A recent online furore surrounding an online music video made by popular YouTuber Preeti Nair (also known as Preetipls) and her brother, local rapper Subhas Nair, renewed discussion about racism in Singapore. The video was done as a response to a controversial ad which depicted Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew assuming the role of characters from different racial backgrounds, which drew flak online for being “brownface”.
“Brownface” is of course, a colloquial term derived from the American “blackface” terminology. While originally used as a theatrical term to describe the use of make-up by non-black performers to represent a caricature of black people, the word has since evolved to include connotations of racism, negative racial stereotypes and America’s history of slave ownership. Adapted to a local context, “brownface” brings to light the social issues faced by minorities in Singapore.
Racism is a racy issue
The video has since been taken down from most publishing platforms and the case is now under police investigation for offensive content. Law and Home Affairs Home Minister K. Shanmugam has since weighed in on the matter, saying that the video “crosses the line” and “insults Chinese Singaporeans”. Opinions online have been divided: some recognised that the video highlighted what they found to be a disturbing prevalence of Chinese microaggressions, while others found the profanity-laden video to be crass and tasteless.
Racism has always been a fascinating aspect of human behaviour. Jordan Peterson has likened it to the practice of tribalism, iterating that it is a natural tendency and that it will always exist in some form. Of course, this claim does not preclude it from rational thinking. Racism in modern society is frowned upon, and rightly so. If nothing else, history has shown that the repression of racial minorities only results in disaster and casualties on both sides.
Exploring the legal nitty-gritty
The pertinent question now is this: was the offending video indeed offensive? The official rhetoric is that the video is in direct violation of Section 3(1)(e) of the Sedition act, in that it promotes “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”. However, it is hard to objectively determine the seditious effects of media when judgment is handed down before the fact. Which is perhaps why the Sedition act employs the term “seditious tendency”.
Oxford defines tendency as “an inclination towards a particular characteristic or type of behaviour”. Media that runs counter to Section 3(1)(e) could therefore be defined as any form of content that conveys a tone of hostility towards a race of people. To that end, most of us can be in agreement: Preetipls’ video can be considered legally reprehensible. Lampoon or not, the narrative is one that would not be viewed kindly by Singapore’s judiciary.
However, legality is not the only concern at play here. There is also a moral consideration: was the video warranted? Was it “right” even?
The damning legacy of microaggressions
Watching the video, it is plain to see where the discontent lies and how it was able to manifest. What’s scary about microaggressions is their ability to normalise toxic behaviour in small, incremental doses. Like the iceberg, they may seem innocuous on the surface but it’s what lies beneath that will end up dealing the damage. In this particular instance, the ad featuring Dennis Chew can be construed as a reflection of Singapore’s indifference to instances where minorities are treated as non-persons or others.
As a Singaporean Chinese of my generation, I was never fully cognisant of any amount of privilege afforded to my race. I mixed well with other kids and like most children, never really saw the colour of one’s skin as an appreciable differentiator. My social circle was (and still is) varied in terms of race – something that was borne out of mutual appreciation instead of necessity. The naiveté that followed me well into National Service was accompanied by a measure of conviction stemming from that one line in the National Pledge: “regardless of race, language or religion”. Things were set to change from that point.
In the army, things like “Indians can’t jump” and “Malays tend to malinger” were common utterances. The prevalence was to a point where even commanders of a minority race would “buy in” to that belief, albeit subconsciously. Of course, differences in treatment were excruciatingly minor and nominally inconsequential, but it showed that a line (no matter how faint) could be drawn and that it didn’t take much to draw it. It was only in recent years with the explosion of social activism in Singapore that I realised that mere lines were enough to expose a deeper crack in the foundation.
Inevitable, but it didn’t have to be
Somewhere between the Little India riots, the banning of music instruments at Thaipusam, and tired racial stereotypes, social momentum was generated. As Einstein’s Third Law of Motion states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” A moral objectivist and moral relativist may argue their case to kingdom come but if there’s one thing that they would agree on, it’s that any presence of a movement (altruistic or not) will effectively result in the establishment of a counter-movement. The dynamics may differ, but existence is nevertheless assured (ie right and wrong, black and white).
At the end of things, Preeti’s and Subhas’ video is little more than a representation of the malcontents that have sprung up over the years. The immediate danger is that as with the case of Trump’s presidency, allowing the relevant social undercurrents to flow unabated will only result in the floodgates being battered down. Having the strong arm of the law come down only fans the flames and contributes to the combative perception of “us VS them” – something we have seen time and time again in places like Baltimore and more recently, Hong Kong. Bringing things back to the initial question: releasing the video in the public domain may not have been the “right” thing to do, but the sentiment was tenable.
A chance at change?
So what can we expect moving on with this debacle? Unfortunately, incidents like this tend to amount to nothing more than flashes in a very shiny pan. Nevertheless, Singapore’s leniency on matters regarding social issues is well-documented. The question on everyone’s mind is if this latest fiasco will be the one to spark some honest discussion about racism in Singapore. If Preeti’s and Subhas’ lyrics hold up well over time, then we might be in for a bumpy ride. That is, if the majority of us continue to “fuck it up”.