COMMENT: The level of Chinese tolerance in the face of the Preetipls saga

A screengrab from the music video posted on Facebook by the Nair siblings, in which the pair mocked a recent advertisement for an e-payment website. (PHOTO: Facebook / Preetipls)

Ask you: If the Preetipls video about the “brownface” ad was allowed to stay up online, would someone in the Chinese community respond with a similar one? I don’t mean a polite riposte, but one as profanity-laced and as explicit in target as the siblings’ video?

I think there is a possibility, although people’s first instinct would be to make a police report. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam thinks it’s a probability which is why, he said, the G didn’t want to take chance of having the Internet filled with “attack videos”. So the siblings were censured and warned about breaching Section 298 of the Penal Code. “You think others would do something similar now?” he asked.

Some would say that Mr Shanmugam was indulging in the slippery slope argument, and that the citizenry on the Internet would have decried such videos and forced them out of existence. Mr Shanmugam doesn’t think so, citing the experience of other countries which have allowed hate or offensive speech to creep into the mainstream discourse and become “normalised”. Singapore, he said, was not a unique nor superior country.

Then comes the question of whether the video was really hateful or offensive. Most of the people in the audience he spoke to at the National University of Singapore agreed that it should be taken down. They found it offensive, but didn’t say why. I can only presume that they were turned off by the profanities. It was an own-goal for the siblings whom I think wanted to goad people into a judgment about the brown face E-pay ad that was the source of their discontent.

We can go on and on about what to feel and think and whether what we feel and think is “right”. No one should tell us how to feel and think but I do think it’s time to ask ourselves why we feel and think in a certain way. (Sorry, did that sound complicated? Anyway, you can read my post here about being a minority confronted with race issues. )

Mr Shanmugam conducted a three-hour seminar yesterday, asking questions of and taking questions from the audience. He had powerpoint slides with statistics. I wish more politicians would talk to the public this way, rather than conduct a top-down lecture. This is not to say that I agree with everything Mr Shanmugam said. Nor do I think he wished for that. Let’s say that such a style of conversation allows room for disagreement and engagement.

What I took away from the seminar was this: How the Chinese majority feels and thinks is probably more important than what the minority community feels and thinks. Because if the Chinese community took offence and responds in kind to the siblings’ video, then “the minorities will be the losers in such a conversation,” as Mr Shanmugam put it.

This, I think, is the flip side of Chinese privilege. The Chinese may not even realise that they are being casual racists when they make flippant comments about minority members, but it also means they have a higher threshold of tolerance when they are the subject of racist comments. That comes from being secure in the position of the dominant majority. This is why the Chinese community isn’t fussed about Gurmit Singh’s Phua Chu Kang persona. I wager that Mr Singh is probably not even viewed as non-Chinese – he’s half Chinese. You don’t see the minorities taking offence either, although if we want to be scrupulously fair, the Phua Chu Kang portrayal was worse than Dennis Chew holding up plates of food in the E-pay ad.

Nor did many people take offence at Ms Preeti Nair’s unflattering portrayal of a Chinese woman in a cheongsam celebrating Chinese New Year in an earlier video. I can only assume that the Chinese who had watched the video laughed it off, while the minorities were ambivalent. But what would have happened if she had donned a tudung and made stereotypical comments about Malay/Muslims celebrating Hari Raya? The uproar from the community would have reached the heavens!

More race-conscious but less racist?

So when is a joke taken too far and what is our level of tolerance towards casual racism? How even-handed should our policies be towards different races? Or should we let societal norms – we can take pot shots at the Chinese but not the minorities – reign?

Mr Shanmugam thinks that Singapore has become “more race-conscious” but “less racist”, as evidenced by surveys. “Therefore, we are more quick to accept that others might take offence. In the past, if anyone had complained about it, they would have dismissed you.”

That’s quite counter-intuitive. You would have thought more complaints meant more racism. Perhaps, it’s all about how you argue the case: It’s not about more racism but more people saying that racism is unacceptable. Is it therefore good to be “race conscious”? Or should we disregard “race” as a factor?

We can’t disregard race at all in Singapore, not when it’s pushed into our face by the G’s ethnic policies. So you have the CMIO categories to fill in on forms, ethnic quotas in housing estates and guaranteed minority representation during general elections. The Chinese majority didn’t raise a fuss about the right of a Chinese to sell his flat to a Malay or Indian (although it’s probably less of a problem than a Malay having to find a Malay to sell his flat to). The Chinese majority didn’t complain that it wasn’t democratic to discriminate against the majority who might wish for more of its own kind in Parliament.

I think the Chinese would have complained more if they bothered to keep up with the process that led to an elected presidency with a race element in 2016. They didn’t, at least, not enough to derail the process. In fact, the complaints came from the other side: minorities were upset to be singled out for some kind of special protection.

So race can’t be disregarded because we’re not allowed to, and because the G thinks that’s the way to ensure we can all live together peacefully within the rules. Unless, of course, future generations of Singaporeans think differently and there already signs that they are less racist than their forefathers.

I think we should have pressed Mr Shanmugam more about what he thought about the E-pay ad. Clearly, he didn’t find it as offensive as the video. The ad was more a case of being “unthinking” – and complaints would probably have been dismissed in the past. Those in the audience who found the ad offensive said that it demeaned other races (not okay for a Chinese to act as someone not of his race) and how other races shouldn’t be viewed as costumed caricatures. Mr Shanmugam pointed out the dangers of taking political correctness too far, by mandating, for example, that nobody should impersonate race, and even another gender. He asked if people found the ad offensive as an afterthought, in the light of the publicity surrounding the issue.

I think the ad was offensive because it was aimed at the Chinese-speaking heartlander, rather than the population as a whole. It was conceived – thoughtlessly – as an inside joke for the Chinese community who watch him on television. Mr Chew is unknown to the non-Chinese. So the Chinese might smile at the sight of him in drag or in a tudung, but the non-Chinese would simply ask why the company couldn’t afford to pay other races to be featured in the ad. I daresay that if it was Gurmit Singh who had the role, there would be a great deal less fuss, or even no fuss.

I was glad that Mr Shanmugam reiterated that the siblings had a right to express themselves – although the tone of expression was beyond the pale. This is not about clamping down on the right to say what you feel or think, but about realising that how you say it is as important.

This is not a rap, just a ditty. I hope it passes muster as a sanitised summarised version of what the siblings were trying to say.

Hey you Chinese people

Can’t you see what you just did?

You think you can be like me or him?

Who are you trying to kid?

It’s not funny when you wear a tudung

Or put a bindi on your face

Because we’re not costumes,

We’re members of a race.

Sure, we can clown around,

Crack a racist joke or two

But let’s see if you like it,

When the majority is not you.


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