It's 2016, and mainstream media is still peddling racist perspectives

A Chinese actor was cast as an African-American to replace his Indian colleague in Toggle’s I want to be a Star and Netizens aren’t happy.

“Regardless of race, language, or religion…”

A line in the Singapore pledge all Singaporeans have come to know so well, after years of repeating it daily at morning assembly in school. Singapore prides itself on racial harmony (we even have a designated “Racial Harmony Day”, where the importance of cultural sensitivity and harmonious ties across divisions is constantly impressed upon us) and brands itself as a multiracial society where people of every creed are accepted and made to feel equal.

So how did a Chinese actor doing blackface in mockery of the Indian community glide through all checks and balances and make it onto Toggle, the online service of Singapore’s leading media company, MediaCorp?

The distasteful gag was featured in a Toggle original entitled I want to be a Star, which chronicles the journey of bit part actors in search of opportunities. The problematic racism begins way before the shockingly backward and offensive blackface incident, when the casting director in the show could not find an African-American actor for an episode, and one of the characters suggested using an Indian actor instead, saying that “it’s all the same” (translated from Mandarin).



When the Indian character could not make it, the next conceivable solution, at least in the eyes of the writers at Toggle, was to get a Chinese actor to don blackface and an afro wig in substitution.

While it’s disheartening that something this blatantly racist and just plain stupid was presented through mainstream media, it’s also wholeheartedly encouraging to see the uproar that Singaporeans have stirred up. In fact, their dismissal of Toggle’s first apology after it was deemed insincere prompted a second apology from the channel.

In response to the outcry, the channel had initially tweeted an apology, which read, “The scene has been perceived as being racially sensitive by some viewers, although that was never our intention in the production. We appreciate the feedback and truly apologise to viewers who have been affected by this portrayal. The relevant scenes have also been removed from the programme.”

Netizens were quick to respond and point out exactly what went wrong with both the tasteless gag, and the outlet’s subsequent half-hearted apology.

User @_anakink replied to Toggle’s original tweet saying, “It wasn’t “perceived as racially insensitive by some viewers”. It was called out for its use of black face which is racist.” and “This isn’t an apology. Admit someone made a mistake during the production process instead of blaming the viewers’ “perception”.”

The channel then issued a second apology, saying, “We’re sorry for the blackface portrayal in Ep 6 of “I Want To Be A Star”. We take race-related issues very seriously and that portrayal should not have happened. We’ve removed the offensive scenes from the programme and will ensure something like that doesn’t happen again.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time minorities in Singapore have bore the brunt of such ignorant treatment, despite our country’s apparent cultural sensitivity. In a survey commissioned by Channel NewsAsia (CNA) and conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), first released in August this year, most respondents concurred that all races should be treated equally. However, almost half of them acknowledge that racism is still a problem. About 60% of respondents had heard racist comments, with almost half saying the comment was made by a colleague.

This recent spate of events just goes to show that despite how multicultural and racially harmonious Singapore brands itself to be — and indeed, there are many Singaporeans who are genuinely accepting and culturally sensitive — there is still implicit and explicit racism that we have to contend with before we can genuinely claim to be a meritocratic nation where our goal is the progress of all people, regardless of race, language, or religion.

Still, while this incident throws light on the racism still embedded within Singapore (and perpetuated through mainstream media, at that), the massive outcry of locals who admonish such behaviour and call for proper recourse is a good sign that Singaporeans are quick to take matters into their own hands when it comes to outrightly detrimental racism and ignorance. While there are still issues we need to address, problematic and downright racist behaviour does not go completely unchecked in Singapore.

If the media peddles insensitive perspectives, and the censors somehow fail to pick up on grossly ignorant material, then at least our citizens know better than to take it lying down.

 To me, “racial harmony” in Singapore is very much a chicken-and-egg situation. Has Singapore always been racially harmonious, and we just slapped a label on ourselves and ran with it? Or was the concept of “racial harmony” introduced as a means of social engineering, and controversies such as this Toggle debacle are simply instances of people falling through the cracks? Or, more realistically, is this branding of utopian multicultural integration just a hollow concept with very real and tangible problems constantly poking at it from the inside, threatening to unravel it completely?

 For someone who grew up with the importance of racial harmony constantly impressed upon her, witnessing something like this is equal parts frustrating as it is a relief. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not condoning the ignorance by any means, but it has always been pretty obvious to me that despite our supposed appreciation of cultural diversity, there is still an undercurrent of implicit racism that permeates Singaporean society. Minorities are still being discriminated against, whether socially or economically, and you still hear the occasional tale of a friend of a friend being rejected from a job because of his race or religion, and not for any lack in merit.

So while Singapore continues to vehemently brandish this title of a multicultural haven, I’m glad that something so blatantly racist and offensive was exhibited in the public eye – but only because it may finally trigger an open conversation about all of the underlying prejudice we pretend does not exist in our society.

Being honest with ourselves is the first step we need to take in order to make long-lasting, real progress. Ignoring a problem that has such tangible negative consequences, in hopes of amplifying only positives, does nothing but a disservice to those experiencing prejudice at the hands of their fellow citizens.