Brownface and Anger in Singapore

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by Benjamin Tan

This past week, Singapore’s national conversation lurched again into another public controversy around race and racism – begun not by presidential election rules, but by a single advertisement.

The advertisement in question announced a new e-payment system by NETS, which the company promises us will revolutionise the way Singaporeans pay at coffee shops and hawker centres. The poster has drawn criticism for using a Chinese actor to portray a Muslim-Malay woman (in a tudung) and an Indian man with what seems to be digitally darkened skin. The latter character, according to online critics, is an instance of “brownface”: an undignified and recurring caricature of Singapore’s minority Indians for the comedic pleasure of its Chinese majority.

The central charge of the advertisement’s critics is that of racism. Among those critics are social commentator Preetipls and her brother, Subhas Nair, who together created a music video satirising the advertisement that rewrites Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s recent single “F*ck it Up”. In her revised rap, Preetipls, whose real name is Preeti Nair, redirects Azalea’s signature caustic rage at “Chinese people” in Singapore who “keep f*cking it up” – while throwing both her middle fingers to the camera. Midway through the video, she declares: “This one’s for all the Chinese people who don’t know their place / We’re in 2019 man, this sh*t’s a disgrace”.

Preetipls’s rap is clever, provocative, and most of all ambitious. The “disgrace” it refers to reaches far beyond the offending advertisement – for which both the creative agency responsible and Mediacorp, which manages the Chinese actor, have apologised – and, tellingly, never names the advertisement’s creators. In moments, the rap directly rebukes the imagined Chinese viewer (“How come you so jealous of the colour of my skin?”), and declares that racism in Singapore is endemic, rather than occasional (“Chinese people always out here f*cking it up”). Preetipls also indicts our disjointed national conversation on race. She mocks the common refrain in our racial discourse that (in Preetipls’s words) “everything is okay”, and the tendency of officials to discourage contentious discussions of racism.

Now, government ministers are upset – not by NETS’s advertisement, but by Preetipls’s video. Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who for some years now has been the government’s point-man on race issues, has declared the video beyond the pale. He offered to journalists an aggressive censure of the video, claiming that it “insults Chinese Singaporeans” and therefore threatens the nation’s “social fabric”. The minister is assisted, of course, by the heavy hand of the law: the police are investigating Preetipls for allegedly inciting racial hatred, and the Infocomm Media Development Authority have ordered websites to take down the video. Never mind that a Chinese man in brownface remains plastered on billboards across the island, offering himself for children to gawk and giggle at.

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To be sure, Preetipls’s rap has its problems. It suggests, for instance, that a Chinese actor was cast as an Indian because “all they [the Chinese] want is to steal the brown dollar”. This fuels an old racist stereotype in Southeast Asia, perpetuated centuries ago by European colonialists, that the Straits Chinese are coin-grabbing, conspiring cheats.[1] At best, this insinuation sits uncomfortably in a political rap calling out racist stereotyping; at worst, it opens the way for the government to censure the video on the grounds that it is hateful and, indeed, racist.

But this line of criticism has not been widely taken up by public officials. Instead, in claiming that Preetipls’s video threatens social harmony, Mr Shanmugam and other ministers have levelled two main charges.

The first charge is that of incivility. Not only did Preetipls publicise her disapproval; she did so in a manner that lacked good taste. She was, in the words of various ministers, vulgar. Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth Grace Fu warns that the video was “disrespectful, and will lead us down a dark path”.

Second, Preetipls engaged in what Mr Shanmugam characterised as a directed “attack”. This is the claim that Preetipls, unlike the advertisement’s creators, intentionally expressed animus towards a named racial group (though, she says in the video with an actual wink, not all Chinese people are at racist). The video, Minister of State Zaqy Mohamad wrote on Facebook, “attacks Chinese Singaporeans with vulgar gestures and expletives”. Thus, while a chorus of ministers have now condemned both the advertisement and Preetipls’s video, only the latter has been singled out for censorship.

