Author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh slams individuals who say “brownface” concept originated in the West

On Wednesday (7 August), author and freelance writer at The Economic Intelligence Unit Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh took to his Facebook to slam individuals who said that the concept of “brownface” originated in the West.

His post was referring to the recent racial saga that has been making headlines in the country for a while now.

In July, an advertisement created for epaysg.com, an e-payment website, was released featuring Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew impersonating different races.

In the advertisement, one can see Chew dressed up as different races in Singapore such as a Malay woman in a headscarf as well as an Indian man with darkened skin. As expected, the ad received massive backlash from the audience, with many criticising the need to use one person to play different roles instead of hiring people of the actual races to play the characters.

It also prompted Preeti Nair, famously known as Preetipls, along with her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, to release a rap video calling out epaysg.com for being racist. Unfortunately, the siblings’ video used profanities to condemn Chinese Singaporeans, who they claim are racist and exploit minorities for money.

After this controversy-laden video was out, a few individuals went out to explain that the “brownface” concept is not Singaporean.

“Singapore’s cultural Nazis are out in full force, trying to convince you that the concept of ‘brownface’ originated in the West. The obvious response: so what?” wrote Mr Vadaketh.

He added, “If you are so against Western cultural influences, here are some suggestions: ditch your iPhone; stop listening to the Sage of Omaha and whiz kids of Silicon Valley; overhaul Singapore’s common law and parliamentary system; yank out all ‘Western’ potties so we can have national squat; and stop conversing in English.

The author was referring to two posts that were recently published – an opinion piece published in The Straits Times (ST) titled “Brownface is not Singaporean” and a Facebook post by former NMP Calvin Cheng.

“Brownface” not from the East

In the opinion article published in ST, the author Margaret Chan, a cultural anthropologist and a retired associate professor from Singapore Management University, wrote that although she agrees that the “brownface” advertisement by epaysg.com was ignorant, but the Nair siblings’ video “denigrated the entire Chinese community”.

She also explained that “brownface east” does not exist as it first originated in the Western culture from a “19th-century entertainment tradition in the United States”.

She went on further to highlight that Singaporeans are generally “quite pleased when someone of another race is keen to dress like us, cook our favourite traditional food and join in our cultural activities”. She noted that the cosmopolitan Singaporeans are the ones who have “imported concepts like ‘brownface’ and appropriation”.

On the other hand, former Nominated Member of Parliament  Calvin Cheng wrote in a Facebook post that Singapore’s Constitution laid out that it is the Government’s duty to treat minorities with extra care, quite the opposite to what that has been written in America’s Constitution.

“In recent days, we have seen posts and even a Straits Times Op-Ed by an NMP, trying to educate and ‘instruct’ Singaporeans why Brownface is offensive – all the articles inevitably start with some history lesson from America. I have also seen people blindly copying American discourse about how minorities can ‘punch up’ and insult majorities, but majorities cannot ‘punch down’ on the oppressed,” he wrote.

He added, “These mindless copycats are not only promoting irrelevant concepts here, but are propagating dangerous myths about minority oppression in Singapore.”

Mr Cheng also pointed out that the way the city-state made progress is “by a realistic step-by-step forward approach” and he also expressed the need to “remind everybody what is our (Singapore’s) starting point, what is our base, and if we do not recognise where we started from, and that these are our foundations, we will fail”.

In response to what they both said, Mr Vadaketh said that “whenever Singaporean conservatives and chauvinists feel threatened, they will trot out this ridiculous line of argument. It is actually dangerous, a dog whistle to patriots to target people they don’t like – in this case, Preeti and Subhas – for somehow being foreign agents”.

The author stressed that the “brownface” ad definitely had racial undertones as it exaggerated the physical characteristics (dark skin) of an Indian.

As such, he said that “by linking it to more debatable political correctness in the US, like cultural appropriation with ethnic dress, this argument seeks to present ‘Western-influenced’ Singaporeans as uncritical sponges of Western norms”.

He also added that Singaporeans laugh at how “political correctness” have gotten crazy in the US. As such, Mr Vadaketh said that people should be careful of these “fatuous arguments about the origin of concepts”.

Moreover, he also said that everyone should be open to Western discussion on race just as much as how we are towards “Chinese notions of governance”.

“Oh, and if you ever chat with any of Singapore’s self-appointed cultural gatekeepers, please ask them to consider changing their names—I suspect the likes of “Calvin” and “Margaret” do not trace their roots to the Han dynasty,” he said sarcastically.