The Singapore government last week blocked access to a rap video produced by two Singaporean rappers of Indian ethnicity implying it was racially offensive. In July, rappers Preeti Nair and Subhas Nair posted a video in response to a local advertisement for cashless payments that featured Singaporean actor Dennis Chew Chong Kheng portraying characters in costume of various ethnicities in Singapore, one of which was in ‘brownface’ that many found racist and discriminatory.
Why did the advertisement cause controversy?
The actor, Dennis Chew Chong Kheng, had darkened his face to portray Indian and Malayan characters in the advertisement. The criticism that followed forced Nets, the Singaporean e-payments company that was promoting its cashless payments services, and Havas Worldwide, the creative agency responsible for the advertisement, to issue an apology which many, including the Nair siblings, believed was not sincere.
— Anthony Leong (@leongkhaiweng) July 31, 2019
What was the rap video about?
The video produced by the Nairs called ‘K. Muthusamy’, after the name given to the Indian character in the Nets advertisement, is a criticism of racial disparities in Singapore and is full of expletives. Muhammad Al-Hakim, 25, a student at a Singapore art school, told The Indian Express that “underneath the veneer of a multi-racial, multi-cultural society that Singapore projects, there are…issues, especially regarding race in terms of understanding sensitivities of the individual cultures and religions itself.”
Why did the Singapore government block access to the video?
The rap video went viral in Singapore and soon after the Nair’s had posted it online, Singapore police announced that they were investigating the video for “offensive content” following a police complaint. Then, the Ministry of Home Affairs prohibited the Nair’s video under the Internet Code of Practice, stating that it was objectionable on the grounds of public interest and national harmony. Channel News Asia quoted local police saying that the “police will not tolerate any offensive content that causes ill-will between races”.
But the Nairs took aim at the apology issued by the e-payments company and the ad agency which they believed was not sincere. They too issued a statement on their social media accounts on August 2 that parodied Havas Worldwide’s apology. Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs immediately criticised the Nairs for mocking the Singaporean ad agency and issued a public statement against it. “The statement contains a mock, insincere apology. It is a spoof of an earlier apology issued by Havas Worldwide for the E-Pay advertisement… This spoofing is a pretence of an apology, and in fact shows contempt for the many Singaporeans who have expressed concern at their blatantly racist rap video,” said the Singapore government.
— Mothership.sg (@MothershipSG) August 2, 2019
Why did the Singapore govt find the lyrics in the rap video problematic?
“Is it the app or the stereotypes you’re tryna promote?” raps Preeti.
“How come you so jealous of the colour of my skin/
Wait actually it’s accurate/
Of the city we in/
No matter who we choose/
The Chinese man win,” says Subhas in his raps.
The issue of race and racial discrimination are sensitive subjects in Singapore and open discussions on it, such as those that occured as a result of this viral rap video, are usually not welcomed by the government. That is possibly why the Singaporean government clamped down on the video so quickly and in this way.
What did the rappers say about their rap video?
Neither Preeti nor Subhas Nair responded to The Indian Express’ multiple requests for comment, but published a lengthy apology on August 3 across their social media platforms. Preeti Nair, who goes by the name ‘Preetipls’ on social media, said in the joint statement that they “only wanted to spark a conversation and get corporations to stop painting people brown to portray a minority….because brownface is extremely offensive.”
— Preeti Nair (@plspreeti) August 3, 2019
Who is ‘Singaporean’?
According to official government data on demographics in Singapore, 76.1% are Chinese, 15% are Malays, 7.5% are Indians, while 1.5% are from other races.
Beneath the carefully constructed image of diversity and harmony, Singapore has had a history of racial discrimination and disparity, with some incidents of racial tension and violence that have surfaced in the city-state’s 54-year history.
Al-Hakim, a Singaporean Malay, believes along with more cultural understanding between races, the government needs to undertake “gradual reforms” and “targeted policies”. According to him, Singapore no longer has “huge problems” such as those of “state-mandated racism”, “police biasness”, “active racial discrimination in schooling”, but other issues such as gaps in education levels for minorities continue to exist.
Although the original rap video has been blocked by the Singapore government, copies are available on YouTube and as clips on Twitter. One YouTube user, Chua K.C., commented on Preeti’s rap on an uploaded copy of the video, “Who is she? Is she Singaporean? I think she is new citizen that does not know Singapore culture.” Chua’s comments were criticised by other users who questioned what makes someone “Singaporean”.