The ministers’ responses are revealing. Note, for example, that much official alarm has been directed at Preetipls’s use of a “four letter word” – a “vulgarity” – but much less has been said about the vulgarity of brownface. The implication seems clear: on the government’s view, a nation-wide marketing campaign commissioned by a large corporation bearing brownface – though unfortunate and insensitive – does not particularly threaten social stability. An angry and intentional response by citizens to such a campaign, however, is downright dangerous.

No reasonable viewer, I think, would deny that Preetipls’s video is angry. And the government’s anxiety about the wider response to the video is not entirely unfounded; angry words often beget more angry words. The video has already triggered openly racist comments online, including some calling on Preetipls to “go back to India”. Singaporeans need only look to the West to see that extremist political movements often succeed by fostering misplaced anger towards minorities. Mr Shanmugam suggests that, instead of rapping “four letter words”, those upset with the advertisement should file police reports. Public anger, on this view, is counterproductive. Preetipls, while seeking to expose racial disharmony, has threatened to exacerbate it even further.

But is there no place in our civic life for the kind of profane anger expressed by Preetipls? In the face of perceived, persistent injustice, anger is often the response demanded of us as moral beings. “[G]etting angry”, the Oxford philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes, “is a means of affectively registering or appreciating the injustice of the world”.[2] Put simply, public anger is one way of expressing moral disapproval, and a powerful tool to communicate this disapproval to fellow citizens. When it comes to exposing insidious social harms such as racism – which can be hard to discern for citizens who are not victims of it (or, indeed, are perpetrating it) – righteous indignation can be very effective.

In Singapore, hawker centres, much like our schools, are treasured multiracial spaces, symbols of social harmony amidst extreme diversity. Displaying a poster that singles out one race for ridicule at the entrances to these spaces viciously undercuts the vision of Singapore as a harmonious and inclusive society. Preetipls and Subhas are citizens clearly committed to this vision, and have loudly called our attention to what they see as a failure of Singapore to live up to its values. Their critics should thus recognise, behind the satire and swearing, a kind of civic-mindedness animating their video.

There is already evidence to suggest that Preetipls’s anger, as a way of calling out perceived injustice, has had positive repercussions – that it has worked. In direct response to the rap video, curious Singaporeans in online forums and real life are embarking on open discussions about racism in the country. Amid increasing workplace discrimination reported by ethnic-minority Singaporeans, such discussions seem necessary. They indicate that Preetipls’s musical expression of anger was perhaps a constructive social act, as well as a morally warranted reaction – one that may ultimately help forge a more durable social fabric, and not perpetuate a torn one.

Instead of reproaching Preetipls and her brother as petulant anarchists, officials should recognise their anger as thoughtful and moral. Silencing such speech risks signalling to Singaporeans that racism in this country is not an urgent problem. By unequivocally condemning the rap video, our public servants risk excluding themselves from conversations about race already taking place elsewhere. This could undercut the government’s recent commitment to mediate open and honest dialogue on race.

Engaging with – rather than suppressing – such anger from well-meaning citizens is a challenge for our public servants. But such an approach only befits a government that seeks to maintain social harmony.

Written by Benjamin Tan

Alexander Koh contributed research for this article.

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Notes

[1]  If this sounds like Southeast Asia’s version of anti-Semitism, it is no coincidence: as the historian of Southeast Asia Nicholas Tarling notes, some early-modern Europeans used anti-Semitic tropes to describe the Straits Chinese. Recently de-classified colonial archives in London also show that, in the mid-twentieth century, British officials in the region privately worried that the Chinese threatened to “exploit the native … by acting as money-lenders and pawnbrokers”, repeating the trope: The Post War Emigration Policy of China, September, 1944, FCO 141/16975/1, The National Archives of the UK.

[2]  Amia Srinivasan, “The Aptness of Anger”, The Journal of Political Philosophy (2017), 10.

One thought

  1. I feel that there should also be more conversation about the fact that a chinese man also dressed up as a malay woman in a tudung…considering the amount of discrimination and downright violence that malay muslim women face not just in singapore but also all over the world, that is nothing to laugh about. As an Indian, I am glad that we are finally talking about this issue but its also important to not sideline another minority group in this conversation as their rights are just as important as ours

    Liked by 2 people

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