We Need To Talk About Race

Isaac James Neo
Jul 31, 2019 · 7 min read

Discussions about racial discrimination must be grounded in the context of Singaporean race relations. But are we even talking about them?

There has been much discussion over a controversial ad taken out by E-Pay, which depicted Chinese Mediacorp artiste Dennis Chew playing characters of different races to promote a new e-payment initiative in coffee shops, hawker centres, and industrial canteens. The company was accused of utilising ‘brownface’ in the ad, prompting Mediacorp to apologise and the offending ad being taken down. Subsequently, Singapore rapper Subhas Nair and YouTuber Preeti Nair (better known as Preetipls) made a music video lampooning the ad, resulting in a police report being filed against them for ‘offensive content’.

I write this post for 3 reasons:

  1. To give an analytical primer of this whole issue and lay out the complexity of determining more covert forms of racial discrimination,
  2. To detail my own experience as a Chinese Singaporean interpreting this issue and to perhaps help fellow Chinese Singaporeans understand it better,
  3. To call for greater discussions and dialogues about issues pertaining to race in Singapore

Firstly, the ad itself:

Image Credit: Yahoo! News Singapore

While I cannot speak for the intentions of the ad agency, my own interpretation of the ad is that it is promoting an e-payment initiative for everyone, hence the portrayal of all four races in Singapore according to the CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) model. The use of Dennis Chew, a Mediacorp actor known for cross-dressing as Auntie Lucy in Chinese variety shows, gives an insight into its target audience: Chinese-educated older Singaporeans who might not be familiar with e-payment initiatives. The statement by the ad agency that put out the ad pretty much lays out the logic:

“The message behind this advertising campaign is that e-payment is for everyone. For that reason, Dennis Chew, well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production in a light-hearted way, was selected as the face of the campaign. He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay,”

The ad agency also stated that they had no intention of causing any hurt, and Mediacorp has apologised for the ad, which they labelled as ‘insensitive’. This begs the question: if the portrayal was done without any intention to offend, is it still racist or discriminatory?

Criticism of the ad centres on how it uses Chew, a Chinese man, to portray members of different races by darkening his skin, a practice labelled as ‘brownface’:

My initial impression of such criticism was that while I got why it might have been culturally insensitive, I thought ‘brownface’ was an analytically imprecise importation of the concept of blackface, which, absent the historical context of race relations in the United States, does not translate well to a Singaporean context.

After reading numerous online remarks and comments, talking to my friends (including those who are minorities), and reading up on the issue, I came to the realisation that this issue is multifaceted and more nuanced than what the current narrative propounds. My view is that this was an unintentional racial microaggression that has to be situated in the inherent power relations between different races in Singapore. To put it in a less cheem way, Chinese people playing other races is a reminder of the lived discrimination that members of minority races have faced in Singapore.

@rachelpangcomics and Faris Joraimi probably put it better than I do, but the gist is that by using someone from the majority race to portray a minority race for comedic effect and for consumption by a largely Chinese-based audience (many minorities would presumably not know Chew nor his cross-dressing persona), it is a stark reminder that someone from the Chinese race generally has access to more opportunities and has the power to portray themselves and other races the way that they want to, especially in media narratives. As Faris puts it, ‘Brownface in Singapore punches down,’ with the stereotypical portrayal of such characters from different races being made at the expense of minority races, instead of with them.

It is understandable why some Chinese might not immediately get why the ad was culturally insensitive. We see Chew and go ‘oh he’s just cross-dressing again’ because we know who he is. But it is also understandable why minorities are aggrieved. With their lived experiences of racial discrimination and various microaggressions (‘Wah you speak well for a Malay’, ‘You’re pretty for an Indian’), it is a further reminder of their minority status and disadvantages they face, reinforcing the power imbalances between different races in Singapore society. We do not have a history of brownface similar to that of blackface in the US, but by contextualising the act in terms of Singapore race relations, it is arguably a valid concept to use.