“She is Singaporean, just because someone’s not Chinese doesn’t mean they’re not Singaporean,” said YouTube user Amanpreet Kaur Johal. The written exchange on the YouTube video emphasised how identity and race in Singapore are central to the ‘K.Muthusamy’ video controversy and possibly also why the Nairs felt the need to make the video in the first place.
Does Singapore have a history of racial tensions?
Racial issues in Singapore can be traced to the origins of the city-state as an independent republic in 1965. In 1959, Singapore became an independent, self-governing state within the Commonwealth, after the general elections that year. Lee Kuan Yew, also known as the founder of Singapore, became the first prime minister.
Singapore’s People’s Action Party, a major, moderate-right party, to which Lee Kuan Yew belonged, wanted a merger with the Federation of Malaya after Singapore’s independence. The Federation of Malaya that existed from February 1948 until September 1963, was a federation of the former British Malacca states, comprising Johor, Kelantan, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perlis, Perak, Selangor, Terrenganu and the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca.
For Singapore, an island without any natural resources and as a declining trading port after the departure of the British, a merger with the Federation of Malaya would ensure economic safeguards and access to Malayan markets and would result in the generation of jobs for its population.
The proposed state of Malaysia would be governed by an anti-Communist and right-wing government, and Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) believed that a merger with Malaysia would diffuse the growing threat of left-wing communists that the PAP was facing.
However, the United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia’s ruling party in the late 1950s, opposed this merger because they believed that Singapore’s large Chinese population would skew the demographics on which their vote-bank was dependent on.
In 1961, Malay’s then prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman put forward the proposal of the Federation of Malaysia, comprising the Federation of Malaya, Brunei, Singapore and the territories of North Borneo and Sarawak in British Borneo. In 1963, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak joined to form the new Federation of Malaysia, under the Malaysia Agreement which gave Singapore various levels of autonomy.
Indonesia protested the inclusion of North Borneo in this Federation, which led to the Konfrontasi, the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation of 1963-1966. Between themselves, Singapore and Malaysia had political and economic disagreements which led to the 1964 race riots of Singapore, one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history, between the Chinese and Malays.
After Singapore achieved independence from Malaysia in 1965, the nation witnessed racial violence once again in 1969. This time, the conflict had nothing to do with the newly-established city-state but was affected by a spillover of communal violence that occurred during Malaysia’s general elections, between the Chinese and Malays.
About 44 years later, Singapore’s first riot in decades, occurred in Little India, an area with many Indian shops, businesses and Indian residents. Socio-political observers believe that prior to the riots of 2013, racial tensions had been brewing underneath the surface between Singapore’s migrant labourers, many of whom are Indian, and local Singaporeans for years. Racial discrimination, violence and abuse against poor migrant labourers are common stories in the community.
According to a 2013 story by France 24 on the Little India riots, bus drivers who ferry migrant labourers, “are Singaporeans while others are Malaysian or Chinese – tend to be overworked and underpaid. They have trouble collecting fares from workers and stopping those who try to board buses that are full. They sometimes push workers off buses and verbally abuse them.”
What is the reaction on social media to the ‘K. Muthusamy’ video?
Chinese person: gets paid for doing brown face in an ad for the government
Me (seeing my third brown face incident in local media at this point): Racist Chinese people need to stop fucking up and it’s exhausting af
Chinese ppl proving my point: omg you’re racist!
— Preeti Nair (@plspreeti) July 30, 2019
The reaction to the rap video is mixed, as is the response on the ground in Singapore, according to Al-Hakim. “Many younger Singaporeans are supportive or only had slight issue with Preetipls’s methods and use of vulgarities, having been familiar with her style of work and videos,” said Al-Hakim.
Just now I got in an argument with a Chinese douchebag on FB insisting you were racist and that minorities use the power dynamics thing as an excuse for their racism towards majorities.
I called him out. He reported me and now I’m in FB jail. 🙄🙄🙄 Typical fragile SG Chinese.
— Sivaroobini (@SavioBriion) August 2, 2019
Al-Hakim believes that the older generation are socially conservative, and many have not only had an issue with the way the Nairs tackled the issue, but also with the subject of race itself. “As race is a rarely broached subject in Singapore, having a social media personality as vibrant and vocal as (Preeti Nair) suddenly over a small advertising faux pas would have shocked their sensitivities.”