Monday, 15 October 2012

The canary in the coal mine of racial speech

By John Lui, The Straits Times, 14 Oct 2012

Now that the movie Sex.Violence.FamilyValues has been banned in all but name, guess what? Everybody I know wants to watch it.

What a difference a ban makes. Before it was pulled out, its distributor Cathay was willing to give it only one hall for one week in a test run. This is a fraction of what a movie from Hollywood or South Korea can get.

Cathay's caution stemmed from the dismal box-office record of English-language local films. This is the weird thing about Singapore: English is wonderful if spoken by our sales staff and taxi drivers, but when our actors use it, we turn off.

With the explosion of publicity after its classification was changed from M18 to the previously little-known Not Allowed For All Rating (NAR) last Monday, this film might now be the Singapore blockbuster that never was.

In one sense, this low-budget work did indeed get a test run, just not the test that its producers hoped for. The comedy turned out to be the canary in the coal mine of allowable racial speech.

Timing was not on its side. Early last week, the air was thick with accusations and apologies. NTUC executive Amy Cheong had been fired swiftly for crude rants about Malays on her Facebook. In the months leading up to the film's release date - which would have been last Thursday - racially offensive tweets and Facebook postings had created a "general atmosphere" that the Films Consultative Panel could not ignore. The panel chose to play it safe.

So here we are. Because of official complaints filed by some members of the public, we have a Made in Singapore movie sitting in storage and a woman whose brain-vomit Facebook postings might get her arrested if she returns to Singapore.

Okay, so let me get this right. We are showing that bullying minorities is bad - by whacking a small group of people really hard.

It makes me wonder. If the Internet had been around 30 years ago, many of my older relatives - and I suspect, many of yours as well - might have been whacked as hard.

I grew up in a racist culture. It was casual and pervasive. Whites, Chinese, Malays, Indians - we had playground songs, bawdy rhymes, aunts and uncles would make jaw-dropping generalisations about every sub-, sub-, sub-group.

In colonial Singapore, your origins, divided by clan, province and town in India or China dictated where you lived and the trade you went into. It wasn't a dysfunction. Quite the opposite. It was all a well-oiled social machine that gave everyone a wage. Hakkas went into pawnshops, Sikhs were watchmen, the Bugis were sailors.

Fifty years on, the volume knob of racial chatter has been set to a whisper, but it is still there. I see it in offices where everyone is overwhelmingly from a single ethnic group, or when older relatives let something slip when they get too excited at a steamboat dinner.

I deal with them the same way I deal with followers of cultish sects, people dying to tell me about their faith given the slightest chance: I don't ask, and I hope they never, ever tell.

And that is the thing about "weekend" or "hobby" racists, compared with professional racists who are racist for a living. The amateurs are boring - selfishly, moronically boring. Their poorly articulated spew is as likely to infect others with racial hatred as toilet graffiti.

It's not just in Singapore. I see that casual, unacknowledged racism is alive and well in the cinema of America and Europe. Shifty-eyed Chinese gangsters, dark-skinned men kidnapping white women, blue-eyed heroes rescuing Asian women from their oppressive cultures - if I let it get to me as film critic, I'd be nothing but a gaping emotional wound.

I like to call this background-noise racism. It is the gentle roar of traffic, the barking of dogs in the distance, the hum of jets far away. You notice it only if you choose to, and it will annoy you only if you let it.

We used to pity people like that. We'd say, "Auntie, I think you've had enough hot pot. Why don't you take a seat and order a cooling longan drink?"

These days - I don't want to call it hysteria but it comes close - the mood has changed. Our tolerance for background-noise racism is lower. Squads are prowling the Internet, ready to drag victims into the court of public opinion, eager to pin film-makers to the wall of infamy.

Another irony is that the biggest audience for amateur racists gathers only after the racism gets outed. Until the rubberneckers arrive, these Facebook idiots could only irritate and bore the people with the misfortune of being their friends.

I saw the movie Sex.Violence.FamilyValues. I have met and interviewed its maker Ken Kwek several times over the years, but I would not say we are friends.

Is the short film Porn Masala, part of the Sex.Violence.FamilyValues anthology, demeaning to Indians? Having seen it, I say it is not. It is mocking, but it mocks the Chinese film director played by Adrian Pang, not the Indian character played by Vadi PVSS.

Some say it was a mistake for Ken Kwek to think he could do a Borat movie, Singapore style, in which the racist character is the butt of the joke. Borat the character was outlandishly anti-Semitic, but he was played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who is Jewish. He also wrote the script.

It is the same with Singapore comedian Kumar and Canadian comic Russell Peters, who has performed in Singapore. Both lean on jokes making fun of Indian racial stereotypes, but both are Indian by race. If Kwek had been Indian, would the Films Consultative Panel have been as harsh?

Not likely. And not just because unlike a film, Kumar and Peters will have Indians in the live audience roaring approval at their jokes, giving them the stamp of community validation. And not because the Media Development Authority (MDA) and members of the panel are robots incapable of understanding satire, despite what angry artists have said online.

The civil servants and the volunteers who make up the panel "get" satire. The film is not subtle in its mockery of the character played by Pang.

From my interview with panel member Cheryl Ng, it is clear that she and the others understand the artist's intention behind the slurs uttered by Pang's character.

They just think that there will be enough people laughing with Pang's character, not at him, to cause offence.

To paraphrase her, it is hard to remember what you are supposed to be laughing at when the jokes are so mean.

There was something else that Ms Ng mentioned. She said that everyone on the panel understood that giving the film an NAR would send shockwaves through the local arts community.

And it has. A campaign of sorts is building on Facebook in support of the film. It probably won't accomplish much, but one thing it will do is turn what was supposed to be a small, low-budget movie into a cause celebre.

Long after other works starring big names are forgotten, Sex.Violence.FamilyValues will be remembered as the one that carved a milestone in censorship history by being the first local film to have its classification revoked.

When its name is mentioned in future, it will bring to mind this period, when we learnt that few things will divide us more than the authorities stepping in to bring people together.

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