Social Justice

Shrey Versus Ah Boys To Men Race War

Shrey Bhargava's Facebook post about his audition for Ah Boys To Men 4 kickstarted a debate about racism in Singapore. Full post at the end. 
Netizens have weighed in on both sides and what's largely missing is that most didn't acknowledge the validity of his experience as a Singaporean Indian first, choosing to dismiss his heartfelt experience and focus on the circumstances instead. 
Nor did they acknowledge their Chinese privilege. COME ON, RACISM EXIST! Majority privilege exist. 
This reminded me of my time in the US, I took a class about the impact of Asian American stereotypes in films and how it reinforces racism. It was 19 at that time, I took it 18 years ago.
My then naive Singaporean Chinese self who didn't encounter racism nor understand my Chinese privilege, was shocked that my classmates (all of them Asian Americans who grew up in the US) had such an adverse reaction when my initial reaction is shrugging and thinking what's the big deal? Very much like most of the reactions to Shrey's post. Except that it was 18 years ago. 
Let's just say eye daggers were thrown at me from all sides, lecturer included. *Gulp*. It was a massive face palm moment, one that I'm ashamed to admit even now. Thankfully my ignorance only lasted one class and I have definitely evolved much as a person since. 
As the semester went on, I witnessed how the mass media roles were limited to bucktoothed fools, bespectacled math nerds, court jesters playing the gong (I kid you not), kung fu masters (love you Bruce Lee) or dragon ladies with the prerequisite chopsticks in the hair (Tiger Moms not included). 
This was distinctively different from my media exposure in Singapore, it meant my Asian American friends were inaccurately stereotyped, causing them to lose their sense of identity, contributing towards racism, an effect that is still prevalent in the US today. 
So I agree with  Shrey's statement that "films play a very important role in shaping our ideas, perceptions and feelings towards social issues, our country and each other. It's 2017 and it's time for us to change. We cannot keep perpetuating stereotypes."
What I disagree with is the how, not the limiting of roles to "Indian characters that speak with normal Singaporean accents, then people will not be given a chance to believe that all Singaporean Indians speak in a certain stereotypical way", as he proposed. But rather a diversity of roles that showcase Singaporean Indians with different accents, different skin tones and from all walks of life, etc. 
I think much of the backlash is due to similarities to my experience above, the other part is due to the context. If let's say someone spewed racial slurs directly at him, that's of course unacceptable. This particular example is a tad dodgy since the entire Ah Boys To Men series is as mainstream as it gets. What's mainstream is stereotype galore. It's not an independent film nor a documentary and it doesn't try to be that. It doesn't claim to serve a larger social purpose or explore unique angles. Anyone who watches the series simply wants a light-hearted Singaporean army flick, that's it. 
If films in general depicted real life all the time, it would be called people watching. Now, you don't need to buy a ticket for that. You would sit in Starbucks and do it.
It's a common practice for  caricatures to be used, locally and internationally as well. Director of the film, Jack Neo himself, is famous for playing Liang Po Po. Other local favourites include Phua Chu Kang, Rosie Phua and Auntie Lucy. They were all  exaggerated far beyond accent and some includes cross dressing, all portraying stereotypes of Singaporean Chinese. 
Also, the audition requirements of the casting director certainly does not constitute racism. Unless you have information that other actors are treated differently, you're especially singled out because of your race, being offended in and of itself isn't racism. Everyone gets offended at everyone else, where do we draw the line? 
It made you personally uncomfortable, sure. You wish you stood up for yourself instead of caving in, sure. You maybe wished dialogue happened, sure. 
As for "also, I was asked if I was local the moment I stepped into the audition room - I assume because I am not as dark as they think I should be and also because of my natural accent." Asking whether you're local and commenting on your skin colour are two very different things. Maybe it's for CPF related paperwork? Maybe it's about your knowledge of local culture? What's inferred without dialogue is personal projection.
It's of course the mark of an enlightened person to be sensitive about race relations, it's quite another thing to expect others to read your mind. Impossible much? 
I personally had an example where I thought a brooch suited the attire of a Malay friend, I made the decision completely based on colours. She said, "It's very Malay colours." I nodded. She was offended and went on to complain angrily about it to another Malay friend in front of me. 
In my case, I would say the same for my traditional Chinese friends who think red and gold are representative of Chinese traditions or just happen to suit my brooch that day. She wasn't singled out, I said nothing offensive to her other than the brooch suited her. In fact, I made the brooch myself so of course I appreciated the colours. It was a compliment that it went well with her attire. In no way, shape and form was it an insult and it's definitely not racism. 
We ended up clearing things up and exchanging handmade brooches which was a wonderful ending to an awkward situation. Not all incidents have such an ending though. 
get that for someone who have experienced actual racism, it's definitely a sensitive topic. I also think there needs to be room for clarification, space for harmless humour and time to get to know each other as well. I think that's reasonable. As much as one can try to be understanding, faux pas are bound to happen. 
Jumping to conclusions is aiding and abetting racism. No one likes to be maligned, done too frequently, it creates friction which escalates into frustration, ultimately projected as racism, achieving the opposite of said intention.
Ironically, it's the people who aren't racist and are themselves around you that can come across as unintentionally offensive. Of course, it's also possible that it is due to ignorance too. All races have stereotypes, stereotypes exist for a reason, I don't see how poking fun at it is racist. Yes, there is humour that's steep in judgment. Or a harmless joke in the hands of a racist can become a weapon. It all boils down to individual intention and this isn't something that can be understood fully in a reactive environment. 
Shrey also mentioned  Aziz Ansari's work, I happen to like Aziz Ansari's stand up comedy, because he expertly straddles the fine line between public education, Indian stereotypes and the ability to laugh at himself.  Education doesn't need to come in fuddy-duddy boxes, it can come in comedy and humour as well. The beauty lies in the details. 
As with any artist, actors included, finding your own voice and gauging your risk appetite is a learning curve. Can you say you aren't influenced by the current social climate? Of course you are. Conventional success often requires you to go with the majority, the very nature of change requires fearlessness. 
Sure, it's a much harder and longer road to stand in your truth. Writing about spirituality and mental health has taught me this. Both are subject matters that trigger suspicion and projection without me directing this at anyone in particular. I can choose to write about safe topics, then I always find myself coming back to the truth of self, others and the world. That gives my life meaning and all that seems so different about me is what I can contribute to the world. 
Even though I don't agree fully with his post, I do applaud Shrey's efforts in battling his internalised racism and speaking up about it. This creates dialogue and it's pretty obvious from the comments that it's sorely needed. 
 
