When Intention Is Less Important

Some years ago, I got a surprise when I saw that my Facebook feed had content I didn’t understand. My Malay friends were sharing a lot of Malay language memes and jokes on Facebook that I wanted to understand but couldn’t do so easily. That was the first time I saw a fellow Singaporean post something I do not understand. It then dawned on me how that must’ve been for them when many of us share things in the Chinese language. That made me want to write about this for some time now but I never got about to doing so until now. And it’s probably a good time to talk about it while the e-pay campaign fiasco and the offensive video by our fellow Singaporeans that got the police involved are still fresh(?) on our minds.
* I wrote this when the unfortunate advertisement happened but forgot to publish it

I first felt an odd sense of not belonging in a place when I helped Dad sell fish at the Geylang Serai wet market during my school holidays. Dad speaks fluent Malay because he grew up helping Granddad sell fish at the market. For the record, my grandfather speaks fluent Tamil too as he used to sell Tamil VHS before he became a fishmonger. Anyhow, most of the customers at the market are Malay families and everyone there including all the Chinese stall owners spoke fluent Malay. But not me. When a Malay auntie asked me for extra plastic bag in Malay and I couldn’t comprehend, she appeared frustrated and went, “Aiyoh, you don’t understand!?” in Malay. I never thought it racist for her to feel I should understand Malay. It’s just that that environment is mainly occupied by people who understood the language and so that became a norm for her and someone not understanding Malay was an anomaly.

When I was in the army, an Indian guy once told me and another fellow Chinese NSF, “you’re so yellow, if you stand against the wall, I can’t even see you.” Note: our cookhouse wall had yellow tiles. My friend and I burst out laughing because we found it hilarious. While it was clearly a racist joke, it didn’t offend us. It was what it was. A joke. But that also made us realise that we don’t hear Chinese racist jokes often.

Now, after these anecdotes, let’s talk about the “brownface” fiasco by Dennis Chew. Do I find the e-pay advertisement racist? Honestly, no. But does it matter what I feel? Not at all. While the intention of the ad wasn’t to be racist and hurt our friends of other races, the truth is, people did feel uncomfortable about it and that’s what’s most important. The feeling of the recipient is more crucial than the intention of the speaker. If I said, “fuck you idiot,” with malice but the recipient thinks nothing of it, then that is fine. Regardless of the intention, if it makes our Indian friends uncomfortable, then we should apologise for the mistake and take it down. That is the right thing to do. In the same light, while I do not know the intention of the music video that says Chinese people always fuck things up, if Chinese people feel uncomfortable by it, then the same treatment should be taken toward it.

Some people claim that if the police are probing into the music video, then why not the ad? I disagree with that take and find these two difficult to compare. One was an advertisement set out to promote a service that unfortunately offended people of a different race. The other appears to be an attempt to hurt people of a specific race. If the ad had a line that says, “Indian people always fucking things up,” then yes, I think the police should get involved as that is clearly an attempt to sow social discord regardless of its original intention. Likewise, if the Preetipls video simply showed them painting their face yellow and singing some regular songs, I doubt the police will get involved. You cannot expect the same sentencing for someone whose dog pees at your door while out for a walk and someone who deliberately throws dog urine at your door.

Intention is important in the eyes of the law when meting out punishments. But the recipients’ feelings alone should be the determinant on whether one should apologise for an act.


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *