Sunday, November 29, 2009

Turn on, tune in, drop out of your seat: Denying the existence of systematic racism on national television?

This Cow does not watch much television, because she has a rather short attention span, and a lot of what she might see would make her a Constantly Choleric Cow instead of a merely gently Complaining one. So she missed the original television programme that caused one human to write the following letter on 14 November 2009 to local newspaper The Straits Times' Forum page:
How did ethnic stereotype go unflagged?

I WAS appalled when last Friday's prime-time drama series of MediaCorp's vernacular Channel 8, Daddy At Home, scripted in an ethnic stereotype.

Colleagues of the title character (played by Li Nanxing) joked that they should start calling him 'Aminah' as his character's job was reduced to a cleaner. The nonchalance with which the name of a Malay woman is used interchangeably with the role of a cleaner is insensitive and has encouraged in the popular imagination the equation of Malays to occupations of low income and menial labour.

How could such a glaring comment have passed the stages of checks, if any? Would the actors and crew on location not have realised this during filming as well?

I am a teacher, and such ethnic stereotyping worries me. Children who watch these shows are exposed to potentially racist sentiments which they could easily replicate in the classroom and in their interactions with children of different races.

Chow Pei Sze (Miss)
A week later, on 26 November 2009, what should this Cow see but the following response from another member of the public that made her spit out her half-chewed cud in incredulity and outrage:
MR ALARIC NG: 'Miss Chow Pei Sze ('How did ethnic stereotype go unflagged?' Nov 14) was outraged over a stereotypical reference on MediaCorp's popular Channel 8 series, Daddy At Home. She saw it as a racial slur. Certainly, stereotypes are wrong and should be discouraged. But why must every show be an educational lesson? Why can't we just appreciate a show's creativity and not disparage parts we find disagreeable? The show's characters could have been scripted to say what they did because the words reflected their personalities. What Miss Chow found outrageous, I found innocuous. Moreover, expressions, offensive or not, expose today's youth to how the real world behaves. Better to let them know than cloister them in politically correct ignorance.'
Let's try to work out what Mr Ng is actually trying to say in his pithy missive, shall we?

1) "But why must every show be an educational lesson?"
"Why must your inconvenient questioning of widely-perpetuated, tired, old racial stereotypes and pointing out of the underlying racism interfere with my mindless enjoyment of a TV show?"

2) "Why can't we just appreciate a show's creativity and not disparage parts we find disagreeable? The show's characters could have been scripted to say what they did because the words reflected their personalities."
"This is arts and entertainment! It's the writers' job to reflect the real, diverse personalities we encounter in our everyday lives. Of course, in my everyday life, I only encounter nosey Indian shopkeepers, incompetent Malay police officers, evil mother-in-laws, helpless disabled people, meek victimised wives.* In my real world, no one ever questions casual and systematic racism. In my real world, no one whose skin is brown could ever do jobs other than cleaning, and in my real world, cleaners should be looked down upon because they're so lazy and stupid, that must be the only reason why they ended up doing that job, plus they are dirty! (Of course they are, after a whole day of being on their feet cleaning up after the mess I leave at food centres.)"
* I know these stereotypical characters have been inflicted upon TV viewers over the years; but the Police & Thief and Little Nonya examples were the only ones where I actually remembered the name of the offending TV show. Please comment below this post if you know of the others; I am nothing if not an assiduous striver for complete references sources.

3) "The show's characters could have been scripted to say what they did because the words reflected their personalities." ... "Moreover, expressions, offensive or not, expose today's youth to how the real world behaves. Better to let them know than cloister them in politically correct ignorance."
"The writers can be content just to reflect our own racism and prejudices back at us, and neither question them, directly or indirectly, nor offer countervailing examples and influences. Because the youth never observe such racist behaviour in the Real World, TV must shove it in their faces, otherwise they will grow up thinking that everyone is accepted and respected for who they are, instead of being treated as inferior for some innate qualities that they were born with! And they might grow up thinking the former is how they should treat other people, and that would be bad because then I wouldn't be able to comfortably enjoy my mindless, offensive TV shows!"

4) "What Miss Chow found outrageous, I found innocuous."
"Because I am a Chinese person*, and the offensiveness of such remarks don't touch me personally! (And the privilege of being in the majority race has nothing to do with this! I am only an objective TV viewer!) I can't see why they should touch anyone else?? Or maybe, what I am saying is, I don't care if you are offended by racism???"
* "Ng" is a Chinese surname common in Singapore.


The question of what constitutes offensive remarks (whether meant in jest or otherwise), and whether they should be allowed in national media, is one that vexes other societies too. This is natural as the composition and values of societies change over time. However, an acknowledgement that there should be debate over the acceptability of certain forms of humour is not the same as a blanket dismissal that we should question the acceptability of offensive humour at all, which is what Mr Alaric Ng is advocating.

Some of those examples linked in the preceding paragraph were of jokes made at the expense of marginalised groups with direct reference to the very fact of their marginalisation; others were at the expense of certain individuals, which made them specifically offensive about those individuals, as well as pointing to underlying attitudes towards certain social groups that those individuals belonged to.

