After being asked to speak in a thick Indian accent during an Ah Boys To Men 4 audition, local artiste Shrey Barghava took to Facebook about the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes in the media. The viral post invited responses from both supporters and ardent critics. The thing is, Shrey has a very valid point. And it is worrying how many Singaporeans think that he is fussing over a trivial issue.
When considering Shrey's comments, the reflexive response is to label his rant as an overreaction. After all, the objective of a movie, especially one by Jack Neo, is to entertain. Actors play roles (including comical caricatures) primarily for the entertainment value. Shrey is being a hypersensitive Social Justice Warrior by mistaking cheap humour for racism. It's just a movie - chill!
This line of thinking is problematic for a few reasons:
1. Shrey knows what he’s talking about
Shrey is part of the minority. Those of us in the majority need to try to view things from his perspective. Many of us, Xiaxue included, are Chinese and enjoy the privileges that come about from being part of the majority. Privileges such as a lack of language barrier give us the impression that everything is fine and make us less sensitive to the subtle racism at work everyday. Parents threatening their children with the “apu neh neh”, small children calling you names or being unable to excel on a national level without being called a credit to your race are but some of the many types of casual racism that happen to minority groups everyday. Many have become numb to it but others still harbour resentment towards the subtle discrimination implicit in a Chinese majority country. Shrey’s outburst, while triggered by an event, is essentially a culmination of this inherent resentment. Viewing things in this manner, we begin to see his rant less as an overreaction and more as a natural response to inherent social discrimination.
2. Race is a sensitive topic
To understand why Shrey may have appeared to be particularly sensitive about his race, we need to recognise that racial identities are very personal. A racial identity, after all, is a rich tapestry of traditions and culture that has been passed down for generations. Is it right then for a movie to reduce racial identity to a number of laughable traits unrepresentative of one's race?
Imagine you are a Singaporean Chinese living in the US. From being part of the majority, you now number among the minority. Your racial identity is even more important because your sense of belonging will be challenged in a place where majority of the people do not look or speak like you. How would you feel then if you were auditioning for a role as a Chinese character and the casting director asked you to put on a heavy China accent and speak with bad English? That simply isn’t the way we speak. And such caricatures of the Chinese race, for the purpose of humour for a non-Chinese audience, is an insult to who you really are. Is it then understandable how Shrey feels when he is told that his acting is “not Indian enough” and that he should speak with a thick Indian accent coupled with heavier Indian mannerisms. One dimensional stereotypes, which ABTM seeks to normalise through humour, can be hurtful.
To clarify, there is nothing inherently wrong with having an accent. Accents are fine if they add authenticity to the character. There is a problem, however, when the accent used is inauthentic and stems from the ridicule of a racial identity.
3. Role of the Minority
There is also a need to examine the broader social trends. To appeal to a mainly Chinese audience, it is pragmatic for local filmmakers to have a cast comprising mainly Chinese characters in order to appeal to the majority. More often than not, minority race actors are sidelined to take on supporting roles. In ABTM, the main cast comprises mainly Chinese actors while Indian/Malay actors play supporting roles or are comic elements. Pragmatic yes, but is this fair? Given Singapore’s multiculturalism, shouldn’t we expect greater racial representation in mainstream media? While Shrey’s commentary revolves around an isolated incident of racism, his writing may be motivated by the role of the minority in Singapore’s arts scene. A “glass ceiling” exists for minorities as they are unable to play the main characters in mainstream films. The inclusion of minorities in the main cast is largely limited to productions catering to their racial community. Ultimately, it is a combination of both an isolated incident of racism and the inherent racial discrimination in the film industry that frustrates Shrey as he sees that his value as an actor and performer is underutilised by virtue of his race.
4. Finding Common Ground
This also raises an interesting point on different understandings of artistic creativity. Jack Neo productions are full of stock humour and seek to appeal to a wide audience. The use of racial stereotypes as cheap humour is characteristic of his work. Shrey, on the other hand, has a rich theatre background and may view art as something more sophisticated, curated and nuanced. There’s nothing wrong with either form of art, but it may explain the fundamental differences in belief that they have about the use of stock stereotypes. One sees it as a device to make other people laugh while the other sees it as a form of casual racism that has wider societal implications. There's truth to both definitions and a constructive discourse on the issue should recognise this. Mature art is conscious of the influence of art on society (and vice versa). It does not automatically exclude the use of stock stereotypes but uses them tastefully. ABTM’s development of its Chinese characters may provide some direction. In the film, there is no single stock stereotype for the entire Chinese community but several sub-stereotypes instead. There’s the rich spoiled kid, the ah beng, the Wayang King, etc. More importantly, characters possess depth (their values, their background, their experiences) such that their identity transcends their stereotypes. The characters are all painted with different brushes.
Is Singapore truly racially harmonious? An IPS survey reveals that around 1 in 3 Singaporeans feels that it is not racist to refuse to share a seat with a person of another race. Another LKYSPP survey shows that only 53% of Chinese Singaporeans would accept a Malay Prime Minister. Racism STILL exists in Singapore today. Yes, in a world of rising Islamophobia and xenophobia, we compare favourably. Everything is fine in contrast to the situation in our neighbouring countries. But “better than most” is not the same as “good enough”.
Our race problem is a complex mindset issue with no clear solution. Top down approaches such as the HDB Ethnic Integration Policy, can only go so far in promoting interaction between different races. But superficial interaction isn’t enough. We need to try to understand the perspectives of our friends from different races. We need more brave people to come forward and share their stories and we need to LISTEN to them. This kind of insidious racism isn’t an issue for philosophers to ponder but a shared problem that affects all. The debate on race must be one built on powerful personal narratives rather than intellectual arguments. This is how we find common ground.
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