When race made the news in Singapore

Actor Dennis Chew (left) and YouTube personality Preetipls.
Actor Dennis Chew (left) and YouTube personality Preetipls.PHOTOS: DENNIS CHEW/INSTAGRAM, ST FILE

Insight looks at several incidents to do with race that have surfaced in Singapore in the past 1 ½ years, prompting conversations on the topic.

July 2019: Dennis Chew and Preetipls 

An advertisement for e-payments provider Nets featuring actor Dennis Chew in brownface – with darkened skin – to portray an Indian man drew heavy criticism from the public. He was also made up as a Malay woman in tudung and a Chinese woman. 

The agencies behind the ad were ticked off by the regulators for producing an ad in poor taste and causing offence to the minorities.

The ad prompted YouTube personality Preeti Nair, better known as Preetipls, and her musician brother Subhas to release an expletive-laden music video highlighting issues of racial stereotyping, discrimination and representation.

But Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said the video had crossed the line. The siblings had every right to discuss racism, he said, but they had gone about it the wrong way. 

The authorities took down the video on grounds of public interest and national harmony, and the police later issued a two-year conditional warning to the siblings, cautioning that allowing such videos would lead to “more racism, more racial tensions, and, eventually, violence”.

The “Preetipls incident” triggered, and continues to be part of, deeper discussions on race.

Analysts see it as a reference point for young Singaporeans who disagree with the Government’s approach to those asking tough questions on the topic.

April-June 2020: Migrant workers and Nimbyism

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in April, a forum letter in Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao blamed the outbreak in migrant workers’ dormitories on their personal hygiene and living habits – prompting Mr K. Shanmugam to castigate the “racism” on display.

A week earlier, socialite Jamie Chua also drew flak for social media posts describing a “disturbing nightmare” she had of Indian workers rushing into her house.

In June, as the Government revealed plans to build new temporary as well as permanent housing for the workers, it urged Singaporeans to reject a “not in my backyard” (Nimby) mindset, given the inevitability of dorms being sited near residential areas. The announcement nonetheless sparked a wave of negative online comments in protest. 

June 2020: Old photo of RI students in blackface

Poet-playwright Alfian Sa’at posted on Facebook a 2016 photo of Chinese students from Raffles Institution, with their faces either painted black or covered in black masks as part of a birthday celebration for an Indian schoolmate.

Then Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said young Singaporeans were right to decry such insensitivity, but reminded them that Singapore’s past and present racial context were not the same as in the United States – which was in the throes of Black Lives Matter protests at the time.

June 2020: Tan Wu Meng’s op-ed on Alfian Sa’at

In an opinion piece published on the People’s Action Party (PAP) website, then Senior Parliamentary Secretary Tan Wu Meng questioned Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh’s support for Mr Alfian Sa’at, citing the latter’s critical comments about Singapore, and writing that Singapore had given the latter “an education and a living… denied to many minorities in the region”.

Observers criticised what they saw as a condescending portrayal of Mr Alfian as an ungrateful member of the minorities – and post-election, noted that the article could have contributed to voter dissatisfaction.

July 2020: Raeesah Khan’s comments 

Old Facebook posts by WP candidate for Sengkang GRC Raeesah Khan were brought to light – and made the subject of police reports – in the lead-up to this year’s General Election. In one, she wrote about foreigners flouting safe distancing rules, asking if the law differed for “rich Chinese or white people”. 

Ms Raeesah apologised, saying she had no intention of causing social division and wanted only to raise awareness of minority issues. The PAP called her comments “highly derogatory” and questioned if she was fit to be an MP.

Analysts have frequently cited these events as a possible factor in the WP winning Sengkang GRC. Police later issued her a stern warning for promoting enmity between groups.

August 2020: Indian PMETs targeted

Singapore investment firm Temasek condemned what it described as racist, divisive, hateful and false Facebook posts singling out its Indian employees. 

DBS Bank and Standard Chartered Bank were also targeted in similar posts, all of which falsely accused the firms of hiring foreigners to the detriment of locals. One viral post asked netizens to “find a Singaporean or Chinese” in a photo of DBS employees – that was taken at the bank’s branch in Hyderabad, India.

Weighing in, Temasek chief executive Ho Ching said: “Let’s not be fooled by anyone who tries to stir up racial biases that lurk beneath everyone of us. It is a very short distance between hating one nationality to one race, and very soon, anyone who is different.”

October 2020: Claims of preferential treatment in Orchard Towers murder case

Social media users claimed the accused persons in a murder at Orchard Towers were given preferential treatment because of their Chinese ethnicity; and that minority races would have been dealt harsher sentences. 

The Attorney-General’s Chambers slammed the “false and baseless” allegations for having the “potential to disrupt racial harmony in Singapore, and cause irreversible divisions in our communities”.

Police later opened investigations against two women behind the posts.