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Minority influencers, Satire, and Subversive frivolity

On 26 July 2019, a state-owned broadcaster in Singapore published an advertisement featuring a local Chinese actor who had his face painted in a much darker skin tone (i.e. brownface) to depict a Malay macik and Indian man. (See Ruby Thiagarajan’s thread calling this out here and South China Morning Post’s coverage here.)

This portrayal of CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others) in national media is an institution in multi-racial Singapore. (See coverage on the Institute of Policy Studies’ 2017 study of this here and here.)

On 30 July 2019, Singaporean Indian influencer and content creator Preetipls (Preeti Nair) and her brother local musician Subhas Nair created a (now-deleted) satirical video calling out this racism.

Some citizens took offence at the satirical video, accusing it of containing offensive content, causing the police to take action and the video to be removed across platforms. (See The Straits Times’ coverage here and South China Morning Post‘s coverage here.)

The Singapore Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, said that videos that “attack another race” cross the line. (See Channel News Asia’s interview with him here.)

It is curious that in the mainstream media coverage and discourse, less criticism and attention was directed towards the original brownface advertisement, than towards the satirical video and its well intentions. This is especially concerning given a string of similar brownface incidents committed by major corporations, the mainstream broadcaster, Chinese entertainers, and public figures in the country. (See Visakan Veerasamy’s compilation of some of these here.)

Other citizens pointed out the nuance of using explicit language in everyday parlance and satire, to emphasize the fact that the satirical video was not intended as a racial attack but as commentary on a social issue. (See Natalie Christian Tan’s post here.)

Astute social issues commentators and activists pointed out the hypocrisy of such uneven policing, and the systemic suppression against minority races from speaking out against incidents of racism. (See Kirsten Han’s thread here and Alfian Sa’at’s commentary here.)

Today, it is 31 July 2019.

Meanwhile, the backlash against Preetipls and Subhas continues, as previously positive-framing, celebratory articles about their work are removed and deleted. (See coverage on removal from a National Day documentary here, and Joshua Ip spotting the deletion of articles here.)

Tomorrow is 01 August 2019.

09 August 2019 will be multi-racial Singapore’s 54th birthday.


Subversive frivolity:

“the under-visibilized and under-estimated generative power of an object or practice arising from its (populist) discursive framing as marginal, inconsequential, and unproductive.” (Abidin 2016)


Satire and parody are weapons of the weak.

Influencers are experts at social steganography, code-switching, astroturfing critical commentary into their content despite appearing accessible, relatable, and demotic. But they are often stigmatized as frivolous until a sufficient mass decodes and disagrees with their politics.

Often, the mass who newly come to this realization and disavow minority influencers for their parody politics are appalled that their mere entertainment is/has always been encoded with layers of critical commentary that is usually illegible to them.

And such is the beauty of internet popular culture and the makers of these contents, for accommodating accessible reach, nuanced decoding, and plausible denialability all at once.

Do not underestimate influencers and their prowess, especially minorities who flourish on the internet despite being marginalized/stigmatized in mainstream society. Their impact is consolidated in dispersed capillaries that thrive under the radar. They have subversive frivolity.


01 August 2019, 0944hrs edit: Screengrabs from the source materials are here for teaching purposes.

05 August 2019, 1602hrs edit: A reading list on parody & satire theory and case studies are here for further reading.

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