On Tuesday (21 July), the publisher Marshall Cavendish Education (MCE) apologised to its readers after several complaints were made that its Chinese-language children’s book, “Who Wins?” includes racist content.

The book, written by Wu Xing Hua, depicts a “dark-skinned” boy with “oily curly hair” named Mao Mao – which means “hairy” in Chinese – who is characterised as an aggressive school bully.

A Facebook user, Umm Yusof, made the first complaint on 17 July asking the rationale for publishing the book as it seems to portray the dark-skinned boy as “irredeemably nasty”, although his appearance is irrelevant to the plot.

MCE responded by saying it will cease the sale and distribution of the “Amazing Adventures of Pi Pi” series – which consists of five books – and will recall copies of the book from retail stores.

Following this, Dr Wong Chee Meng, a visiting researcher for Centre for Chinese Language & Culture at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) took to his Facebook on Wednesday (22 July) to comment on the racial stereotyping depicted in the book.

Dr Wong first said that he was shocked to read comments from a large number of citizens who expressed “why so sensitive” attitudes about this controversy.

He went on to say, “But the shock is not as great as my discovery that the book series has been included in a long list of supplementary reading material since 2018, as found on the website of the Committee to Promote Chinese Language Learning, formed under auspices of MOE.

“If National Library Board is to be deemed culpable for having included the book series in its collection, surely they are not alone in it?” he added.

Negligence from the committee for not scrutinising the content of the book

As such, Dr Wong denounced the negligence by the Committee for failing to scrutinise the content of the book, saying, “It is apparently just a form of negligence of the committee in scrutiny though, for the content of the book series as provided in the list makes no mention of the character Mao Mao, the ‘dark-skinned’ bully with ‘a head of oily curls'”.

He also expressed that the “racialised depiction of a school bully in a children’s book” may “negatively shape Chinese perception” of people of other ethnicities in diverse Singapore.

“To Singaporeans who think nothing of a racialised depiction of a school bully in a children’s book targeted at readers aged 7 to 9, we are really not overstating how such content may negatively shape Chinese perception of the ethnic other in our diverse society. It is arguably worse than how Chinese parents in the past would scare children into behaving by saying the Indian policeman would catch them,” he wrote.

Contents in the book is deemed as “racial stereotype”

Addressing several points on the contents which he deemed to be “racial stereotype”, Dr Wong said that “the dark-skinned bully” in the story “is apparently a rascal or maverick that has no respect even for the teacher” while the Chinese boy has to learn the art of self-defence to fight back.

He added, “It is one thing having a fictional character of a villain who does random mischief, like Mao Mao’s abuse of the Chinese protagonist Pi Pi’s toy dog in his initial appearance in Book 1 of the series. It is another thing when this character of the ethnic other serves to perpetuate the worst forms of racial stereotyping you can imagine in Singapore, as we see in Book 3 (Who Wins?).”

Other than this, Dr Wong also pointed out other stereotypes such as Mao Mao making Pi Pi do his homework for him, and bullying Pi Pi if the latter does not help.

“Does that not remind you of some stereotypes about Chinese people being hardworking and certain non-Chinese being lazy and hence poor in schoolwork? This is worse, because the non-Chinese here is not only lazy but a crook,” he remarked.

What’s more, Mao Mao is also said to make Pi Pi buy food for him during mealtimes, otherwise he would snatch from Pi Pi, according to Dr Wong.

He commented, “Now this is disturbing on two different levels. Not only is the non-Chinese being portrayed as a leech here, there seems to be an assumption that the Chinese knows best what is delicious, and there is nothing in the non-Chinese cuisine that may be worth trying.

“How sad and unfortunate is such representation, when Singapore has been making efforts these last couple of years to promote hawker food as a manifestation of our cultural diversity?” he noted.

This “unfortunate episode” reminds us to produce more content in children’s book that reflect multicultural ethos in Singapore

Claiming that his point is not to investigate the writer’s reason in coming up with such a negative depiction of non-Chinese individuals, Dr Wong instead suggested that both local born and recent immigrants of Chinese Singaporeans “may all need to reflect on the source of such racial stereotyping in our colonial history”.

With this “unfortunate episode”, he also believed that it serves as a reminder to the public about the need to produce more content in children’s book that reflect a multicultural ethos in Singapore, either through “nostalgia of kampung life or through celebration of the diverse cultural heritage in Singapore”.

“Perhaps there are fewer and fewer writers among Singaporeans who can produce content in ‘good Chinese’, but if we are unable even to nurture such interest, what is the whole point in inspiring the young ones to read and write in Chinese, beyond doing business with China?”

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