Some pushback against the criticism came from minorities who didn’t find the ad distasteful. Their view is valid as well, because not everyone has the same view of what is racist or discriminatory. Overt acts such as calling Indians ‘keling’ or making slanted eyes towards a person of East Asian descent are obvious forms of racism, but microaggressions are harder to spot, and not everyone perceives it similarly. However, instead of immediately discounting people who thought the ad was discriminatory as ‘emotional’, we need to start talking to one another and tease out why they feel that way, and analyse how their lived experiences fit in the larger social context of Singaporean race relations. We cannot call everything we find offensive as racist or discriminatory, but we must begin to learn how to think critically and analyse these issues as they arise.

Here’s where things get messy, however. Yesterday, YouTuber Preetipls (known for producing satirical videos on Singaporean social issues) and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, made a rap video mocking the ad, as well as instances of Chinese microaggressions against minorities. The hook of the song was ‘Chinese people always f**king it up’, a remix of F*** It Up by rapper Iggy Azalea.

Image credits: The Straits Times

I found the video quite over-the-top, but I had a good laugh. Apparently some people didn’t find it quite as funny, as a police report was soon filed and the video taken down. Minister of Law K. Shanmugam said that the video was ‘not acceptable’, and if it was allowed, other similar videos would have to be allowed, threatening the racial harmony and social fabric of Singapore.

From a legalistic point of view, Shanmugam‘s statements are understandable. The lyrics could well be construed as seditious, and the state has always policed racial harmony with a heavy hand. However, what is missing is again a discussion of the video in the context of power relations amongst different races. Such a video ‘punches up’, in the sense that it features minorities speaking up against what they perceive as racial discrimination and imbalanced power structures in society.

Could their message have been conveyed better with less generalisations? Sure. Did they intend to cause racial strife? Of course not, it’s satire. Might some people have perceived it as racially offensive? Maybe. But what message does it send to minorities when a police report is filed over the video? That Chinese are fine with minorities feeling aggrieved, but resort to litigious overreactions when it concerns ourselves? All this does is that it reinforces the perception that the Chinese remain privileged as the majority race, suppressing viewpoints of the minority. In our rush to maintain racial harmony, we might have fractured it further.

If it’s not already clear, this issue is complex and multifaceted. To understand the issue of ‘brownface’ requires knowing how race relations are configured, examples of microaggressions that minorities face in Singapore, and policies governing race in Singapore. Why there has been much confusion and controversy over this issue is because of the lack of discussion of the above points.

Race is highly visible in Singapore, but that comes in the form of a state-led narrative of racial harmony. To be clear, I do not think the state is deliberately suppressing discussion of these points, and they do their best to maintain equal treatment of all races. What I am saying is that its heavy-handed approach towards racial issues and laws governing racial harmony disincentivises honest discussion of such issues amongst people for fear of causing offence, while conveying a veneer of harmonious race relations that masks the lived realities of minorities in Singapore.

If we do not learn to talk to each other instead of talking over each other or merely imbibing official talking points about racial harmony, we cannot develop genuine racial harmony, only racial tolerance. As Ho Li-Ching puts it:

“ …it is also important to recognise that the process of harmony requires a kind of incivility and critical reflection. If there are issues of injustice or inequity in society, it is more productive, in the long run, to challenge and even revise the status quo, even if it means temporarily upsetting existing social relations.”

We need to start national conversations about race, and they must be done honestly and critically. Over the past two years, we’ve had honest conversations about class and the problems of meritocracy, sparked by the publication of Professor Teo You Yenn’s This Is What Inequality Looks Like. We need something similar for issues of race so that people can start to recognise systemic inequalities between races and more covert instances of discrimination. This entails raising up real instances of racial discrimination and talking about them, as well as the elephant in the room, ‘Chinese privilege’; these discussions, although contentious, are sorely needed to build greater harmony in the long run.

And above all, we need to start listening to each other. What others say cannot simply go in one ear and come out of the other. We must listen intently and hear different points of view — even those we disagree with — and respond intentionally. This will help to build a greater sense of civic consciousness towards one another and ensure greater social cohesion in the long-run.

The views expressed in this article are my own and not of any institution that I am affiliated with.

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