The online community in Singapore has been abuzz this week thanks to snafus courtesy of Toggle and TheSmartLocal. By now, you should’ve heard all about the brouhaha surrounding the two, but in case you haven’t, here’s a quick recap.
Earlier this week, Toggle released an episode of an original titled, I want to be a Star, a Mandarin show which follows small-time actors trying to make it big. In this particular episode, which has since been taken down, the casting director requires a muscular African man for a scene where he does nothing but scare a female lead by being big and black. Sounds like a terrible idea? It gets worse. Unable to find an African actor, they go with the only other rational alternative: try to look for an Indian actor because, according to Chew Chor Meng’s character: “It’s all the same what.”
When you think it can’t get any worse, they resort to dressing a Chinese actor in Blackface when they cannot find an Indian actor.
In the same vein of being culturally insensitive, TheSmartLocal (TSL) released a video named Singaporeans Try: Indian Snacks (are Singaporean Indians not Singaporeans?). What was most offensive, however, was the fact that people in the video (staff at TSL) compared ladoos to diarrhoea.
I should probably clarify that I am a 25-year-old Indian male, born and bred in Singapore. Sure, I’ve experienced the casual racism in the form of jokes cracked by friends who think they’re a riot when they call you “Aneh”, but I never chalked any of it up to being malicious. I knew it wasn’t right, but I have a non-confrontational personality so I’d much rather just laugh it off than make a big deal out of it.
For example, recently, while on a trip to the office, the taxi driver asked me if I was local. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this so I replied without looking up from my phone. He then asked me if I was Indian, which got me a little curious so I said, “Yes, why?” The Chinese uncle then chuckled and said, “Lucky you have an English name. If I saw an Indian name I wouldn’t have accepted the booking.”
He explained that he “wasn’t being racist” to me, but he didn’t like picking Indian nationals because “they are one kind”. I was so stunned at his bigotry I couldn’t even manage a reply.
Protip: when you’re about to say something racist but include the caveat “I’m not racist but…” at the beginning of the sentence, you are being racist.
When my editors asked if I was going to write an article about the drama that has been going on this week, I just shrugged. However, this incident, and a conversation I had with my colleagues yesterday has spurred me to pen my opinion on the matter.
While at lunch, we were discussing about Toggle’s and TSL’s titanic faux pas when one of my Chinese colleagues shared that he thought the ideal way to deal with racist comments was ignorance. He felt that by acknowledging and allowing such trolls to get under our skin, we would just be encouraging them.
Of course, I disagreed with this, and so too did another colleague, who is also an ethnic minority. So we spent the better part of an hour trying to convince him that ignorance would not solve anything.
No matter what we said, our Chinese colleague was adamant that racial slurs would start to lose meaning if people continued to ignore it.
I was running out of ideas to help him see otherwise when the African-American Civil Rights Movement example popped in my head. So I shared that if people like Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks had done nothing but ignored the racism that was going on in America, African-Americans would still have to sit in the “colored section” of buses and attend segregated schools, among other things.
If no one had done anything about it, Caucasian-Americans would have never seen what was wrong with the way African-Americans were being treated.
It was only then that he realised the point we were trying to drive home. Our colleague, bless him, doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body but he grew up during a time when casual racist statements were freely uttered and stereotypes were taken as scientific fact.
Coming from a race that is the majority in Singapore, it was hard for him to fully understand the gravity of the situation, of how minorities are unconsciously subjugated through careless thoughts and words.
Much like how women not being able to vote or a black man using a side door to enter a building used to be perceived as normal, so too is casual racism in Singapore.
If you’re from an ethnic majority, your words have power to change and move people. I can bang on my drum as loud as I want but there’s no point to it if my cries are ignored.
If you’re a person from an ethnic minority, I urge you to speak out tactfully instead of taking it silently and educate people on the historical context and symbolism behind racist terms.
I may still have a non-confrontational personality, but the episode has convinced me that I need to be more vocal (yet tactful) when I encounter racism, even if it is casual. I hope you will too.
The opinions expressed in this article are strictly that of the author and not those of AUGUSTMAN magazine.