Humouring Race

Posted: February 21, 2012 in Commentary
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At a recent staff dinner, the photographs of several employees of United Overseas Bank were displayed on Facebook. This created a stir as the faces of some of the staff were painted black, a supposedly humorous addendum to a Bollywood themed party. Whilst there was a sizable number who took offence at what they saw, some also felt that it was a harmless gesture and the outrage was an overreaction of dour humourless prigs.

Part of the problem is how we think and talk about race and religion in Singapore. On one hand, we have the supposed celebration of multi racial Singapore through the observances of each other’s cultures such as food, dressing and celebrations. And on the other hand we have a slew of legislation from the Sedition Act to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which enforces this multicultural harmony. This framework creates problems in the discourse on race and religion by creating a dichotomy which dominates the public imagination. Either we celebrate what is safe in each other’s cultures (for example food) or we punish cases which can threaten the social fabric of Singapore society through the legal process.

The fact is between the celebration of what is safe and the punishment of what is dangerous lies gaps in which neither celebrations nor legislations can address. One example of such a lacuna is in how we address prejudice and stereotypes. Many people for example hold the prejudice that Malays are lazy. This prejudice often underlies how other issues are thought of such as obesity, homelessness and debt which are in turn viewed as ‘Malay problems’. These prejudices cannot be addressed through a celebration of Malay festivals and food which do not address the issue. Neither can they be addressed by legislation as although prejudice can sometimes manifest in speech and action, such ideas often remain unsaid in the realm of thoughts and opinions.

To start addressing these issues, society needs to have many honest discussions on the myriad issues concerning race, for example the nature of prejudice, the root causes and how to handle such prejudices. This need grows even more urgent and obvious with the influx of large diverse numbers of migrant labour and as inequalities become apparent in the socio economic landscape. Unfortunately the current framework is not only inadequate but can be a hinderance. The ‘safe’ multicultural space of racial harmony is distracting and may lead some to presume that by knowing Malay or Indian foods and culture one knows what being a minority in Singapore is like. The legislative way impedes discussion by creating a culture of fear where people are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being punished. Thus although such honest discussions are probably more common place in smaller circles where people feel more comfortable in expressing their feelings, it is also important that such issues are talked about in the public sphere. Incidents such as these which unearthes the images within the psyche of Singaporeans are thus opportunities for the public to discuss racial issues in public outside the two established comfort zones.

One of the contentions in this particular incident is that being light hearted and not malicious it should be brushed off and accepted as a joke. But there have been other incidents where humour is just not a sufficient excuse. For example, a series of Ramadan advertisements by a Malaysian TV channel lampooned a Chinese girl as a typically gauche and inept non Muslim during Ramadhan. The patronizing tenor of these advertisements, although portrayed as humourous created a storm of protest amongst non Muslims (and Muslims) who saw it as an insulting depiction of the prejudices which the Muslim majority had. In another incident, Minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s responded to a question by a PHD student asking if she had a boyfriend at a NTU forum. Although this off colour generated much laughter from the audience it also provoked a stern response from various sections of society, most notably AWARE. These incidents demonstrate that one man’s wit is another man’s insult. It is not easy or provident to brush off as innocuous the jokes of bullies and the laughter of sycophants, especially if those making the jokes insist they have the right to define what is funny and what is offensive.

However, one should not overestimate the malice in this particular incident. In Singapore it is not uncommon to hear amongst friends of various races joke about each other’s differences. Local comedian Kumar has quite a multi-racial following to his politically incorrect jokes. It is true that people make and laugh off these types of jokes all the time. There are however two important elements in such jokes: One is catharsis, in which humour is an intelligent response to issues which otherwise may be painful and otherwise cannot be said. This is especially so in Singapore where so many things cannot be said. The other is irony, where the source of humour is not the object of humour, but t joke itself. Underlying both elements is the fact that the audience understands implicitly that the source of humour is not the prejudice itself but the very wrongness of prejudice. Humour in this sense is wonderful as it not only a source of psychic relief but it affirms not the prejudice but the wrongness of it. However, if one does not see the wrongness of the prejudice then the joke becomes just another extension of racism. The problem with this particular incident is the seeming obliviousness of the actors. In a sense they may not be conscious or reflexive of the meaning of their actions, but it is this very lack of consciousness which is part of the problem.

Perhaps in lieu of an accusatory conclusion, a conscientious pause may be just as beneficial for Singaporeans to reflect upon their own values and assumptions. The German poet Goethe once mused ‘There is nothing in which people more betray their character than in what they laugh at’. What does it reveal about us if we feel that having a black skin and a black face is something to be laughed at?

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