COMMENT: Let's learn to deal with minor racial squabbles on our own

A screengrab from the controversial music video by social media personality Preeti Nair
A screengrab from the controversial music video by social media personality Preeti Nair

Another day, another outrage. And, unsurprisingly, another instance of the government stepping in to police online unrest.

How did we get to this point once again? First, a bewilderingly ill-conceived advertisement riles the public with its racial insensitivity.

Then a sibling duo – Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas – put out a “rap” video in which they mock said advertisement but also lay into Chinese people for “f**king things up” for other races.

Cue at least one offended viewer filing a police report, followed by Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam declaring that the video had “crossed the line” during a media briefing. He also noted that lawyers who looked into the advertisement had found that no offence had been committed.

The video has since been taken down by its creators. So has the offending ad, with an accompanying apology from Mediacorp and the creative agency behind it.

And so we’ve been left with more questions: Who okayed an advertisement that was clearly going to offend a ton of people? Why are the video creators being investigated for a possible offence when those behind the ad were not taken to task?

What I want to know is: When did we get so sensitive? Why is it that, in 2019, we seem more eager than ever to respond effusively to every other piece of “offensive” content?

My take on this whole fiasco is that we’re in sore need of more tolerance, especially when it comes to things we find disagreeable.

Why? Because we shouldn’t need the government to legislate or punish over hurt feelings. Getting the authorities involved in minor race-related spats – as opposed acts of hate speech or crimes — would only lead to a narrower space for expression and discourse for all of us, a no-win scenario all around.

Racial humour is a minefield

I love a good joke, whether it’s clean or off-colour. And with so many potential “triggers” these days, I admire comedians and other artists who are willing to cross the lines of political correctness and ignore the OB markers – to use a uniquely Singaporean term – in doing what they do.

That said, racial humour is a minefield: one that both the ad and video creators seem to have run into blindfolded and suffered the consequences.

While it’s easy to see why the E-Pay advertisement aggravated so many people, I don’t for a second believe that it is evidence of “Chinese people f**king things up” for other races – we know next to nothing about the parties involved in the ad’s creation. What if a non-Chinese person had been a part of it?

Conversely, it would be foolish to think that the content of the Nair siblings’ music video reflects the sentiments of the entire minority community here.

Although they did disclaim that their song was targeted “only at the racist ones”, this clearly did nothing to stop people from being triggered. And it’s easy to see why as they waved their middle fingers about while hurling their racial barbs.

So how do you measure which act was worse: Is it the degree to which the aggrieved were offended? Or is it a matter of the intent behind each work? If you have an answer, let me know.

Putting things in perspective

Taken at face value, both the advertisement and music video might give one the impression that Singapore is a terribly racist place. This is patently untrue.

If the widespread scorn for the E-Pay ad is anything to go by, it suggests that Singaporeans – the majority of whom are Chinese – are aware of the sensitivities of other races. I also didn’t pick up on any resistance to the ad’s removal; there has been no “pro-brownface” faction that fought to keep it up.

Similarly, the Chinese Singaporeans who have voiced their support for the Nair siblings are also clearly concerned about the alleged racism the pair railed about in their video. Isn’t this a good sign?

What I disagree with is the duo’s overblown response over what I see as a minor infraction that likely stemmed from sheer ignorance rather than malice. Put another way, if an insensitive ad – one that was promptly removed – is the biggest racial issue we have to be worried about, then I think our country is doing better than most.

Making mountains out of mole hills to reinforce perceptions of racism can also be dangerously divisive, even if you claim to have done so in jest. At a time when people often put too much trust in entertainers as news sources and opinion makers, we should consider more carefully whose needs are being served each time such a person raises an “issue” or cause.

Growing thicker skins

Despite my criticism, I am against the idea of punishing the Nair siblings under the law for their actions, nor do I support the banning of their material. This is a matter for society to resolve, without the need for government intervention.

The public’s reaction has already led to the E-Pay ad being taken down, showing that it is possible for us to police unacceptable behaviour outside of the law.

Similarly, Preeti and Subhas should also be free to offer their own take on the matter while also dealing with the potential critical backlash and possible professional consequences.

If we don’t learn how to handle offensive material or conflicting views on our own, then we will only beget the nanny state we deserve.

As a Singaporean with Malay, Chinese and Indian blood, I have been on the receiving end of a wide variety of racial jibes and insults over the years. And I haven’t particularly cared for a single one – because I’m less bothered by the words of bigots than I am by their actions.

So how do we move forward? I suggest we grow thicker skins because the alternative is to constantly walk on eggshells around people’s sensitivities. Once we get past all the shouting, we could maybe even have civil discussions on our respective sensitivities while also learning to take a well-meaning joke.

I could be entirely mistaken about the nature and degree of racial grievances that exist here. Maybe we do need the state to nip every instance of racial tension in the bud.

I hope not but if you have a different opinion, let me know. I promise I won’t be offended.

Related stories:

Police, IMDA advise public not to share Preetipls' video due to investigations

Subhas Nair, brother of Preetipls, removed from CNA series and related articles following rap video

‘Stern action’ needed in response to Preetipls’ ‘disturbing’ video: Amrin Amin

Music video by Preetipls has 'crossed the line' by insulting Chinese people: Shanmugam

Police investigating 'offensive' music video by social media personality Preetipls