Brownface, rap videos, and race riots.

Over the past day, I’ve seen—or been sent by friends who thought I should know—social media posts and memes accusing me of wanting, or actively trying, to spark racial riots in Singapore because of my reaction to news that a rap video made by Preetipls and Subhas Nair is now being investigated for being “offensive”.

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The logic appears to be as follows: because I condone the siblings’ rap video, I am encouraging actions that would incite ill-will and hostility between races in Singapore, therefore I range from either being unconcerned about plunging Singapore into racial riots to actually trying to instigate such riots (it escalates super quickly). 

And then there’s also the line of reasoning that—and here comes the twist, wait for it—concludes that actually, I have been the racist one all along because I was the only one who treated the brownface E-Pay ad as a joke (wrong on both counts), and because I used the term “brown people”.

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I’m not sure who the people who have made these memes/graphics are, but I thought I‘d just take this opportunity to make my position, and line of reasoning, clearer:

I think it’s outrageous that Preetipls and Subhas’ work have been subjected to an investigation, when this work was actually a reaction to yet another example of in-your-face racism. It‘s outrageous that the response to minorities calling out racism was harsher than the response to a nationwide campaign that used minorities’ dress and skin-tone as a costume, because the agencies behind it thought it‘d be a “light-hearted” way to get a message across.

How is this remotely okay?

How is this remotely okay?

Both the rap video and the E-Pay ad have to be seen in the context of race relations in Singapore today. It’s a context in which Chinese Singaporeans are in the majority, and don’t have to personally deal with the sort of discrimination and stereotyping that these from minority groups do. We don’t have to deal with job ads that exclude us because employers say they want English/Mandarin bilingual workers (by which they really mean they want Chinese workers, since non-Chinese who can speak Mandarin have also reported being given the brush-off). We don’t have to be forced to sell our HDB flats for less than our (Chinese) neighbours, because the Ethnic Integration Policy says we can only sell to buyers from the same ethnic group as us. When a parent warns their naughty child to behave “or the apunehneh will come catch you”, we can laugh along safe in the knowledge that we will never be mistaken for “the apunehneh”.

In this context, when someone like Preetipls dons a cheongsam and pokes fun, we Chinese Singaporeans can laugh it off, or be offended—but at the end of the day we can just shrug it off and go out into society and know that we‘ll still be taken seriously, that we still won’t have to deal with the discrimination and prejudice that our minority compatriots do.

That’s why cracking jokes at the expense of those who occupy a more privileged space in society is known as “punching up”—we’re making fun of those who have more power or social standing or social/economic/political capital than us. They can afford to take the jab; in fact, it can be argued that it might even be good for them to take the jab, because this can provoke self-reflection about their position in society and how they are performing or engaging with others in society.

It’s not really on the same level, because of power dynamics.

It’s not really on the same level, because of power dynamics.

On the other hand, an ad where Dennis Chew puts on a tudung or gets painted brown to play “K Muthusamy” for laughs is playing into a context where minorities are often already taken less seriously, where they face discrimination in employment and the workplace (and the property market too). A context where people find the act of putting on brown makeup and pretending to be “K Muthusamy” hilarious is a context in which people, on some level, just find being brown kind of funny. (Why is that? We should ask ourselves this.)

This is “punching down”—we’re having fun at the expense of a group of people who already grapple with discrimination and marginalisation and prejudice. This group doesn’t need any more jabs nor a reminder to reflect upon their position in society (they‘re already reminded in so many ways all the time), but our jokes are adding to and perpetuating this discriminatory environment.

My fear is that our unwillingness to acknowledge that this power imbalance exists is what will end up causing ill-will between the races in Singapore. Our insistence that all things are equal and “two wrongs don’t make a right” when things are simply not equal is going to lead to more such cases, where the majority (or the powerful, which is not always the same thing) constantly gets away with “fucking up” by issuing half-hearted apologies about “unintended offence”, and the minority (or those with less power) are the ones that come under for fire for responding to or calling out injustice. 

And if your problem was that the rap video contained swearing and middle fingers... well, dealing with methods of expression that we personally don’t agree with is also part of a mature, democratic society in which we recognise that everyone has a fundamental right to expression (as long as it doesn’t actually incite harm against others, and I don’t think the rap video meets that standard).

Dealing with discrimination and prejudice is a challenge in every community and society. But we cannot deal with these things unless we also examine and acknowledge that imbalances and inequalities exist. We also can’t deal with these pressing problems by running to the police every time we see something we don’t like, or expecting legislation—like promises to “update” the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act—to be the solution. We can only mature together as a society when we learn to navigate dissent, disagreement, and offence, rather than expecting them to be stamped out or swept under the carpet to preserve an appearance of “harmony”.

Kirsten Han