Renowned Singaporean playwright and literary figure Alfian Sa'at. Source: poetry.sg / YouTube

“Penatlah”: Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, on racism and Chinese majoritarianism in Singapore

Penatlah [I’m tired].”

Such is the sentiment expressed by renowned Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at in response to measures taken by the authorities’ against rising YouTube sibling duo Preeti Nair and Subhas Nair for their rap video on an E-Pay advertisement, which was made as a part of NETS’ campaign to encourage consumers to make electronic payments.

The controversial advertisement, which has since been modified to remove the offending material, portrayed Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew as multiple “characters” of different races in Singapore, such as a Malay woman in a headscarf and an Indian man with darkened skin, a Chinese woman in a pink jacket and a Chinese man with a moustache in the advertisement.

The advertisement drew flak from many Singaporeans, with parallels being drawn to “brownface” — the racist act of darkening fair skin for entertainment purposes at the expense of people of “brown” races such as Indians and Malays, regardless whether or not it is intentional. Many critics have also pointed out why actual Malay and Indian actors or models were not hired to portray individuals of their respective races instead.

In a Facebook post on Wed (31 Jul), Mr Alfian explained why the E-Pay advertisement is an example of how “brownface” is damaging to racial minorities such as Indians and Malays in Singapore, stating that the act “reduces an entire race to physical features that are supposed to be reproducible through makeup, while at the same time ridiculing those features”.

“[W]hen you get a Chinese person to do racial drag, you’re effectively saying that being Chinese in Singapore is the standard, and all other races are deviations from the standard.

“In one of the photos, Dennis Chew tries to play an Indian man called Muthusamy. His skin is darkened. He wears an oily-looking wig with curls. He has narrow eyes, so he widens them, and the effect is that he looks deranged,” he elaborated, adding that there is “nothing innocent” about attempting to portray an Indian man in such a manner.

“I see so many of my Malay friends say the same thing: ‘penatlah‘. It means we’re tired. We’re exhausted. Why are we facing this again and again? How come when we say that your amusement is the cause of our pain, we get told that your amusement is more important than our pain? What is it about brownfacing that people don’t get? Why is it that I see some people even asking ‘is it you’re ashamed of your skin colour and don’t want us to draw attention to it?’

“Why can I not let empathy just do this seemingly ceaseless work that minorities have to do in Singapore? What failure of imagination must there be to not be able to sense what it would be like if done to you–if someone squinted to make slit eyes, slathered on yellowish foundation, wore a China-doll wig to represent you?” Mr Alfian questioned.

Racists “get a wrist slap”; anti-racists “have the instruments of the state used against them”: Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at

Mr Alfian also expressed his exasperation at how in Singapore, “the ones perpetuating racism get a wrist slap”, while “the ones who call out acts of racism have the instruments of the state used against them” via “the weaponisation of police reports”.

“I’m really tired of witnessing this ugly dysfunction where a majority keeps on insisting that they should get to define what is funny, and what is offensive, and that their views should become the norm. Of course majoritarianism exists in Singapore but this particular form is one of the most wicked.

“Because what is ‘funny’, or ‘scary’, are minorities. We become the figure of fun, the brunt of jokes, the bogeymen, the ‘don’t be like that person’, the low-IQ long-drawl Malay accent, the head-bobbing Indian accent, the image of the drug addict, the drunkard, the prata-man President, the fake-Malay President, Ahmad the chauffeur, Aminah the cleaner, Apunehneh the whoever he or she is,” he lamented.

He also criticised politicians of minority races, who, in his view, appear eager to “perform the overpolicing of their own, as if to demonstrate to the majority that they’re still committed to majoritarian interests”.

Mr Alfian added that such instances of racism against minorities in Singapore are often glossed over and brushed aside by the oft-repeated narrative of multiracial harmony upheld by the government and the Chinese majority, which is “built on the eternal forbearance of minorities” who are forced to tolerate institutional and even “casual” racism levelled against them.

“Who was it who said that we don’t really have racial harmony in Singapore, what we have is racist harmony? Because that harmony is built on the eternal forbearance of minorities. To be able to take a joke, to laugh at ourselves, to inspect our flaws obsessively and self-criticise, because minorities are obliged to aim for self-improvement rather than to demand social justice. Tell the other side to take a joke and the police are summoned,” he said.

“Denial, defensiveness and hostility shape most conversations on racism. Messengers bearing a less than rosy picture are disbelieved and terrorised. If something is flagged as racist, it is not that racist thing that will earn censure. The flag however, will be torn to shreds,” he concluded.

Netizens’ responses to Alfian Sa’at’s commentary range from empathy and solidarity to dissent and defensiveness

More than a handful of Singaporeans from minority race communities appear to resonate with Mr Alfian’s post, with a similar tone of near resignation:

Many Chinese Singaporeans expressed their empathy, articulated their dismay towards the offending advertisement, and have shown solidarity with Singaporeans of minority races who are adversely affected by the negative portrayal and treatment of minorities in Singapore:

However, a few Singaporeans opined on the post that the offensive E-Pay advertisement did not warrant the indignation that was channelled quite explicitly in Preeti and Subhas’ rap video:

One commenter in particular succinctly described one way in which racial privilege manifests itself:

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