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Playwright Alfian Sa’at unpacks ‘ironic racism’ and the @sharonliew86 account

'Ironic racism is always going to be risky. It assumes an audience clued in to the irony'

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Singapore—In a Facebook post on Wednesday (June 9), playwright Alfian Sa’at tackled the complexity surrounding the “sharonliew86” Twitter account. 

Earlier this week, one of the men who had started the account, 35-year-old Zainal Abidin Shaiful Bahari, was given a three-week jail sentence for racially offensive tweets posted in 2019 and 2020.

The “sharonliew86” account had originally been meant to parody a certain type of racially insensitive Singaporean, but ended up breaking the law due to the content of several tweets.

Mr Sa’at wrote, “So who is this invention called ‘Sharon Liew’? On her profile, ‘she’ says: ‘I like sgag, TVB, sing k, go jb and when once in a while go bangkok with malay friend, but damn sian, she everywhere go must eat hala sia…’ She also includes a line from a JJ Lin song: ‘Dolphins always have a smile on their face, maybe the ocean has washed their tears away’.”

He added, “It didn’t take too long for Sharon to get noticed. She was a parody of a certain Singaporean—self-absorbed, entitled, ignorant—that ignorance extending to supposedly not knowing when she was being racist.”

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Mr Sa’at pointed out that some of the opinions tweeted by “Sharon Liew” were not unheard of, but they had seldom been aired over social media.  He added that the deliberate misspellings in the tweets “are supposed to signal that the joke is on Sharon herself”.

“It was clear to various commenters that this was a parody account, whose humour lay in the fact that she was a recognisable figure. She said aloud what people thought. She went ‘there’, but the ‘there’ was already on the horizon of many people’s minds.”

The playwright added quotes from several media outfits pointing out that it was widely understood that the account was a fictional one that cleverly exposed the thoughts and opinions some people actually have.

He then went on to unpack “meta-disparagement humour”, which he explains “in some specific forms” has “been described as ‘’ or even ‘hipster racism’” and is not uncommon. Mr Sa’at used the popular Sacha Baron Cohen character, Borat, as an example of this.

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“The aim of this form of satire is to convey ‘a hyperbole of prejudice’, so that audiences will confront their own prejudices and racialised thinking. They’re not supposed to be racist, but are an indictment of racism itself.”

However, pulling off this type of ‘ironic racism’ is difficult, and Mr Sa’at pointed out that it “often… ends up reinforcing racist stereotypes instead of undermining racists”, as exemplified by “Sharon Liew’s” August 2018 tweet:

“so many people is angry no malay no indian ppl in rich crazy chinese movie..if really want to see malay and indian and chinese mix together in Sincapore go see Tanglin show on ch 5 lah bukitmak.. but dont go tanglin mall, that one not many malay go…” (23 Aug 2018)

The playwright points out how “dumb” the tweeter comes across, in addition to being “obviously racist and classist”.

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However, he posed the question: “But what are we eventually laughing at? ‘Dumb’ Sharon or ‘poor’ Malays? And here’s the problem with ironic racism—the sender has to encode irony in the message, but the receiver also has to decode it with irony (Stuart Hall). Ironic racism stripped of irony is…you know the rest.”

He also added that “Sharon Liew” had actually tagged the Prime Minister as well as Ministers Gan Kim Yong and K Shanmugam in other tweets, which may be the reason why the account was investigated.

“’Ironic racism’” is always going to be risky,” wrote Mr Sa’at. “It assumes an audience clued in to the irony. But when it fails, does the fault then lie in the encoder, or the decoder? Who is responsible when the message is taken at face value, and feelings are hurt?”

He also wrote that given the context, he does not believe Zainal deserved a jail sentence.

In comparison, Mr Sa’at pointed out that when SMRT Feedback or Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer Tan Boon Lee made their racist remarks, they were not being ironic.

“While I do not think they deserve jail terms either, it does make one wonder whether posing in the garb of an imaginary racist is more terrible than exposing yourself as an actual racist,” he added.

An article in The Straits Times (ST) on Thursday (June 10) headlined “Racist comments made in public may break laws in S’pore: Lawyers” also made mention of Zainal’s case.

ST quoted lawyers who said that the country has laws that guard against racist remarks, including those made online. These laws can also be invoked whether or not the person intended to hurt racial or religious feelings.

Zainal had been found liable for committing acts against racial harmony, which is an offence under the Penal Code.

The offence, apparently, only requires the offender to be aware that what he or she did would promote hostility between people of different races or religions, or that these actions would be prejudicial to racial or religious harmony and may disrupt public peace, according to Zainal’s lawyer, Ms Diana Ngiam.

She added that Zainal had not specially targeted the “Sharon Liew” tweets at any particular person.

/TISG

Read also: Man posing as ‘sharonliew86’ gets 3 weeks’ jail for racist tweets against Malays, Indians

Man posing as ‘sharonliew86’ gets 3 weeks’ jail for racist tweets against Malays, Indians

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