How quickly can events unfold, with each stumbling over the last in a series of developments that will take Singapore a couple of steps backward for every step forward in its effort to be colour-blind in inter-racial relations. Will we ever be?
Electronic payments provider Nets thought it was business as usual as it concocted an ad aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to switch to e-payments: E-Pay. The Easy Way. Tap Or Scan. All Also Can. In the same all also can mode, it trotted out MediaCorp actor-cum-comedian Dennis Chew in multiple CIMO and even gender-bending roles. The one which seemed to have bothered some minority-race Singaporeans was Dennis as a brown-faced Indian (since the Malay Singaporean had already been portrayed by the tudung-wearing female Malay).
Nets would probably have gotten away with this lazy ad which many Singaporeans, especially those of the minority races, were getting quite tired of seeing (penat-lah, according to Alfian Sa’at, the poet. I would add cukup lah). In a nation of group-thinkers led and brainwashed by group-thinking leaders, stereotyping is the sure-fire way to have your ad quickly accepted by committee or consensus. So you go for the lowest-hanging fruit 99 per cent of the time. Faster and easier money. Why try so hard and land yourself in trouble? Or so Nets thought. It landed in trouble anyway.
Local rapper Subhas Nair and his sister, Preeti, did not like the ad. They saw it as yet another ad targeting dark-skinned Singaporeans and produced a video whacking Chinese Singaporeans for taking advantage of minority races. They used rather strong language to register their disgust.
After that, everything went south.
Police moved in to investigate the video. Law and Home Minister K Shanmugam said it crossed the line: “This rap video insults Chinese Singaporeans, uses four-letter words on Chinese Singaporeans. Vulgar gestures, pointing of middle finger to make minorities angry with Chinese Singaporeans….When you use four-letter words, vulgar language, attack another race, put it out in public, we have to draw the line and say not acceptable.”
The minister said it’s not a defence to say the video was done in response to something they “didn’t like”.“If something you didn’t like, then you ask for an apology. If you think it is criminal, you make a police report. You don’t yourself cross the line…I’ve seen an earlier video by her (Preeti), Chinese New Year, doing the very same thing that the ad was criticised for. She’s wearing a cheongsam and speaking sometimes in Mandarin, making fun of Chinese New Year, attacking Chinese.
“Suppose you allow this video. Let’s say a Chinese now does a video attacking Indians, Malays using four-letter words, vulgar gestures, same kind of videos,” Shanmugam said. If authorities allow this video, we have to “allow” hundreds of similar videos.
The ad was taken out. Nets apologised through its creative agency Havas Worldwide. So did MediaCorp through its celebrity wing, The Celebrity Agency.
Were Subhas and Preeti sorry? Hard to tell. They came out with an apology spoofing the apology given by MediaCorp and Havas and had the Home Ministry slamming them for being insincere and practically recalcitrant. Perhaps the Nairs still wanted to have the last creative say, their infraction notwithstanding. Yesterday Aug 3, they offered an unconditional apology “for the tone, aggression, vulgarities and gestures used in the K Muthusamy music video”. They also explained that whatever they have been doing were parodies.
The uproar has left a trail of collateral damage.
CNA has removed Subhas from its musical documentary ROAR featuring him and three musicians. As a result, Migrants Band Singapore, a musical group formed from migrant workers here, will not get their day in the sun and “stories of Migrants Band Singapore will also be silenced”, according to independent magazine, Sand Magazine, which supports the workers.
Perhaps the biggest form of collateral damage from this “brown face” episode would be the continuing tendency to avoid completely the issue and pretend that racism does not exist. Our literature, drama and music would be about unreal worlds where other races do not exist except as cardboard figures. For every two steps we take forward, we seem always to end up taking two backward.
Frankly I may disagree with what Subhas and Preeti were trying to do especially the vulgarity part. But if what they felt about Chinese privilege represented the feelings of even a small percentage of minority Singaporeans, they needed to be heard – and engaged. The authorities have the whole state machinery of media talents at their disposal to counter every narrative. All well paid and bristling with energy to pulverise others. Unleash these talents to fight out the public battle for the minds and souls of Singaporeans – within the limits of the law, that is. Or are they overpaid and incapable?
PSP launch: Cheng Bock in tears
Somehow or other, Singapore is a fairly lucky country. For all their faults, the first generation People’s Action Party leaders were exceptional. People like Lim Chin Siong would likely have been an effective leader had he prevailed in the battle with Lee Kuan Yew and company. Nothing wrong either with the brilliant David Marshall, the first Chief Minister.
At a time when the unhealthy monopoly of the PAP had to be broken, up came J B Jeyaretnam and Chiam See Tong followed by Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim.
Now Dr Tan Cheng Bock stands at the threshold of making history in his comeback as he shows us what is a leader with heart, with the non-negotiable interests of true-blue Singaporeans at the top of his priorities.
I sense a sea change.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.