Monday 5 August 2019

Racial and religious harmony in Singapore: Goodwill takes years to build, but only seconds to destroy, says Indranee Rajah

By Indranee Rajah, Published The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2019

Anger begets more anger. So said Mahavira, the 24th tirthankara of Jainism, more than 2,500 years ago.

Those words are still true today as demonstrated by the now infamous epaysg advertisement and the video response by YouTuber Preetipls (also known as Preeti Nair) and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair.

In case you missed what happened, here's a quick summary. E-payment website epaysg engaged an ad agency to do an advertisement. The storyboard involved showing people from different races all using e-payment to demonstrate that e-payment is for everyone.

So far, so good.

The problem was that instead of having actors from different races to portray the multiracial characters, Mediacorp artist DJ Dennis Chew, who is Chinese, was engaged to play the characters of all races - including appearing as a Malay lady in a tudong and an Indian man, with visibly dark skin or "brownface".

In earlier decades, something like this may have passed without comment. Some might even have found it funny. Older Singaporeans will recall the Black And White Minstrel Show which was quite acceptable back in the 1960s and 1970s. But societal attitudes have changed.

In this day and age, one would think the creative team would have known better but apparently not. Unsurprisingly, there was a backlash against the "brownface" portrayal. The ad was then pulled. It could - and should - have ended there but it didn't.

In response, Ms Nair and her brother made a video with a rap insulting Chinese Singaporeans, using four-letter words and vulgar gestures directed at Chinese and posted it online.

In the video Ms Nair wears a T-shirt with the words "Yes, it's because you are Chinese", referencing an earlier video of an altercation between a Chinese passenger and a Malay Gojek driver which went viral.

The "brownface" ad was distasteful. But the video went further and crossed the line.

At that point, the authorities stepped in - the Infocomm Media Development Authority issued a notice to the video's publishers to take it down, with which they have since complied. The public has been advised not to further circulate it.

The police are now investigating the matter.

Some may ask why it is necessary to do this - after all it's just one video; the rap is a parody of an existing song and it's just a bit of fun. Isn't the Government overreacting? But that's the point. It wouldn't be just one video. Parody or not, its content is offensive. But more than that, it doesn't take any great leap of the imagination to see where the Preetipls video would lead: Those taking offence at this video would then want to make further retaliatory videos targeted at Indians or other races and so on.

If you allow one, you have to allow others. There would be a ratcheting up of the decibel level. Words would be spoken that cannot be unsaid; hurts would be inflicted that cannot be easily healed. And that would be the start of the downward spiral to hate.

We see this happen time and time again in other countries. We are determined not to go down that route. We have racial and religious harmony in Singapore but this does not mean that there are completely no issues. Issues of race, religion and cultural differences do exist, as reflected by the various surveys from time to time. But the way to address them is not by hurling abuse and generating more anger. As Senior Minister of State Janil Puthucheary pointed out, two wrongs do not make a right.

Anger and hate are easy to rouse. But the damage caused takes a long time to repair. Conversely, goodwill and peaceful relations take a long time, decades, to build. But destroying them can be done in a matter of seconds. The peace and harmony we enjoy in Singapore is not because we are lucky. It's also not because everyone acts with awareness and scrupulous care not to give offence to others - as the recent incidents show. It is because we work hard at it, intervening directly if need be.

Maintaining racial harmony is hard work. It requires constant monitoring and maintenance. It requires all races to make a conscious and concerted effort to be mindful of the feelings of other races, to make sure that we act fairly and without discrimination. It requires strict laws and the willingness to enforce them. When in the wrong, it requires the ability to recognise that and apologise with sincerity.

It also requires something more, which is reflected in the complete quote of Mahavira which is this: "Anger begets more anger, and forgiveness and love lead to more forgiveness and love." To be a truly multiracial and harmonious society, we need to focus on the latter, not the former.

Indranee Rajah is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Finance and Education.

Preetipls video incident: Racism exists in Singapore, but situation has improved over the years, says Shanmugam
Discuss race issues openly, work to make things better; Law Minister agrees racism should be discussed, but rap duo did it in wrong way
By Charmaine Ng, The Straits Times, 5 Aug 2019

There is racism in all societies, including Singapore, but the situation here has improved over the years and is much better now than before, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

The issue is discussed openly here and studied by academics, he noted, pointing to a study released last week by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and racial harmony group on racial and religious harmony.

