Why Racial Caricaturing in Singaporean Broadcast Media is Problematic

Written by: Eliora Tan Yu Xuan (21-E5), Elizabeth Khoo Yuk Min (21-U1), Leanne Soh Li En (21-E6)

Designed by: Jervis Ch’ng Yun Ping (21-U5)

Introduction

It is commonly agreed upon that to have a normative Singaporean childhood is to have watched at least one Mediacorp series growing up. There are four different language channels that target the multiracial community in Singapore. Channel 8, the Mandarin-streaming channel, is the most popular, given our country’s predominantly Chinese majority. This draws in the splice of the debate: while our state-funded TV is meant to disperse moralistic plotlines and encourage value-strengthening in society, one has to question the very vetting process that media in Channel 8 undergoes for approval to broadcast nationwide. It is widely known that Channel 8 has trenched through its fair share of controversies, mostly regarding caricaturing of a minority – be it LGBTQ+ or a race. In this article, we will be delving deep into the root causes of racial caricaturing and then explore the problems it poses to Singaporean society and our citizens. 

The Causes for Racial Caricaturing

    Much of racial caricaturing present in today’s media stems from the majority bias. Singapore is made up of a variety of races, with the Chinese being the overwhelming majority. This has resulted in the Chinese majority displaying insensitive behaviour towards the other ethnic minorities, which has led to many instances of racism. Some of these instances occur through racial caricaturing, where minorities have been portrayed inaccurately or stereotypically in the media.  To name a few, Mediacorp actors have smeared paint on their faces to darken their skin tone in an attempt to act as a different race. There has also been a recent e-payment advertisement where a Singaporean Chinese actor with visibly darkened skin took on the roles of a Malay woman and an Indian man.

Brownface

Brownface, a term used to describe the practice of wearing make-up to imitate the looks of a non-white person, usually Malay or Indian when placed in Singapore’s context. While many express their distaste towards media containing brownface, there are some who claim it to be comedic. This explains why, regardless of the repercussions, the media has time and time again used brownface in their shows and advertisements. 

Photo credit: E-payment advertisement containing brownface

Racial stereotypes in media

“I was told to portray a caricature of my race. I was reduced to my accent.” Mr Bhargava wrote in a Facebook post, visibly enraged, after his audition as a soldier for the fourth edition of the local Singaporean favourite, Ah Boys to Men. He was told to take on the role of a “full-grown Indian man”, “put on a thick Indian accent” and “make it funny”, evidently being subjected to a racial stereotype of the media. 

Photo credit: Stomp

Yet, this was only one of the many incidents of racial stereotyping. The problem with racial stereotyping in the media is that it shapes and strengthens the views towards people of different races and ethnicities, which is extremely problematic in a multi-racial society like ours. This leads us to have a flawed understanding of the diversity and ability of “the other”. The subtle message in stereotypical portrayals of people from minority races is that making fun of “a particular mannerism, accent or look” is normal and is “socially acceptable”. We may criticise Hollywood for portraying people of colour in stereotypical manners through their blockbuster movies, but how can we ever call that out if we have been doing the same?

The Problems with It

           Not to mention, the very fact that such insensitive content is allowed to stream nationwide echoes the blatant tone-deafness in our society, or at least that of the Mediacorp scene. It shows that perhaps the umbrage voiced out by minorities or enraged audiences has fallen on deaf ears. This disregard for our base equilibrium needs is shameful, especially considering that Mediacorp is state-funded with the official purpose to foster harmony and uphold core values in society. 

    We must emphasise the fact that Singapore is a multiracial and multicultural society, where views of minorities must be respected, and instances of racial caricaturing are just simply unacceptable, more than ever. Tensions raised along racial lines undermine our social cohesion, so it is paramount that we keep the media in check. 

Conclusion

       Therefore, to keep in check majority bias within the ethnic-Chinese community in Singapore, the PAC/ACCESS should impose a racial quota to ensure that no racial lambasting – in the form of racist stereotypes on TV or brownface – is allowed to fly in the local broadcast media.

Bibliography:

  1. K. (2017, June 2). Police close case after questioning actor who alleged racism in audition for Ah Boys To Men 4. Stomp. https://stomp.straitstimes.com/singapore-seen/police-close-case-after-questioning-actor-who-alleged-racism-in-audition-for-ah-boys 
  2. Racial stereotypes in media: Not just a bit of harmless fun, Opinion. (2017, June 23). The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/racial-stereotypes-in-media-not-just-a-bit-of-harmless-fun 
  3. Racism saga: Are S’poreans prepared to grow from Ah Boys to Men?,. (2017, June 3). The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/racism-saga-are-sporeans-prepared-to-grow-from-ah-boys-to-men?close=true 

Author: The Origin*

With great power comes great responsibility.

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