What happened to Shrey Bhargava — and more importantly, the responses to it — is a huge red flag that Singaporeans should be paying attention to, if they care about this country at all. And the ugliness that lurks beneath the surface.
Who am I kidding? The ugliness of racism isn’t beneath the surface: it’s in your face, every day. If you’re not Chinese, that is.
Was Bhargava being somewhat unrealistic in terms of his expectations about how that audition would go? Perhaps, because Jack Neo’s movies are generally garbage stuffed to the gills with blatantly racist stereotypes. This is lowest common denominator entertainment that does not balk at leveraging on ugliness in society, or perpetuating stereotypes. Indians speak in a funny accent! They wiggle their heads, and it’s hilarious! Malays lepak all the time! Eurasians hang around strumming the guitar and romancing anything that moves! It’s funny, because it’s a racial construct aping the Other that makes us feel better about ourselves! We don’t care if it’s realistic, or if people actually behave like this!
What, exactly, is funny about a strong Indian accent? You’d only find this funny if you enjoy laughing at racist caricatures of real people. You’d find this funny the same way people found yellowface funny in early Hollywood movies. (He’s got a pigtail and buckteeth and a weird accent! Hilarious!) You’d find this funny if you don’t get why blackface is all kinds of wrong. In short, you would only find this funny if you’re a racist douchebag, not to put too fine a point on it.
What’s that, you say? “But Sam, who died and made you an expert on accents and how funny they are?”
No one died for this to happen, but possibly, it was my years writing and performing on the mrbrownshow. We used accents — a lot. Malay auntie, Chinese auntie, yuppie mom, civil servant auntie, blur but enthusiastic civil servant … myriad accents. However, the accents were never the joke in themselves. We never said, “Hey, let’s use this ethnicity’s exaggerated accent because it’s funny to laugh at how people talk, no matter how unrealistic!” This wasn’t even an option for us; we all agreed that the jokes should be in the script, not the accents. Apart from being offensive, the latter was lazy writing, and we just weren’t interested in going there. All the accents featured were there because they were part of the character, and the character was part of the script. The character’s ethnicity was never the punchline. (Unlike the word “Buangkok”, which is just inherently funny, and is its own punchline.) One of our most popular episodes ever, envisioning Simi, a Singlish version of Siri, featured fairly neutral accents, and a Singlish accent for Simi. Tell me again how good comedy needs to leverage on racist caricatures and perpetuate racist stereotypes?
Bhargava’s possibly unrealistic expectations of the degree of casual racism contained in an audition for a Jack Neo movie do not make it okay for this casual racism to exist and be manifested, daily, throughout this country. And for those who think the caricature of Phua Chua Kang set a precedent that justifies racist stereotypes in the media here, allow me to correct this ridiculous and convenient misconception for you. Phua Chu Kang featured one character who was an ah beng. The rest were not painted in a negative light, in terms of racist stereotypes. Even the character who was the show’s namesake was not painted in a very negative light. How do I know this? Well, you see, there are stereotypes about Chinese people, particularly Chinese Singaporeans. Some of these stereotypes provide amusement to minorities. They are much more negative and vicious than anything featured on Phua Chu Kang. I could go on at length about these stereotypes, but I shan’t. Because I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end. Because I respect the Chinese people in this country who are woke, aka those who aren’t racist assholes trying to shame minorities for calling out their bad behaviour. Because no matter how upset I am about race politics in Singapore, it does not excuse bad behaviour on my part.
If you’re not a minority, you have the luxury of being oblivious to the breathtakingly blatant, casual racism that goes on every day. Even if you’re not a perpetrator of this vileness, you sure as hell haven’t been at the receiving end of it. You also have the luxury of pretending that it doesn’t exist. It’s far more uncomfortable for you to admit that there is a problem that you have unwittingly, passively been contributing to, instead of saying, “Okay, there is a problem with how some — even a large chunk — of the people of my ethnicity treat minorities here. How can we fix this?”
“How can we fix this?” is one of the hardest things to say. It is far easier to pretend something isn’t broken. Especially if you’ve been a part of the problem your whole life, without realizing it.
No, if you’re not a minority, there’s a high chance that you live in a happy bubble of dominant ethnicity. You don’t know what identity politics are, because you’ve literally never had to deal with it. You haven’t experienced casual, everyday racism, where people, even friends call you “black” to your face, because your skin tone isn’t anywhere near theirs. Or if they tell you that you should marry a white guy and have kids with him, “because the kids would be fair but they would have your facial features.” [Subtext: you’re hot, but your skin is too dark.] This is a thing someone said to me when I was an undergrad. They were not being ironic.
I’ve had friends tell me to go flirt with the bartender because they wanted stronger drinks. Because I’m Eurasian, so we’re magically better at flirting, see? Literally, magical Eurasian flirtation stars appear in my eyes when I flirt, which basically allows me to romance anyone I want to, because genetics and stereotypes are apparently an irresistible combination.
What are you smoking? I get so nervous around cute, nerdy boys that I blurt out useless information, like “Did you know that pirates were really into democracy?” (Yes, this really happened.) How’s that for stereotypes?
The most disturbing thing about Bhargava’s experience at that audition is not the fact that it happened. It’s the fact that the people who seem the most vociferously upset are largely those who have not had to deal with being on the receiving end of casual, daily racism. They are people who can never understand what it feels like to be, in Bhargava’s words, “a foreigner in my own country.”
How do we fix this? The burden of reducing ignorance lies on minorities. This is far more important than you might think. Without understanding, without building bridges instead of burning them, there can be no way forward that does not end in ugly violence (physical or otherwise) when the next cycle of history creates just the right conditions for such violence. I say this as a minority who struggles with casual racism, who has been told, “Oh, you can’t be Singaporean, you don’t look Singaporean.” Sometimes, I give in to frustration, and I shut down. When I can find the patience, I educate instead. I explain how my people came to be, how we got here, and the distinction between Portuguese, Dutch and British Eurasians. And every single time, it feels better to build a bridge than burn it. Ignorance builds a chasm which makes it that much easier to say nothing, do nothing, encourage racism and racist stereotypes with complicit silence when it happens.
The far bigger burden lies elsewhere. The burden of saying “How can we fix this?” lies on the majority ethnicity. Yes, Chinese Singaporeans, that majority means you. It’s not me saying this, it’s the population census saying it. Stop being so damn thin-skinned when someone calls you out on racism or racially awkward behaviour. Start being more courageous. Stop reacting. Start questioning. Stop pretending you didn’t hear when someone says something racist. Start saying something when people around you perpetuate racial stereotypes. Stop freaking out and making it all about you when a minority calls out another Chinese person for being racist. Eh gorblok, they published your name in The Straits Times and said you were racist issit? No? Then why so butthurt? The lady doth protest too much, no?
There are woke Chinese Singaporeans who will not stand for racist behaviour. Learn from them. Be them.
Be better than racist assholes. It’s a low bar; not too much to ask.
Or you could continue being part of the problem, while you justify your bad behaviour by telling yourself that minorities and their lack of humour/ sensitivity/ [insert justification] are the real problem.