However, there are some notable points to be observed about the response to the complaints of offensiveness:

1) There was a formal mechanism provided by the media organisation by which complaints by members of the public against media content could be lodged, recorded and addressed by the organisation. MediaCorp Singapore does not provide such a formal mechanism (or if it does, it is a very well-kept secret that Google is unable to ferret out, and if Google can't find it, it doesn't exist on the internet rite???), which is why Ms Chow Pei Sze had to write in to the ST Forum to get her views heard.

2) There was a willingness to acknowledge that offense could be taken (i.e., that not all arts and entertainment content exists in a value-less vacuum where anything can be said or done as long as it entertains some people), and that the offended person did have a right to be offended, and to express that he/she was offended. Instead, we have people like Mr Ng writing in to ST Forum to tell us we shouldn't be offended, and that we should just shut up if we are.

3) The organisation responsible for producing the offensive content apologised. In Singapore, the usual way for private citizens to air protests against organisations (from the government to media to private companies) is by writing a letter to the ST Forum, and the usual way for organisations to respond, whether to defend themselves or apologise, is to reply via the ST Forum. (Strange, I know; we let a commercial newspaper with well-known pro-government biases be the mainstream medium for our civic discourse.) MediaCorp Singapore has not issued a formal response to Miss Chow's letter (neither in ST nor on its own website), let alone a formal apology for this and the many other instances of racist, sexist, classist and homophobic representation that abound in its programmes.

Stereotypes say less about the people who are purportedly portrayed by the fictional characters, and more about the producers of the media content and their cloistered interactions with and close-minded attitudes towards people. Such representation is offensive not only to the groups which are made fun of, but damage our society when they become a crutch which props up our impaired interactions with people who are different from us, and obscure our ability to relate with people on the terms of who they actually are, rather than social groups of which they have membership.

Besides, unquestioned stereotypes which are hackneyed and stale embody the complete opposite of creative humour. In this specific instance, MediaCorp Singapore should apologise for its racism, but that's only the first step to correcting the many, many howlers it has perpetuated. The next step is to hire better writers, and really push them to create humour which doesn't rely on slurs against already marginalised groups to draw laughs out of the audience.


  1. In the papers today:

    MR HUMAYUN MOHAMED ZULFAKIR: 'I refer to Mr Alaric Ng's response last Thursday ('Why can't we just appreciate a show's creativity?') to Miss Chow Pei Sze letter ('How did ethnic stereotype go unflagged?', Nov 14). In a multicultural society like Singapore, we would especially expect a popular channel like Channel 8 to exercise discretion when making such stereotypical references. It is not about being politically correct but being sensitive as we all have a moral responsibility to ensure such stereotypes are not reaffirmed.'

  2. Does anyone remember the old PETS textbooks for English? Those were FILLED with stereotypes - Malay policemen named Ahmad and Indian housewives/nurses named Devi or some such. Inevitably, the Indian lady would be sari-clad.

    Even the movie Army Daze: I don't deny it was a great local production which had mass appeal. However much of the mass appeal came from cultural stereotyping, that much is pretty irrefutable.

    Seriously people, move past the fucking coconut trees already. Though really, can writers be expected to write about a culture they have no understanding of except on a completely superficial level? Which is the reason "Racial Harmony Day" fucks me off big time. It does nothing but highlight the issue of race, while giving a happy illusion of tolerance. Everybody wins right?


    Ok ok /end rant.

    - The Poultrygeist


    Sorry, that got away from me. Someone needs to ban that. It's shameful.

  4. When 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors spoke of Aang: The Last Air Bender, they said "it's an Asianphile's dream when you get all the Asian culture you can want without the burden of actual Asians."

    That's what Singapore's Racial Harmony Day is to me. Lots of 'culture' of different races, without actually requiring you to get to know people of other races.

    I echo Oh My Goat and Poultrygeist, the demise of Racial Harmony Day is long overdue.

  5. Racial Harmony Day also has the added side effect of convincing people that racism isn't an issue anymore, because I borrowed a friend's sari and wore it for a while and thought I was so sartorially clever for pairing it with a Chinese collar.

    It was a damn good outfit.

    I was still racist as all get out.

    -Cat in the Cream

  6. Getting my cuppa Barnyard first thing in the morningDecember 8, 2009 at 9:05 AM

    I think Mr Ng would understand the issue a little better if he were in a country in which he, as a Chinese person, was a minority, and witnessed a TV show in which the Chinese were stereotyped and mocked. I could imagine a non-Chinese character going to a Halloween party as a Chinese person, and coming onstage in a coolie hat, with tape around his eyes to make them slanty, fake buckteeth in his mouth, and going "ching chang chong! ding bing dang!"

    I doubt Mr Ng would still find it harmless and a mere blameless reflection of 'reality' (how can he not realise that it is exposure to and the content of shows like this that plays a role in engendering whatever reality we live in?).

    I've met Chinese people in Singapore who shudder at the thought of going to certain countries because of 'all the racism there.' And yet the irony of situations like this seems to escape them.

    Bravo, as usual, to the Barn.

  7. "relate with people on the terms of who they actually are, rather than social groups of which they have membership"

    i oso say.

    "Racial Harmony Day fucks me off big time"

    i oso say again.

    actually, it's pretty clear we're all in violent agreement here. haha. the question is what next? only the choir is around this soapbox, to coin a mixed metaphor.


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