The key is intent, not ethnicity

Celebrate homage paid to culture instead of seeing it as being disrespectful

Asking whether artists should be allowed to borrow from alien cultures is asking the wrong question. More pertinent is the cultural intelligence employed in the borrowing and the intelligence deployed by those observing the result.

Last November, actor Thomas Pang won accolades from reviewers for playing an Indian man on stage here. A few months before his performance in Checkpoint Theatre's The Good, The Bad And The Sholay, emcee Sharon Au was pilloried for mimicking an Indian accent for laughs at the opening of the South-east Asian Games.

Both, not just one, could have been accused of cultural appropriation, according to the definition employed by Lionel Shriver, in her controversial speech about a writer's right to write what she wishes.

Her definition, taken from Susan Scafidi's book, Who Owns Culture?, includes "unauthorised use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine".

Au played an Indian accent and non-commital headshake for laughs after a little girl flubbed a line in a major televised event in Singapore. Indians here recalled being made fun of at school for those same traits. They projected that remembered hurt onto the little girl apparently singled out for mockery. The result was public outcry over a hackles- raising example of insensitivity.

What then of Pang's thick Indian accent while playing Raghav in The Good, The Bad And The Sholay, a play about growing up in India and moving to Singapore? The kneejerk reaction to the programme booklet was: "Couldn't an Indian actor have played the lead just as well?"

But five minutes into the play and this reviewer - as well as two Indian arts bloggers - realised that race was a non-issue. To quibble about the actor's race was to squeeze this narrative into a small box marked "Indian" and to deny it the right to be a universal coming-of-age story.

It can be difficult for minorities to recognise homage when they are conditioned to expect hatred or marginalisation. There are countries where minority cultures were fatally suppressed. Today, while the population of Asia outnumbers that of North America and Europe, Asian narratives are still a minority in terms of global representation on movie screens and bookshelves.

Minorities reclaiming their power feel possessive of their culture and traditions. The very features that stigmatised them as "other" become sources of pride and uniqueness.

Any outsider inspired by a minority group's story is safer remaining an outsider in the retelling. It is why British writer Louise Doughty's new book about the 1965 riots in Indonesia, Black Water, is told from the perspective of an ethnic Indonesian brought up in America and Europe, so safely immune to criticism from real-life Indonesians.

The other option for an artist telling another group's stories is to demonstrate a high degree of cultural intelligence.

A 2004 article by P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski in the Harvard Business Review defines cultural intelligence as "an outsider's seemingly natural ability to interpret someone's unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person's compatriots would".

Cultural intelligence goes beyond rote learning about the foreign culture's beliefs and taboos - it requires empathy. "Your actions must prove that you have entered their world," say the writers.

Artists in multicultural Singapore have developed a high degree of cultural intelligence as they draw on influences from different ethnic groups. For many, their work comes after much research and soul- searching that amounts to a humble request for permission to enter another point of view. Shriver discounted the need for this authorisation process in her speech, but it appears to be necessary for the production of respectful work.

The Good, The Bad And The Sholay was staged with the blessing of playwright and co-director Shiv Tandan, working with his mentor Huzir Sulaiman of Checkpoint Theatre. This week, The Necessary Stage opens Best Of (His Story), a play in English about a Malay man whose wife wants divorce in the Syariah Court. Playwright Haresh Sharma interviewed a number of Malay men in a similar predicament, just as he researched the woman's take on the matter, also presented in English, three years ago.

Singaporean artists have negotiated to some extent a creative space where the artist's ethnicity is not as vital as the zest and skill with which a story is being told. It helps that they respect the privilege of drawing on cultures not their own.

Equally important, a significant number of viewers here have accepted that they are part of a continuum of culture and humanity larger than their own ethnic groups.

There are arts watchers who fume when part-Eurasian actress Sharda Harrison plays an Indian character. There are also those who realise that grimly defending one's sole right to tell a tale can also jeopardise the move towards universal acceptance of the value of one's culture.

If members of an ethnic group want their stories and mannerisms to be as respected as another culture is, it means ceding control of the narrative sometimes. It means welcoming British director Peter Brook's adaptation of The Mahabharata in English. It means welcoming a Chinese actor putting on an Indian accent in order to embody his character respectfully.

This does not mean that wearing blackface or yellowface is acceptable. Nor is making fun of the way somebody speaks. Intercultural relations are no laughing matter.

It is one thing to make a Tibetan mystic into a Celtic sage played by Tilda Swinton in the Doctor Strange movie or to cast Scarlett Johansson in the Hollywood version of Ghost In The Shell. It is another to hold so tightly to one's right to a narrative that one ignores the real, respectful intent of an artist doing his best by a character. Intent is more important than ethnicity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 01, 2016, with the headline The key is intent, not ethnicity. Subscribe