Q: What’s the difference between a Malay guy and a park bench?
A: The park bench can support a family of five.
I used to love telling this joke. I came from a Special Assistance Programme (SAP) primary school, was surrounded by Chinese friends, and had never interacted with a racial minority beyond exchanging pleasantries at the void deck. My mum – whom I love deeply and respect – used to warn me about straying away from home, if not “later you get caught by the appunehneh”. My childhood was one where it seemed normal to deploy racially-charged humour to lighten the mood.
But that changed when I entered secondary school. I made a few friends of non-Chinese descent. And while they’d laugh along with my Chinese friends at the racist jokes I told, their laughter rang hollow. It was the trained reflex of someone who’s been told all their life that they need to “lighten up” and “learn to take a joke”. Someone who’s decided it is easier to play along and feign enjoyment, than to spoil the mood by kicking up a fuss.
Secondary school was also when I met Shrey Bhargava. He was one year my senior and I recall being blown away by his acting ability. He was clearly the most talented actor in school. I remembered his ability to effortlessly segue between accents, be it the lilt of an Irish accent or the guttural undertones of the German tongue.
He would be the last person on earth to call anyone out for putting on an accent. When I read his Facebook post about being asked to “speak with a thick Indian accent … And make it funny”, it was evident that Shrey wasn’t angry about being asked to put on a foreign accent; he was angry that the audience was being primed to laugh at the accent itself – as it there was something inherently funny about being Indian, about being the Other that Chinese Singaporeans can poke fun at.
It is important to understand how Shrey’s experience fits within the broader canon of local media. In a paper on Ethnic Representation on Singapore Film and Television, researcher Kenneth Paul Tan observes that “Indians on film and television seem to inspire three inter-related reactions from the audience: laughter, irritation, and fear”.
Tan further notes, “Although there is nothing inherently funny about (scenes in which Indian characters are played for laughs), for Chinese audiences especially, the unexpected inclusion of Indians triggers their prior perceptions of the stark visual differences between the Chinese and Indians, the melodic inflexions of the Indian languages, and the characteristic gesticulations that accompany Indian speech.”
In other words, because the concept of Indian-ness is so far removed from the mainstream Singaporean Chinese consciousness, the incongruity of introducing a thick Indian accent or a garbled burst of Tamil is effective in making people laugh. It is humour that is premised on being exclusionary: That my enjoyment of the joke comes at your people’s expense, because you are not included in my conception of community and society.
Many have argued that mainstream cinema is built on stereotypes. And I agree that not every film can be Moonlight or 12 Years a Slave. Stereotypes are important cinematic shorthand: A filmmaker has slightly less than two hours to tell a story, and the use of tropes is a way to short-circuit the characterisation process so audiences immediately know certain things without having to resort to nuance or excessive detail. For instance, we know that Ivan Vanko (Iron Man 2) is evil because he has an Eastern European accent and looks like an escaped convict. Fewer things need to be established from there.
Crucially, however, not all stereotypes are made equal. Whether a stereotype is harmful or benign depends on how it interacts with the broader social attitude towards race and religion. While it is lazy filmmaking to make Russians the stereotypical villains in many films, it is not outwardly problematic as Russian people (not the country, which gets a lot of stick in the media) don’t face much discrimination in the United States. But if one were to use the exact same process to make Arab Muslims the stereotypical villains in many films, it may become problematic – since it reinforces the prevailing social consciousness that Islam is an inherently violent religion; that Arab peoples should be placed under greater scrutiny and that animus towards this group of people is justified.
Similarly, while the stereotype of “Very Foreign-Sounding and Moustachioed Dark-Skinned Indian Man” may be superficially similar to “Very Ah Beng-Sounding and Tattooed Chinese Gangster”, they are substantively different. It is impossible to deny that Indians, particularly those who speak with thick accents and look like first-generation immigrants, are more discriminated against than working-class Chinese Singaporeans. They find it harder to make friends in primary school, they are laughed at for the food they eat, doors get slammed in their face by landlords who refuse to rent to Indian people because of “the smell”, parents irrationally pull their children closer when they walk by. In this case, stereotypes in popular media contribute to (rather than merely reflect) the social otherisation of already marginalised communities in Singapore.
A further consideration is that while everyone gets stereotyped in a low-brow Jack Neo film, at least Chinese characters get the privilege of specific stereotyping. Notice how being “Chinese” is not enough to distinguish a character – you also need to be “Enthu Chinese kia who wants to be officer”, or “Chaokeng Chinese teenager with girlfriend problems from a rich family”. There is a second level of characterisation taking place. But this luxury is not afforded to an Indian or Malay character. In these films, being a racial minority is in itself substantial difference that it becomes a characterisation. There is no further depth – being an Other in a majority-Chinese environment is enough.
Katha Pollitt writes about this in her 1991 New York Times article on Hers; The Smurfette Principle. She calls out the Smurfs series for how it features “a group of male buddies … accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined.” All the male smurfs have unique, albeit stereotypical, characteristics – some are clumsy, lazy, or smart. But the singular female smurf has no such luxury. She is distinguished by being female – having blonde hair and typically feminine interests.
I understand it is easy, particularly in the current political climate, to immediately dismiss this as another “Social Justice Warrior” piece. It is admittedly hard to see why words, or media, or social attitudes lead to concrete harm. But substantial social science research has demonstrated a clear correlation between phenomena like racist/sexist humour, and racist/sexist tendencies. By normalising shallow attitudes towards people whom we ought to better understand, racist stereotyping only serves to hurt groups that deserve inclusion.
So feel free to disagree. But please do so respectfully, and with the same tact as if you were arguing with me in person. The vitriol being hurled on Facebook is completely unacceptable and unbecoming of grown adults. How is this different from the “SJWs” that people are so quick to condemn?