning on Facebook that “action will be taken” should NewJeansNim – whose real name is Youn Sung-ho – proceed with his usual act. The comments on the minister’s post were broadly supportive, with many urging him to cancel the DJ’s performances altogether.

In accordance with an advisory from the Singapore Police Force, performance venue Club Rich’s owner, Jackie He, told Al Jazeera that the events, which have sold out, will be “non-religious”- and they will ensure NewJeansNim does not wear a monk’s 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, noting that the Buddhist elements are just one part of his repertoire. There has been no official comment from Youn himself.

Kelvin Siau, a lifelong Buddhist, told he Al Jazeera he would prefer that authorities go further. “He should be barred 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 the monks”.

NewJeanNim performing in Seoul. He is wearing a robe and his arms are stretch out. The lighting around him is purple and the crowd are dancing.
NewJeansNim, a comedian and DJ whose real name is Youn Sung-ho, performs at an annual lantern-lighting festival dressed up 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 leading religion.

Leow Yuan Kai, 36, another lifelong Buddhist, was more forgiving about the show, however.

“My friends and I do not think the performance has enough cause for concern,” he said. “It’s a performance in a night club with a very specific demographic as its audience after all.”

Riling the faithful

It is the second time in recent weeks that Youn, a 47-year-old comedian-turned-musician, has riled Buddhists in Southeast Asia. In early May, a dance club in Kuala Lumpur cancelled his second set “in the interest of social harmony” following complaints by both senior Buddhist clergy, as well as politicians who urged Malaysian authorities to ban him from future events.

By contrast, the shaven-headed, homily-dispensing Youn is a rising star in his home country, beloved by Gen Z and Millennial fans. 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 to the young generation”, according to the Korea Herald.

Associate professor Jack Chia of the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) history department, an expert on Buddhism in Southeast Asia, told Al Jazeera that for historical and socioeconomic reasons, there are significant differences between East Asia and Southeast Asia when it comes to expectations about the roles and conduct of Buddhist monks.

“Buddhists in Malaysia, Singapore and Southeast Asia more broadly would find it offensive for a nonordained person to be dressed and performing in monastic robes in the name of Buddhism,” he said, adding that the performances were also taking place in a club which serves alcohol, whose consumption is forbidden by one of Buddhism’s five precepts.

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

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

Racial and religious harmony

Like Malaysia, Singapore is a multicultural, multireligious and multilingual society. It is particularly sensitive to anything that might disrupt racial and religious harmony. Authorities often invoke the spectre of racial riots from the 1960s, in which dozens were killed. Strict laws give authorities expansive powers to deal with those deemed to have crossed “red lines” on race and religion.

The conditions of a public entertainment licence for an establishment state that the entertainment on offer must not be likely to cause offence to any race, religion, ethnicity or nationality, or potentially cause disharmony among different groups. Authorities are quick to act on any potential strife. In 2019, despite agreeing to adhere to strict requirements, Swedish black metal band Watain saw its performance permit withdrawn after an online petition against its concerts.

The Ministry of Home Affairs 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,” noted analyst Chong Ja Ian of NUS’s political science department. “There is a logic that says, if there are hurt feelings, the state must step in to resolve a situation, assure, and make sure nothing happens just in case there may be the chance of escalation.”

Worshippers praying at Singapore's Kwan Im Thong temple. The three men have their back to the camera and are facing the ornate altar. They are holding sticks of incense
Rich Club is near the Kwan Im Thong temple, one of the most popular 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 that do not or cannot complain as loudly or as stridently, or what happens to society’s ability to accommodate difference.”

Source: Al Jazeera