Dennis Chew, a Singaporean Chinese actor, appeared in an ad campaign for a nationwide cashless payment initiative. In the promotional images—originally displayed proudly on the E-Pay website, as well as in some physical locations—he was dressed up as different characters from Singapore’s main ethnic groups: one of the characters appeared to be a Malay woman in a tudung, while another was an Indian man named K Muthusamy, who Chew portrayed with skin that had been visibly darkened.
I initially learned about the advertisement when my friend Faris Joraimi posted screenshots of it on Instagram. My tweets with screenshots of his posts quickly went viral. As of today, almost 3000 people have retweeted my original post. The advertisement has clearly struck a nerve.
For the past three days, I’ve been monitoring responses through my Twitter notifications. Reactions have been split: the majority of people have expressed outrage at Chew’s use of brownface, but a vocal minority has been sharing the images with comments like “who cares?” and “people are too sensitive these days”.
Incidents like this seem to happen in Singapore—a majority Chinese city-state that prides itself on being a multiracial society—with surprising regularity. The news cycle is fairly predictable. The story breaks that an actor has worn blackface in a Chinese drama or that a Chinese staff member at Sports Singapore put on a turban, a beard, and a stereotypical Indian accent in order to entertain his colleagues at a Deepavali event. Social media users condemn these actions and call them racist. A second group of commentators react to the first and brand them as oversensitive “snowflakes”. The individual who committed the act of racial drag eventually apologises for any unintentional offence caused and the furore dies down… until it (inevitably) happens again.
Is brownface funny?
Defenders of the advertisement have asked those of us who find it distasteful to “learn to take a joke”. This demand begs the question: what’s funny about a Chinese actor dressing up as an Indian man? Apart from the brownface, the image is otherwise unremarkable. Chew plays four different characters, each happily holding a plate of food they’ve presumably bought using e-payment. There are no visual jokes in the image, just a smiling man wearing other races as a costume.
It’s difficult for me to articulate why this image is funny to some people. My guess is that, maybe, when some people see brown skin painted on a Chinese man, they also picture an Indian man with a funny accent. They picture characters that are easy to laugh at because they are fools.
Brownface is a way of demonstrating that racial difference can be commodified
I’m beginning to realise that, to the racist Chinese gaze, being Indian is the punchline. None of these brownface incidents feature actors darkening their skin to portray heroes or dramatic roles—they’re all comic roles. Havas and MediaCorp’s The Celebrity Agency, the creative and talent agencies responsible for the E-Pay ad, stated in their apology that Chew was cast because he was “well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production in a light-hearted way”. Chew is best known for his character Auntie Lucy, one he performs in drag. In the apology statement, “light-hearted” seems to be code for “comedic”. The use of a comedic actor gives the audience the signal and permission to laugh, even if the joke isn’t immediately apparent.
The issue with the advertisement isn’t that its creators substituted a Chinese body for a Malay or Indian one because of budget or personnel restraints. It is that brownface is a way of demonstrating that racial difference can be commodified. The view of Indianness as a combination of dark skin, Bhangra, and a thick accent, is stereotypical and superficial. Brownface treats race like a costume. Brownface is dehumanising because it reduces minorities to caricatures that the majority gets to laugh at.
The Singaporean model of multiracialism has used cultural consumption as a way to build cultural understanding. Schoolchildren dress up in each other’s traditional wear and eat food from different cultures during Racial Harmony Day. A new government campaign titled #MoreThanMany recently published a video encouraging Singaporeans to make connections across racial and religious lines by visiting each other’s places of worship. But pretending to be somebody else for an afternoon does little to deepen your understanding of their lives; it only serves to display your impression of them.
Pretending to be somebody else for an afternoon does little to deepen your understanding of their lives; it only serves to display your impression of them
It’s easy to share some lontong with a Malay friend if you never have to face discrimination when applying for a job because “hiring Malays means being forced to eat halal for work lunches”. It’s fun to wear a kurta for an event if you don’t have to experience parents telling their children to avoid you because the “apu neh neh catches naughty kids”. These discriminatory sentiments exist among the majority because they have a simplistic view of how minorities move through Singapore. Brownface does nothing to disrupt those beliefs—it only reinforces them.
Treating brownface as “just a joke” is an exercise in denial of the negative experiences that minorities face in Singapore. It assumes that all things are equal (and therefore can be made fun of equally), and that an imbalanced power dynamic doesn’t exist. But in fact, brownface punches down—using an already disadvantaged minority as the butt of a joke.
Racism vs Calling out racism
Over the past few days, I’ve been called a “snowflake” by anonymous commenters and told that I need to get over my hurt feelings.
Let me be clear: my purpose in identifying and advocating against racism has nothing to do with protecting my feelings. And whether or not I have an emotional response to something doesn’t determine whether or not it is racist. Racist actions, like brownface, are proof that ethnic minorities are not being treated equally by certain individuals, institutions, and structures. Choosing to pretend that we don’t see racism does nothing to change the material reality of being a minority in Singapore.
It’s a common line of attack that those of us who do anti-racist work encounter. We are too emotional, therefore we are weak. If we just developed thicker skin, we would easily ignore racism or we wouldn’t see it in as many places. Minorities and allies are constantly being asked to dismiss acts of racism because they are always “unintentional” or “accidental”. Our delicate racial harmony is preserved precisely because we don’t take offensive jokes too seriously.
Racist actions, like brownface, are proof that ethnic minorities are not being treated equally by certain individuals, institutions, and structures
When minorities do publicly criticise racism though, they are often met with an explosive response. In response to the E-Pay ad, YouTuber Preeti Nair and her rapper brother Subhas recorded a rap titled K. Muthusamy. In the song, they lambast Chinese racists for only being interested in the “brown dollar”, but not brown people. At no point in the music video did the Nairs make statements against the Chinese race—they only asked that (racist) Chinese people stop “fucking it up” when it came to issues of race. Yet someone went running to the police anyway.
The police announced that they had opened an investigation in response to reports about the video “inciting racial tension”. Comments telling the siblings to “go home to India” were left on their social media posts. The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued a notice to the publishers to take their video down, in accordance with Section 298 of the Penal Code which criminalises “words with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person”.
Even government ministers and Members of Parliament have weighed in and condemned the video. In comments about the video, law minister K Shanmugam insinuated that videos like K. Muthusamy posed a threat to the “social fabric” and “our racial harmony”. News reports on the video have twisted its meaning with words like “obscenities against Chinese Singaporeans” and “race baiting”.
The reaction against brownface had lacked the same firepower—when people were criticising the E-Pay ad on social media, there were no statements from government ministers, nor any police investigation launched. The backlash against calling out racism turned out to be worse than the backlash against racism
The backlash against calling out racism turned out to be worse than the backlash against racism
Minorities in Singapore are expected to shrink their emotional responses to racism. They’re asked to self-censor and police their tone (because if not, somebody else will call the police on them). It’s difficult to convince somebody of the importance of anti-racist work if they refuse to believe that the odds are stacked against minorities from the start. It will always be difficult to phrase requests for equality in a way that is palatable to such people, as any challenge to the status quo threatens to upend their world view.
The way minorities get shot down when they speak up against racism is a reminder to not rock the boat. But that is exactly what threatens our social fabric. Ethnic minorities know that speaking up against injustice puts them in a precarious position.
Singapore prides itself on being a multiracial society, but makes it difficult for minorities who want to make that society safer and more welcoming. Something needs to change if we want to live up to that moniker, or we’ll see another brownface incident in the not too distant future.
Ruby Thiagarajan is the editor-in-chief of Mynah Magazine.