Shane Pow with black makesup on his face

By Alfian Sa’at

I don’t think it’s purely coincidental that the latest round of blackface minstrelsy involved actors from Channel 8 (Shane Pow, Chew Chor Meng). So I want to talk about our monolingual vernacular broadcast stations in Singapore, and Channel 8 in particular.

In 2009, in the Channel 8 series ‘Daddy At Home’, the colleagues of a character played by Li Nanxing made fun of the fact that he was working as a cleaner–already classist and offensive to begin with. Then they joked that they should call him ‘Aminah’ — presumably because Malays are associated with menial occupations.

Image from Desmond Tan’s social media account

In March 2015, the Channel 8 actor Desmond Tan posted a photo of himself in blackface and a turban on Instagram. It was captioned: “I love my Indian look. What you think?”

In June 2015, former Channel 8 actress Sharon Au, while hosting the SEA Games, approached an Indian girl in the stands to say some line, which the girl didn’t do very well. Au playfully admonished her by mimicking an Indian accent and shaking her head from side to side: “Vat happened?”

Vernacular broadcast stations exist to promote and propagate the use of our official languages. News broadcasts, for example, play the role of setting formal standards for the respective languages. On the surface, these provisions seem necessary to protect linguistic rights in a multicultural society–that one is able to study and access media in the language of one’s choice.

But I think we’ve failed to properly deal with some of the consequences of these policies. One of which is that monolingual environments (with the exception of English) create monoethnic and monocultural worlds. It would not surprise me that someone who grew up on a diet of Channel 8 (and Channel U) would have found nothing wrong with the fact that the Mediacorp New Year Countdown in 2013 heavily featured Chinese songs and actors making wishes in Mandarin. It would have been the Singapore that they recognised and knew; a Singapore they took for granted as the norm.

In public housing, ethnic quotas are imposed supposedly to prevent the formation of racial enclaves. This thinking has not been applied to our media landscape. Because each of our vernacular stations–Channel 8, Channel U, Suria, Vasantham is a virtual racial enclave.

I don’t want to crap on Channel 8. A predictable response to some of the concerns raised above is that I am exploiting the ideal of multicutural accommodation (multicultural casting) to squeeze the use of English into the vernacular channels. These spaces have to be maintained as linguistically pure because of the idea that they are under siege from English, that global language and signifier of upward mobility. There have been too many times when I’ve been told that any plea for English to be emphasised as a main lingua franca is tantamount to asking the Chinese to ‘sacrifice’ their identity ‘for the sake of minorities’. In this formulation, minorities are seen as accomplices of a right-wing, anti-China, pro-US/UK Anglophone political elite intent on suppressing the Chinese grassroots.

Because the mantle of victimhood is so easily claimed, it becomes the ‘tyranny of the minority’ rather than majoritarian tyranny. And national unity is cast as something suspect–unity of the Chinese community achieved only through the loss of dialects, unity with the other races at the cost of Mandarin attrition. With this kind of historical baggage, I can’t even begin to critique Channel 8 without being seen as an agent of hostile encroachment.

But what I can do is to keep supporting the works of our filmmakers who try to give us images of ourselves which are truer to the Singapore that we live in. Anthony Chen‘s Ilo Ilo faced some limitations in diverse representations as he was telling the story of a Chinese family. But he had Jo Kukathas in a scenery-chewing role as a school principal. Royston Tan, in his tender and wistful short film ‘Bunga Sayang’, explored the relationship between an elderly Malay lady and a Chinese boy. And Boo Junfeng, while casting Malay leads in his harrowing ‘Apprentice’, must have grappled with the risk of producing a domestic film whose main audience might have to depend on subtitles. And yet he took that risk, and the film performed creditably at the local box office.

(I have to also mention our minority filmmakers, such as K Rajagopal, Sanif Olek and Raihan Halim, all of whom are producing important films which expand our visions of Singapore.)

If we were truly a multicultural society, there would be nothing remarkable about what the above filmmakers have done. But with a background of persistent blackfacing, slurs, invisibilities and humiliations, any recognition that minorities exist, that they are as essentially Singaporean as Chinese bodies, that they may appear in international film festivals as one of the myriad faces of Singapore, is an occasion for healing. One cannot help but give thanks for the balm. There is much healing to do.

This was first published on Alfian’s Facebook account and reproduced with permission

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