YouTuber Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas, like everyone else, had every right to discuss racism, he said, but the manner in which they did so was wrong.

Mr Shanmugam spoke to reporters at an event at Sri Siva Krishna Temple in Marsiling yesterday, a day after the siblings issued a second apology over a controversial rap video made in response to a "brownface" advertisement featuring Chinese actor Dennis Chew.

"There is racism in every multiracial society that we know of. And there is, in Singapore," Mr Shanmugam said, adding that the issue is a key concern for the Government.

"We want to build a cohesive society, but racism corrodes and deepens the fault lines in society. We do a lot to counter it, and we have set out what we do," he added.

While Mr Shanmugam agreed that Ms Nair - who is also known as Preetipls - and her brother had the right to raise the issue of racism, he questioned the way it was done.

"If everyone starts discussing race and religion in the way they did, then you will in fact get more racism, not less.

"That is our key concern. They have used the language of resistance in America, but we thankfully are in a very different situation."

The Nair siblings had made a rap video called K. Muthusamy, who is one of the characters Mr Chew portrayed in the ad, a man with visibly darker skin. Mr Chew had also portrayed a woman wearing a tudung.

Both the ad and rap video raised concerns about racial sensitivity in Singapore and were criticised by politicians as being offensive and unacceptable. Police reports have been made against both.

In their second apology on Saturday, the Nairs said they "unconditionally apologise for the tone, aggression, vulgarities and gestures used" in their video.

They had first issued an apology last Friday "for any hurt that was unintentionally caused" by the video.

That initial apology was criticised by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which said it was a "mock, insincere" apology and that it closely followed the wording of a statement issued by the creative agency and management company involved in producing the "brownface" ad for e-payments website

Mr Shanmugam went on to add that in any multiracial society, there is always a need to frankly discuss issues like how to deal with casual racism.

There are regular conferences, symposiums and dialogues held by government agencies, non-governmental organisations and other groups on such matters, he added.

Singapore, he said, has made progress from when it gained independence on Aug 9, 1965, when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said: "We are not a Malay nation, we are not a Chinese nation, we are not an Indian nation. This is a country for all Singaporeans."

The country has progressed by having clear government policies, and with Singaporeans generally accepting multiracial values, Mr Shanmugam said.

"We are not in the American situation. And we must see how we can progress further, because as many of us recognise, there continue to be racial fault lines and religious fault lines. It is always a work in progress," he added.

Turning to the ad, he said it was in poor taste. "Many disapprove of it, and the people behind the ad and others need to learn from that - be much more sensitive," he added.

As the country approaches its 54th birthday, he said there is much that Singaporeans can be positive about.

Pointing to headlines that made the news from around the world, he cited the ongoing clashes between police and protesters in Hong Kong, the mass shooting in Texas and militant attacks in Kashmir.

"I am not saying the governments were right or wrong in those countries. They face different issues. But we in Singapore can be thankful that we have avoided headlines like these. And we must focus on getting things better, discuss issues openly and work on them."

Commentators contacted by The Straits Times said the recent episode, and the controversy it sparked, had helped by raising a "sensitive issue" for discussion.

Senior lecturer Nazry Bahrawi from the Singapore University of Technology and Design said that race relations have developed differently in Singapore and in the US, and that Singaporeans will need to "develop their own vocabulary to outline our experiences of race relations here".

Said IPS senior research fellow Mathew Mathews: "Sizeable portions of the public prefer that such concerns be discussed behind closed doors and not brought out to the public.

"Because we don't talk about race much, many people don't have the vocabulary or the sensitivity to deal with these issues."

But he added that Singapore does not have a history of severe oppression or ongoing discrimination like police brutality similar to the US, to warrant the "in your face", confrontational methods used in some societies like America.

Such methods might be acceptable in those contexts, but often are seen even there as a last resort.

"Race and religious relations in Singapore won't do well with such antagonistic approaches," he said.

Racial, religious harmony improving in Singapore: study - July 2019

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