‘Temperate and Dignified’ Ways To React When You’re a Victim of Racism
Top Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

Let’s take a trip back to 2019. Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew, known for playing a variety of comedic personas, stands holding up a phone against a background of bold red in an advertisement. The Chinese actor plays four different characters this time. Each supposedly represents a member of Singapore’s four main races. 

The advertisement for NETS, an electronic payment provider, was meant to promote its e-payment services. “E-payment is for everyone” was the company’s original message. 

The only message that struck a chord was its blatant use of brownface. Here was Dennis, an actor of Chinese descent, portraying himself as someone of colour. 

The roots of the brownface can be traced back to the mid-19th century. White actors punched down on disenfranchised communities in minstrel shows with negative, hurtful stereotypes of people of colour. These performances were often demeaning to the African-American community—blatant acts of racism.

Regardless of intent or location, the racist undertone remained when Dennis Chew did it for the ad. The subsequent backlash drowned out all traces of positive reception towards NETS’ original message. 

The advertisement would have worked better if actors from the country’s four main races were used. Instead, the route they’d gone with, a single Chinese actor playing four members of each race, only highlighted the lack of sensitivity when it comes to issues like racial representation. 

How was it possible that an advertisement meant to promote inclusivity, albeit for the use of yet another e-payment service, be so exclusionary in its execution? 

NETS and Dennis Chew have since apologised for the racism. It did little to soothe public outrage.  

Musician Subhas Nair and his sister, Youtuber Preeti Nair, responded almost immediately to the advertisement. In a music video which has since been taken down, they performed a remix of Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fuck it Up’ with the lyrics: “Chinese people out here always fucking it up.”

They are absolutely right, RICE wrote back then.

Subhas was issued a two-year conditional warning by the Singapore Police Force for that video. The condition? That Subhas did not re-offend within the next two years. He was found to have broken those conditions in 2020 when he posted on Instagram, saying that Malay Muslims who made hateful comments will be treated differently by the authorities compared with Chinese Christians.

Fast forward to today. Subhas is currently claiming trial to four counts of “promoting feelings of ill will between different racial and religious groups in Singapore”. 

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Photo

‘Temperate and Dignified’

In his statement to the police, Subhas argued that it was clear that the video in question was meant to be satirical. Subhas clarified in the same statement that it would be a “lazy reading” if the only thing Chinese people got out of the video was an offensive take. 

During the trial opening statement on Tuesday, Deputy Public Prosecutor Suhas Malhotra clarified that “Had the accused displayed his offence to the advertisement in a temperate and dignified manner, no criminal offence would have been committed.” 

This raises the question: How exactly does one react in a “temperate and dignified manner” to racism? In response to something that digs deep into your sense of identity, no less?

There’s always a time and place to remain civil in the face of ignorance. But “temperate and dignified” responses fly out the window when minorities are sick and tired of being repeatedly wounded by racial slights and racism—both unintended or intended—from growing up in a modern nation that continues to exalt its successful multicultural harmony to the world.

So how do you get the message across when these things keep happening? Why are minorities always expected to stay zen in a boat that keeps getting rocked? 

Outrage, in any form, is the right response. And when some people continue to blame ‘Western cultural imports’ and heightened sensitivities (just refer to the comments section on Dennis Chew’s apology post) to excuse the offensive deeds, calls for “temperate and dignified” behaviour towards racism don’t hold that much water anymore.

But if it’s commanded, then so shall it be. If minorities like Subhas have to resort to responding in a temperate and dignified manner to every moment of racism, we’ll just have to confront them in a chill, noble way. Don’t want to rock the sampan, no? 

Image: Zachary Tang / RICE File Poto

– When someone goes up to your partner and scolds them for engaging in an interethnic relationship, politely pull out saved photos from your phone of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. If they want to engage in colonial-era racism, show how even their colonial masters have accepted mixed marriages (kinda).

– When Muslim kindergarten kids on a bus are questioned about their inclinations towards terrorism, lodge a police report and just hope for the best for a couple of years. We have full faith in the justice system to dispense fair punishments!

– If you have a neighbour from hell that doesn’t like the smell of your ethnic cuisine wafting into the corridors of the public estate and into their houses, reciprocate in kind by watching them 24/7 and calling them out if they ever choose to indulge in a cuisine that isn’t their own. Kindly drop a note that if their cooking doesn’t have any smell whatsoever, they’re not seasoning their food enough.

– When a prospective employer is filtering candidates and is looking for ones that can only speak Chinese, whip out your Duolingo to show that you’re learning and point out that Mandarin isn’t spoken well by the local ethnic community anyway. What’s better than a bilingual Chinese employee? A trilingual employee from a minority community.

– When your Chinese peer comes back from their student exchange program and relates to you their traumatic brush with racism and passive aggressiveness as a minority in another country, listen emphatically. Hold back from stating the obvious (that these things are faced by Singapore’s minority daily). Watch their eyes glaze over and their interest wane as you gently try to explain your lived experience.

– When you get told that members of your race aren’t allowed to rent a room/apartment, thank them profusely for even gracing us with the chance to speak despite being from a supposedly lower status.

– Watch someone be a victim of racist slights and just write about how you didn’t do anything.

– Tell people in your own ethnic community to stop being snowflakes even though they feel strongly about a certain racial incident. 

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