“We need to be having these conversations about these prickly issues if we are going to find a way to live harmoniously together,” says Singaporean author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh about race. Mr Vadaketh posted a video on his Facebook page yesterday (9 August) in which he talks about the issue of race and racism in Singapore, relating it to the recent brownface saga.
E-payment website epaysg.com released an ad recently featuring Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew impersonating different races. We see him dressed as a Malay woman in a headscarf, a Chinese man in a moustache, and as an Indian man with darkened skin.
The ad didn’t go down well with the public. People criticised the company for not simply hiring people of different races to portray each character.
In response to the ad, Singaporeans comedian and influences Preeti Nair, known as Preetipls, released a rap video with her brother Subhas Nair, a rapper. The video called out epaysg.com for being racist.
The rap video, titled “K. Muthusamy” contained offensive language with phrases such as “Chinese people always out here f***king it up”, and the lyrics condemned Chinese Singaporean for being racist and exploiting minorities for money. The rap also pointed out that this ‘brownface’ incident isn’t the first in Singapore. Previously, there was Deepavali advertisements with a Chinese man dressed up as a Sikh man.
However, at the end of the video, Preeti included a disclaimer to say “not all Chinese people are racists, only the racists ones”, indicating that the duo were not slamming every Chinese Singaporean in the country.
The government’s double standard response
While the government was lenient with Mediacorp for their distasteful ad, simply accepting an apology, a police report was lodged against Preeti and her brother for their response rap.
“The police will not tolerate any offensive content that causes ill will between races,” the police said while highlighting that they are investigating the matter.
Law Minister K Shanmugam also come forward to say that while the epaysg.com ad was done “in poor taste”, Preeti’s video crossed the line.
The problem of race in Singapore
Following these incidents, Mr Vadaketh released his video on his Facebook page to outline both sides of the argument around brownface in Singapore.
On the argument that brownface isn’t actually a big deal, Mr Vadaketh said that no offence was meant by the epaysg.com ad as Indians weren’t portrayed in a demeaning way. He also noted that Singapore has a long history of people acting as other races such as the famous Phua Chua Kang, a Chinese character played by a Sikh man. Cheekily, he also mentioned President Halimah Yacob as another example – seemingly referring to the fact that Mdm Yacob, an Indian Muslim, was elected President during the election that was reserved for the Malay community.
Mr Vadaketh also noted that brownface has no specific historical context in Singapore, indicating that some people would argue that the colouring of skin is only a problem where there is such baggage. For example, blackface in the US.
On the flip side, Mr Vadaketh point out that brownface is a problem because it exaggerates the physical attributes of Indians. On this point, he says that Gurmit Singh’s portrayal of Phua Chua Kang isn’t offensive because he didn’t paint his face yellow or walk around with exaggerated slit eyes.
Moving on the Law Minister’s slippery slope argument against Preeti’s video, Mr Vadaketh turned it around and asked why Mr Shanmugam didn’t also criticise his own government’s racism in using brownface.
He said, “If we allow brownface now, what’s next? Let’s place a Jew, let’s give the Jew a really big nose. Let’s play an African, let’s given the African really thick lips and a really big bum.“
He recounted the incident years ago at the Beijing Olympics when China featured their 56 official ethnic groups. He explained, “It was later discovered that a lot of the minorities were actually Han Chinese. They were simply dressed up as minorities. China didn’t actually recruit kids from the 56 groups. Now some people found this offensive, other’s thought it was ok.”
On that note, Mr Vadaketh explained that racism is subjective and dependent on culture and time. What was acceptable 100 years ago might not be acceptable today.
He said, “In tiny Singapore, we have 5 million different views of racism. And we have so many different cultural influences from Chinese blackface to Aziz Ansari in Hollywood. This diversity is what makes Singapore such a fun, exciting place for us to live in. But at the same time, we need to be having these conversations about these prickly issues if we are going to find a way to live harmoniously together.”
Mr Vadaketh certainly has a point. Discussion and debate is the way forward. Nuance cannot be ignore. But at the same time, double standards have no place in a civilised society.