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Saturday, January 18th, 2020

The festival of racism

by October 30, 2016 General

OCTOBER 30 — Things have lit up in Singapore and the heat is coming from more than just the Deepavali oil lamps associated with the Hindu Festival of Lights.

Local media site The Smart Local produced a video entitled Singaporeans Try: Indian Snacks.

Having missed the window to see the video before a ferocious backlash had the site scrambling to delete it, I can only assume it was inspired by the vapid yet addictive content produced by viral kings BuzzFeed and their likes where you take one group of people, introduce them to the food, ways, customs, music of another people — a foreign “other” and film their responses which will probably vary from amused, confused, disgusted or tickled.

A pathetic concept perhaps but for my purposes, we need only note that the premise is based on encountering an “other.”

So the site uploaded their video, pleased with their on-trend topical take on a public holiday only to meet a revelation that seems so obvious it hurts.

Deepavali prayers at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Shah Alam... so, how much do we know about each other’s culture and celebrations? — Picture by Mohd Yusof Mat IsaDeepavali prayers at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Shah Alam… so, how much do we know about each other’s culture and celebrations? — Picture by Mohd Yusof Mat IsaIn multi-racial, multi-cultural Singapore we are told that Indians are a key part of the tapestry so the notion of exploring the “foreign and exotic” ways of my people serves as a painful reminder on how crap a job our state has done with integration.

The video purportedly showed Singaporeans meeting questions about the meaning of Deepavali with blank stares, comparing the Indian sweet of ladoos with diarrhoea (to which I ask where have they been buying their ladoos man?)

And the criticism was swift and damning.

It doesn’t help the case that a few days earlier, online video streaming service Toggle (which belongs to Mediacorp) did an episode of their Chinese-language series I Want To Be A Star where a Chinese ethnicity actor dressed up as a black actor by putting on black make-up on his face and an Afro wig and some part of the gag was that Africans and Indians are interchangeable.

People got mad about that too.

So here’s my perspective as a Singaporean of Indian descent with dark skin. I did not want the video (either of them) to be deleted because neither of these outcomes address the fundamental problem: the Singaporean identity is fragmented, we remain deeply divided and a knee-jerk reaction of pulling the content off doesn’t make this problem go away.

In fact, it only exacerbates it because we are forcing these painfully ignorant conversations – which are obviously happening — to happen behind closed doors.

Local poet Pooja Nansi summed it up best: “When you say ‘Singaporeans’ are trying Indian snacks, what you are really saying is that Indians aren’t Singaporeans and our snacks aren’t really ‘Singaporean’ either.”

And I can’t see how deleting the video helps move this conversation along.

I don’t think we should prohibit jokes at our expense but we should instead foster a community where these jokes are done with good taste, affection and appreciation that can come from an integrated community. Is that idealistic?

But I know it is possible because I have seen  the lateYasmin Ahmad’s work and my absolute favourite is the Petronas Deepavali commercial featuring a patti (grandmother) turning up as some young Indian boys set off for a party in full hip-hop swag and the embarrassed encounter captures the kind of nuanced understanding we need if we want to be multi-racial.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.