Below is what Shrey Bhargava wrote. 
So, I just finished my audition for Ah Boys to Men 4, and this is what happened inside the casting room:

After completing one full take of the audition script, playing a soldier with a Singaporean accent who spoke in colloquial Singlish, I was asked by the casting director to make it 'a full blown Indian man'.

Now, I get it, casting directors give directions to see if actors can follow them, but really, asking me to be more Indian even after I performed the scene in a completely Singaporean way and talked as most Singaporeans would (even Indian Singaporeans)?

I said "but not all Indians in Singapore speak with a thick Indian accent"

And she just responded with "but that's what we want. And make it funny"

So I was told to portray a caricature of my race. I was reduced to my accent, because that's what made it funny. That's what they wanted for the film. Diversity in Singaporean film, I guess comes down to playing stereotypes so the majority race can find it amusing.

And also it seemed as though I was just not 'Indian' enough.

I wanted to decline to perform and say that they had the power to choose not to force an Indian accent on their Indian character, because that'd make them more authentically Singaporean, but I didn't. I did it. I put on a fake Indian accent and performed and it felt horrible.

I left the room feeling disgusted. That I was seen by my country as nothing more than the color of my skin and the way they think I ought to speak. Most Singaporean Indians I know do not speak with a full blown Indian accent, so I don't see why, a film, part of a franchise now known to be inseparably part of our national culture, needs to have an Indian character only if he is a stereotype.

I don't know if I'll be cast or not. And right now, that's besides the point. I hope that whoever they cast will choose to stick to the natural Singaporean accent they have (which may lean towards Indian but doesn't have to be full blown) instead of adopt a fake one just to feed the racist humor our country thrives on.

Films play a very important role in shaping our ideas, perceptions and feelings towards social issues, our country and each other. It's 2017 and it's time for us to change. We cannot keep perpetuating stereotypes. We must begin to recognize that Singapore is NOT a Chinese country. We are multiracial, and multilingual.

We must recognize that and make films that reflect our reality. Films that discourage stereotypes and reinforce our one Singaporean identity. If films are made that have Indian characters that speak with normal Singaporean accents, then people will not be given a chance to believe that all Singaporean Indians speak in a certain stereotypical way.

I do not deserve to feel like a foreigner in my own country.

Anyway, I hope speaking out about this leads to some much needed discussions about what is right and acceptable in the media we consume and whether it's time to re-evaluate what diversity means to us.

Whatever happened today reminded me of an episode from Aziz Ansari's Master of None called Indians on TV, where Aziz's character, Dev, faced the exact same situation. I wonder if I too should have been more adamant in not wanting to perform with an accent. Maybe I should have, and I chickened out. I have internalized the racism I have faced against me and it shows. But I'm working hard to reverse its effects. Hopefully this post is a step towards it.

Also, I was asked if I was local the moment I stepped into the audition room - I assume because I am not as dark as they think I should be and also because of my natural accent.

But mind you, I was wearing my Smart 4 all along...

 

 

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