Local playwright Alfian Sa’at has expressed revulsion at a photo of Raffles Institution (RI) donning blackface and mocking their schoolmate for his complexion. Mr Alfian, who is perhaps most well-known for his plays ‘Cooling Off Day’ and ‘Cook a Pot of Curry’, is an RI alumnus himself.
The group blackface photo, which was taken in 2016, shows a student who is believed to be of Sri Lankan descent squatting in front of a paper bag that bears his name and the words “whitening kit”. About 10 schoolmates wearing black facial masks can be seen surrounding him, holding various items like a bottle of Nivea whitening lotion, deodorant, fake cash and a photo shopped poster of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
One of the students who was wearing blackface posted the photo on his Instagram account. Although the photo was taken down sometime later, it was found and republished on Twitter on Wednesday (3 June).
Responding to the viral photo on his personal Facebook page, Mr Alfian said that he was repulsed and ashamed, especially since he attended RI himself. Pointing out that RI is supposed to be one of Singapore’s ‘elite’ schools and could be perceived as ‘less racist’ than other schools in its rank, the playwright shared anecdotes showing the racism he encountered from his own time at the school:
“When I first saw this photo today, I just felt such visceral revulsion and shame—because this was the school I went to. It was, and is, supposed to be one of the ‘elite’ schools in Singapore. And maybe one thinks that a school like this would somehow be ‘less racist’ than other elite schools in Singapore, since those might have the baggage of being monoethnic (like the SAP schools) or unattractive to those of particular religions (like the mission schools). Raffles Institution was supposed to be secular and multiracial, with students consisting of some of the brightest minds in Singapore.
“What was life like in Raffles for me? For the most part, I felt I thrived, because it was one of the few schools which allowed me to pursue my love for theatre. But these days I look back and wonder what I could have suppressed or tolerated merely to survive as a minority in that space. Because there is something about the racism from ‘educated’ teens that is different from the standard name-calling one encounters.
“It’s often more layered, more sly, sheathed in wit and cleverness. Someone asks you, ‘How long can shit stay in an Indian woman?’ The answer: ‘nine months’. Another one scolds him, ‘eh why you so racist?’ But he says this laughingly. The rebuke is deliberately defanged, flopping helplessly and comically at the insult.
“The racism is not supposed to be the point here, as you’re supposed to appreciate how the joke turns from constipation to pregnancy. ‘What’s the difference between a bench and a Malay man?’ Answer: ‘the bench can support a family’. Again, please behold how the word ‘support’ can mean ‘load bearing’ or ‘sustain economically’. But of course racism is at the centre of these jokes. It is what makes them so particularly delicious to those who tell them.
“Let it be known that I encountered jokes like these not in my ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, nor when I was serving in the army, but in the hallowed halls of Raffles Institution. At that time I never spent much time wondering where my schoolmates picked up these jokes—their parents? Cousins? Friends? And what made them think it was all right to share these jokes in front of me? And that I would not retaliate? Because there were so few people who looked like me in school?”
Mr Alfian shared how the very first play he wrote, at the age of 17 in 1994, showed him how relatable his experience was to others. The play, called ‘Fighting’, was made for the drama festival at Raffles Junior College. Sharing that he played the character of ‘E’ in the play, Mr Alfian shared a snippet of a dialogue that resonated with a fellow Malay youth:
I: Eh, I know how to speak Malay. Satu, dua, tiga.
B: I also. Chan Mali Chan.
A: Me too! Aksi Mat Yoyo! Aksi Mat Yoyo!
G: Chickenfeed. Can you say this? Hiburan Minggu Ini. How, good or not?
E: (Stoically, terse) Very good.
The former RI pupil wrote: “In those stage directions I see a portrait of my young self: stony, seething, hurt. I remember after one performance of ‘Fighting’, a Malay brother came up to me. He was so excited, and I’ll never forget the way he grabbed my hand.
“I cannot remember his exact words, but the sense they gave me was: ‘I feel seen! I feel heard! I feel you and I feel me and I feel us!’ And that was probably one of the things that pushed me to want to become a playwright. To have that voice. To be able to say that my life, my experiences, my people, are not just your headlines and statistics and punchlines.”
Going back to the viral blackface photo, Mr Alfian noted the effort that went into the production. Pointing out that the photo was staged as part of the Sri Lankan student’s birthday celebrations, he asked: “Could you begrudge your friends this themed birthday celebration for you, curated so painstakingly, with everyone so game at smearing and masking their faces? Done in your honour, the honour given to your skin colour. Would you disappoint them? Throw a tantrum at your own party? Be a killjoy?”
Sharing that the photo “opened up a floodgate of pain” and made him lose sleep, Mr Alfian said that he can identify with the Sri Lankan boy since he was once the only Malay guy in the room.
He said that being the Malay pupil in his class “also meant being the Malay language target board, explainer of Islam, info kiosk for ‘why do you all like to’ questions, entertaining queries like ‘if you open your mouth and rain falls in, then will you break your fast?’ and ‘why do Malay women wear the tudung but then wear make-up?’ and ‘why must you repeat the word for Malay plural words, isn’t it tiring?’”
Mr Alfian eloquently added: “All the time wanting to believe that my friends were putting me under a magnifying glass because they were curious about me, and not because they were trying to burn me under the focused rays of the sun.”
The former RI student who originally posted the blackface photo online has since apologised. He wrote on his Instagram story: “It was not a racist commentary but of course in hindsight it was insensitive as f*** because it is literally blackface, and I’m not denying that, but we posted these pictures with the full consent of our good friend.
“We consulted him and asked whether he was okay with it, and even if he was, it was still wrong on our part to perpetuate such stereotypes.”
Asserting that the photo was “stupid teenage behaviour” that took place “in good fun with the intention of bantering with [their] friend,” the student – who is currently in university – said: “I sincerely apologise for causing harm and for contributing to what is already an aggravating wound in our society. There’s no excuse and I have removed the post.”
Asserting that he is not a racist, the student added: “Moving on, I can only hope that I no longer fuel any microaggressions toward POC unconsciously, because we can all do better.”
Content warning: Racism. This took place in 2016, but the photo has somehow surfaced again recently. A group of…
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