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How Not To Foster Racial Harmony

Issue 66

I was going to do a regular round-up of a bunch of issues this week but I‘m actually going to just focus on the one now, since it’s been such a saga.

We’re all just f*cking it up

So much of the online chatter this week (that I’ve seen, anyway) has been about racism in Singapore. On the one hand, it’s great that this subject has come up because we are so overdue for a serious, honest, soul-searching conversation about racism. But let’s be honest: it’s become a giant shitshow that has simply served to display how very very bad we are at understanding racism and power—and how the government itself perpetuates this ignorance and insensitivity.

It all starts with this ad:

It’s an ad for E-Pay, a unified e-payment system run by NETS, who was in turn appointed by Enterprise Singapore, the National Environment Agency, the Housing Development Board, and JTC Corporation. NETS then hired creative agency Havas to create a promotional campaign, and Havas in turn hired Chinese Singaporean actor Dennis Chew through MediaCorp’s The Celebrity Agency. And the result was, well, that ☝🏼😱😱😱

Also, this:

Unsurprisingly, and completely justifiably, this ad came under fire on social media. For God’s sake, it’s 2019, and it’s not the first time brownface has been called out in Singapore. You think we’d just learn. But no. (Read Ruby Thiagarajan’s piece on why brownface punches down and is not funny.)

Havas and MediaCorp apologised for the ad, and took the photos down, but their apology demonstrated no understanding of why brownface was racist. It was basically a “we’re sorry if you felt offended, we didn’t mean to” type of apology.

Minority Singaporeans were especially fed-up, for obvious reasons—they’ve been dealing with this crap for years now. So when YouTube star Preetipls and her brother, the rapper Subhas Nair, came out with a parody rap video in which they rapped about how “(racist) Chinese Singaporeans keep fucking it up”, I thought their anger was both entirely understandable, and the video incredibly on point. But—surprise surprise—someone goes running to the police, and the cops open an investigation, not into the nationwide brownface ad, but the rap video.

The fact that people actually lodged police reports against minorities calling out racism was bad enough, but then the government dove in as well. Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the E-Pay ad was distasteful, but most of his ammunition was directed at the Nair siblings. Other PAP politicians also lined up to denounce the rap video, although (as far as I know) they were nowhere to be seen when the brownface ad was first brought to public attention.

IMDA also swung into action, issuing orders demanding that the rap video be removed from Preetipls’ social media platforms. Singaporeans who re-uploaded the video were issued orders to take them down within six hours. It also seems as if Twitter and Facebook are geo-blocking the video, although the police investigations are still ongoing.

Subhas Nair was unceremoniously dropped from a Channel NewsAsia (i.e. MediaCorp) documentary about local musicians, which means the song he wrote based on a collaboration with Migrant Band Singapore (a band made up of migrant workers) will not air.

The siblings then released an apology that was really an act of defiance, by borrowing the wording of the weak Havas/MediaCorp apology to shine a light on how woefully inadequate it had been. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a statement that not only attacked the apology as “a mock, insincere apology” (duh, it was an act of resistance), but upped the ante in vindictiveness by branding Preetipls a racist who mocked the Chinese community, and insisting that Subhas’ song for the CNA documentary was “blatantly false” for saying that Singapore condones systemic discrimination. (But hey, if not for this rap video saga, MediaCorp was going to air the song, which it had vetted!)

And while all this is going on, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore—whose council appears to be overwhelmingly Chinese—announced that the brownface ad was “in poor taste” but did not breach its standards, and that no further action needed to be taken.

At this point, read Ruby Thiagarajan’s piece (again) on the challenges of doing anti-racist work in a context where people don’t want to acknowledge power imbalances. Read Faris Joraimi’s Facebook posts. And Alfian Sa’at’s.

It’s so disappointing that we have an opportunity to really tackle racism and systemic discrimination (hey MHA, it does exist in Singapore) head-on, but fucked it up. We keep fucking it up. Instead, this has become yet another exercise of power to deny minority experiences and assert a reality as dictated by the majority and the authorities. If anything was going to cause ill-will and unhappiness in Singaporean society, it’s not the siblings’ rap video—it’s this silencing and policing.

That said, all this branding of people as racists and online trolling accused people (including myself, see below) of wanting to incite race riots is conveniently laying the groundwork for the introduction of hate speech laws and updating of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act that the government wants to do.

And all this as we head towards National Day. Time to be one people, one nation, one Singapore, everyone. Or else.

Time for another democracy classroom!

I’m hosting another two democracy classrooms. This time, it’s on drugs and the death penalty. I figured this would be a good time to discuss this topic, with so many inmates on death row having been issued clemency rejections and at risk of imminent execution, and Pannir Selvam still in the process of fighting for his life through the courts once more. All views—pro-death penalty, anti-death penalty, never really thought about it before, etc.—are welcome, as long as you’re willing to engage in good faith and with patience. See you there!

About the neighbours…

This week, I’d like to share a podcast that colleagues at New Naratif worked really hard on. Part One of Road to Raqqa follows the story of Febri, who chose to leave Indonesia when he was 22 years old and move to Syria to reunite with his mother and the rest of his family. But things in Raqqa were not as advertised in ISIS propaganda, and he managed to make his way back to Indonesia again.

A lot of effort was put into making sure this story was told responsibly, with adequate background and context. As the founder of Ruang Obrol (link in Bahasa Indonesia)—a platform for former combatants and people who have been radicalised—says in the podcast, it’s important to tell the story of such ISIS returnees so that they can share the lessons they’ve learnt from leaving radicalised groups, and warn others of the dangers of radicalisation.