Alfian Sa’at: Let’s stop framing racial discourses in terms of ‘sensitivity’

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Straits Times report of the incident

By Alfian Sa’at

I don’t know Sharon Au as a friend. But I have met her before, and I remember that we were both enthusing about how much we loved Haresh Sharma’s plays. (Au declared he was her favourite Singaporean playwright.)

I actually don’t like it when racial discourses are framed in terms of ‘sensitivity’, because the aggrieved parties–often minorities–are then cast as humourless and oversensitive. And that’s really quite wrong, because God knows how minorities have often used laughter to deal with…all the stuff we have to deal with! I’d much rather such comments be flagged as ‘inappropriate’ rather than ‘insensitive’. This is because the discourse on sensitivity vests all the authority in the aggrieved party to define where the line of offence lies and when it has been crossed–unfortunately breeding resentment. But when we describe something as ‘inappropriate’ there is a sense that a whole community (of Singaporeans) takes responsibility for defining what should be the norms in our multicultural society.

So when Au imitated an Indian accent when she spoke to an Indian member of the audience, was she being ‘insensitive’? Certainly it’s ‘lame’, ‘off-colour’ and even a little ‘tone-deaf’. It could have been funny in a situation, for example, if the girl had a chance to try on a Chinese accent (there’s such a thing, and it has given us choice phrases like ‘SQ me’ and ‘solly solly’ and ‘probrem sums’) as a way of getting back at Au. And this is what I believe happens when friends interact with each other. A close friendship gives you license to poke fun at each other–though you always take cues from the other person, who’ll lead with self-deprecating remarks: “Sorry, I’m very Chinese, I must insist the taxi driver give me my 5 cents change”; “Eh, I bring shame to the Malays lah, I really cannot play soccer”; “I’m very Indian, I cannot wear all this monochrome stuff, I must have at least three colours on me.”

I think as a very experienced host, Au’s instinct is always to establish rapport with the audience member. But I think she flubbed–and I truly think it is an honest mistake–because she might have assumed that it is the ability to make these racial comments that establishes rapport. This is getting it backwards: you build the rapport first, you gain the other person’s trust, before you get permission to say such things (and you should be able to take as good as you give). I think at the spur of the moment, Au might have looked at that audience member and immediately thought: ‘talk to her in that teasing, jokey way you talk to your Indian friend’. But of course the audience member was a total stranger (in a public setting), and which stranger could take kindly to such remarks?

Au has apologised, gracefully and sincerely, without attempting to justify what she did (which is more than I can say of those who might claim that they’re being ‘victimised’ by political correctness and that ‘people can’t take a joke anymore’–or worse, say that ‘I have many Indian friends so I can’t be racist’).

And now on to the rest of the Games!

(PS: Some people cannot read properly so let me summarise. This isn’t saying ‘she did nothing wrong’. This is saying, ‘she did something wrong and admitted it and made a voluntary apology’. There’s a difference k?)

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