Racist or not? Netizens divided over ‘kacang puteh’ caricature by Sports SG Chief

Last Friday (23 Nov), Singaporeans erupted on social media after a photo was posted showing a ‘pretty high up officer’ dressed up a in a turban and fake beard in what looks like a caricature of a kacang puteh seller.

Joel Tan, who posted the photo, said that he had received it from a source who said the photo was  taken as a recent Sport Singapore Deepavali celebration. On top of the insensitive outfit, the source also pointed out that there was ‘head shaking, random bursts of Tamil, and the handing out of kacang puteh’ during the celebrations.

Joel writes, “Let’s call this what it is: racist caricature. People like to think racism doesn’t exist in Singapore, but it really does. Not even badly disguised racism: just flat out, balls to the wall insensitivity and grotesque tone-deafness.”

Joel Tan goes on to point out the 2015 incident involving MediaCorp Actor Desmond Tan who posted a photo of himself in a turban and blackface to wish his fans a happy Deepavali. Joel stated his offense has such a ‘character’ being played out by Chinese actors, calling the impersonations ‘clownish, ridiculous, and belittling’.

His post drew immediate attention with many people echoing Joel’s comments about the racist nature of the Sports SG celebration. His post has been shared over 800 times and received over 1,000 reactions.

Following up with the story, Mothership.sg identified the man dressed in the turban and beard as Singapore Sports Institute chief Toh Boon Yi.

A spokesperson for Sports SG confirmed to Mothership that the event was an internal staff celebration done annually for its Indian staff.

The spokesperson’s full statement:

“We are aware of a photo taken during our annual Sport Singapore (SportSG) Deepavali celebration circulating on social media.

The event was organised by staff to celebrate Deepavali with our Indian colleagues. The event encompassed both cultural and fun elements that included a sharing of the origins of Deepavali, learning about mindfulness and treats of traditional Deepavali goodies. There was an energetic group dance competition and pageant, where people were encouraged to be attired in both traditional and fancy dress.

The staff captured in the photo was dressed up by his colleagues in a sarong, towel head wrap and a beard, and asked to serve Deepavali snacks. He gave a traditional “hello” greeting in Tamil as staff arrived for the event.

The caricature of a kachang puteh man was neither intended to be disrespectful or to poke fun at others. If anything, the intent was to create a celebratory and appreciative atmosphere amongst our multi-racial colleagues.

We would like to sincerely apologise if any of this has caused offence to people who have seen the posts on social media without the benefit of understanding the context.”

Their apology, to me, sounds more like a non-apology. Sports SG didn’t actually apologise for the events that took place but instead apologised for people being offended by their actions because they didn’t understand the context. So they’re apologising for people feeling offended, not actually for committing the offensive act.

Netizens are just as dissatisfied with Sports SG’s apology as I am:

Many correctly point out that there is a fine line between humour and offense but also that it’s not that hard to figure out when you’re crossing the line:

However, there are quite a number of people who feel that there was nothing wrong at all what Mr Toh did (failing to acknowledge that Sikhs and Indians are two different races and the Mr Toh was mixing stereotypes, which in itself is offensive. But I digress). These users feel that anyone offended by this harmless caricature are simply being sensitive and lack any humour (note their race):

Still, there were some who implored others to put themselves in the shoes of the minority race and asked how they would feel if the tables were turned:

The issue of racism is a sensitive topic in Singapore and like Joel pointed out in his post, it’s not something Singaporean’s are comfortable acknowledging as a problem that still exists. In any diverse country, harmony is a balancing act that requires careful consideration and compassion from all sub-communities, both majority and minority.

So yes, sometimes it may be acceptable to fashion jokes around specific racial stereotypes – but it’s a fine line. And our officials should be aware of this fine line since they live their lives in the public eye. Perhaps the easiest way to make inoffensive race-based jokes it to focus on the positive stereotypes instead. As this user said: