It has been over three days since Mr Shrey Bhargava made a post on Facebook describing his experiences during his audition for the Jack Neo film “Ah Boys to Men” (ABTM). His post sparked many angry responses and personal attacks, including one by Xiaxue.
Based on these responses, it appears that people are getting distracted from what is really at stake.
1. This issue is not about Shrey or about ABTM
Many people have personally attacked Shrey, and some have cast doubts on his credibility and sincerity after a video of him putting on an Indian accent emerged online.
These sort of personal attacks miss the point – they convert what could have been a constructive dialogue about race issues into a mudslinging contest that goes nowhere. I find it ironic that many who accuse him of jumping to conclusions with regard to the racism behind his audition experience also themselves jump to conclusions about his background and character. In any case, even if we assume that what happened in that audition room may not have been as Shrey depicted, and even if we assume that there is some reason to doubt Shrey’s sincerity and credibility, we can all admit that racial stereotypes have always permeated our media scene, and that racism is a problem in Singapore – discrediting Shrey will not make all these go away. Personal attacks merely distract us from what is important.
As this netizen put it:
So here’s my point: why focus on Shrey? He is not the only ethnic minority in this country – there are many out there who suffer from racial discrimination, and who are also upset at caricatures of their race, and the way they are treated by others. Their experiences and views should be our focus, not Shrey. We are doing a disservice to minority groups when we make this incident just about Shrey, and not about them.
2. The issue is not about what is or is not funny
Some people have said that caricatures are part of comedy; they are not meant to be taken seriously. Others have said that they have found ways to laugh at caricatures and stereotypes about themselves, so why make a fuss? But this again misses the point.
To put it bluntly, the issue is not about what you find funny. It is about whether what you find funny hurts others. Let me use a simple example. Is bullying fun? To the students carrying out the bullying, of course it is! Otherwise, why would they do it? But just because it is fun for them does not mean it is fun for the person bullied, and it is no defence for the bully to say – “but I found it fun”.
I think many Chinese-Singaporeans find this difficult to understand because they have not experienced what it is like to be a minority race. Having lived abroad, I am aware of the hurtful stereotypes that people make about minorities due to their constant exposure to caricatures in the media. While caricatures may be fictitious exaggerations, they do influence the way we treat others, often without us realizing. Speaking from experience, it’s hurtful when you meet new people and try to be yourself, but all they see are stereotypes and caricatures. Racial caricatures, or caricatures of any sort are like junk food – they are nice to consume but not necessarily healthy, all things considered.
3. The issue is not about taking up or rejecting the role
Some people find Shrey’s conduct objectionable because, they argue, if he didn’t like the role, then he should simply just not take it up – why make it an issue?
This argument is built on poor reasoning, and also misses the point. Indeed, Shrey can refuse the role – there is no question about that; but that does not change the fact that the role exists, and that its existence demonstrates a systemic racial problem in our country. Let me give an example – if an industry explicitly discriminates against women (let’s say, as a hypothetical example, the engineering industry), as a woman, you certainly have a right not to study to become an engineer, but you also have the right to bring this issue up. Telling a woman “well, then just don’t be an engineer” is not only insensitive, but misses the point.
4. The issue is not about “stirring shit”
Many people were outraged at Shrey for what they called “stirring shit” – i.e. stirring up racial tensions. Some noted that Singapore’s racial harmony is precious and should not be taken for granted, and it was wrong of Shrey to disrupt that harmony.
This is a terrible argument. As I noted in a previous article, the idea that one should not be bringing up race issues because they are divisive and sow discord is equivalent to telling an oppressed minority to tolerate oppression, since speaking out will upset ‘harmony’. This is wrong. If we see racism, or what we believe to be racism, we must talk about it, even if it is upsetting or divisive. It is one thing to say “Shrey, I do not think you are being fair to the ABTM producers for describing your experience as racist”, and another to say “Shrey, you are upsetting our racial harmony by bringing this up; you should not have talked about these things”.
As an Indian friend of mine put it:
“This smear campaign against Shrey is indicative of only one thing – that racial harmony in Singapore is not built on dialogue and listening. It’s built on minorities having to constantly toe the lines set by Chinese people about what minorities can and cannot do, say, or feel.”
We need to understand that the real issue goes beyond what Shrey said or did, or who he is or what he has done in the past. In fact, if you want to find out what the real issue is, just look at the way people responded to the incident. Their responses revealed the level of ignorance and racism amongst many Singaporeans, as well as their inability to have a constructive conversation about race. We may disagree as to whether the ABTM audition itself was racist; but based the responses of many Singaporeans, it is difficult not to conclude that quite a number of Singaporeans are.
In a way, this incident was a litmus test for Singaporeans concerning whether we are sufficiently mature as a population to have a discussion about sensitive issues such as race. We fared poorly, not because people disagreed with Shrey, since controversial issues are not controversial issues unless there is disagreement in the first place. Rather, we fared poorly because most (though not all) people were more interested in shouting down their opponents and making personal attacks rather than trying to listen, empathize and engage the issues at stake. I think we can do better as a society.
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For an earlier article on race issues in Singapore, see – Can we please talk about race?