Look, I am angry. I apologise. I do, I apologise. [. . .] It’s not my place to be angry on a comedy stage. I’m meant to be doing… self-deprecating humour. People feel safer when men do the angry comedy. They’re the kings of the genre. When I do it, I’m a miserable lesbian, ruining all the fun and the banter. When men do it, heroes of free speech.Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette” (2018)
I begin from a simple question: if racism is funny when Chinese people do it, why does it become offensive when Indian people (supposedly) do it?
As of writing, a police investigation is under way after Youtube personality Preetipls released an incendiary video that supposedly criticised Chinese people for being racist. Preetipls’s video, now taken off Youtube, responded to a controversial advertisement by Chinese actor Dennis Chew. In this advertisement, Chew plays four characters, two of whom are Malay and Indian, for whom Chew darkened his skin. As of now, Chew and Mediacorp have not been taken in by the police on the charge of inciting racial tensions.
This article isn’t about how Mediacorp hasn’t learned its lesson . This article isn’t even about situational irony, in which the aggressor gets off clean while the wounded victim gets taken in for their expression of rage. This article also isn’t about the deep irony within K Shanmugam’s comment that Malay and Indian Singaporeans must bear prejudice silently in order to avoiding offending Chinese people, because
People can also say, why should we take this so seriously? Surely one video, it’s not going to lead to violence? Surely people will laugh this off? Maybe so. What do you think will happen to our racial harmony? Social fabric? How will people look at each other?Source: Channel NewsAsia.
This will not be an article explaining how “racial harmony” in Singapore is a euphemism for placating the Chinese ethnic ego.
Instead, this article will celebrate the entertainment genius that is Preetipls.
In a social media landscape where Chinese people are eager to tell Malay and Indian Singaporeans that they are “overly sensitive and butt-hurt”  “fragile souls”  who just need to grow a sense of humour, Preetipls turns the tables of comedy against their wielder. Under the reason that this is all just a joke – a cover under which Chinese people hide all the time – Preetipls teases, distorts and explodes the ethnic and linguistic boundaries that entrench our differences.
Humour arises from a breach of boundaries; one might call it a defence mechanism against the breakdown of structures that govern our thoughts and actions in everyday life. Our society is organised by a series of categories that give us a sense of order. These categories include gender, race, class. When we play by and within the boxes to which we’ve been assigned, we feel that everything works perfectly. Our socially configured sense of self remains intact.
What happens, then, when these categories fall apart? When one is struck by a disruptive force “that dissembles” the “borders, positions, rules” (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror) keeping these social categories intact and separate, one turns to either revulsion or laughter in order to right this wrong in the world. This is why homophobes think gay people are either scary enough to be beaten, or ridiculous enough to be laughed at. Same goes for the Indian man. He is simultaneously scary enough to be a boogeyman to Chinese children but also funny enough to be dubiously memorialised in a brownface advertisement. Society functions by maintaining a series of exclusions, and disrupting these categories nudges one out of inertia and into fear and ridicule.
Discomfort arises when threats to our conceptions of the world emerge, and we banish this feeling through either scorn or laughter. Preetipls has the remarkable ability to evoke and press this discomfort relentlessly. We laugh because she is genuinely funny, but we also laugh because she disrupts the boundaries that keep Singapore up by keeping us apart.
Chinese speakers only
Preetipls’s main weapon is her perfect command of Mandarin, an asset she flaunts across almost every video. In addition to her bright comedic wit, Preetipls’s mastery of Mandarin is perhaps her greatest subversive strength. Preetipls strikes the curious dual effect of both amusing and unnerving a Chinese-majority audience because she embodies an apparent contradiction; she seems to be Chinese enough, but also not quite there. Preetipls flirts with the line separating cultural Chineseness from ethnic Chineseness. She performs the social codes of Chineseness flawlessly, but her skin colour marks her as distinctly not really Chinese.
Why, then, is this distinction so important, and why does it disturb Chinese people to watch an Indian woman speak and rap in Mandarin?
In Singaporean spaces, English grants overt power, i.e. official approval, whereas Mandarin grants covert power, i.e. social affirmation. Mandarin, as a signifier for Chineseness, grants its speaker membership into a secret inner club.
Check out, as just one example out of a multitude of similar experiences in the lives of our non-Chinese friends, this Indian Singaporean’s experience of Mandarin-based linguistic exclusion in a space where he should have been served in English. In fact, just ask a non-Chinese friend of yours about this. Listen, for once, without judgment regarding what they have to say.
Even though our pledge strives to unite Singaporeans “regardless of race, language or religion”, language is often instrumentalised to include and exclude at the same time. Often, what this means is that even though English remains the official working language in our institutions, Mandarin achieves an unofficial status as an informal working language. On the table, we speak in English; off the table – where deals are actually negotiated and ties of friendship are formed – we grant access only to those who speak Chinese. When confronted on the use of Mandarin to form covert in-groups, Chinese people often turn to the meritocracy-based argument; you could have learned to speak Mandarin too! This is the argument defending “Chinese-speaking only” job advertisements, and ostensibly the one defending “Chinese preferred” tuition gigs.
Surprise, surprise – not one of these jobs are for Chinese Language.
These arguments, however, fall apart in the presence of Preetipls. Because she occupies the rare position of a Chinese-speaking Indian, Preetipls’s language puts one foot inside the insider’s circle, and her race puts her other foot outside. In a society where the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other model classifies, reinforces and polices divisions, in a society where “we can’t include you because you don’t speak Chinese” is a euphemism for “we don’t want to include you because you are not Chinese”, Preetipls disrupts the excuses upholding prejudicial behaviour by drawing into question the idea of difference altogether.
In sum, Preetipls’s comedic, social force and opposition arises from her ability to expose racism for what it really is.
To see how this plays out in her work, we will now turn to “E8”, a music video inspired by Preetipls’s spectacularly disastrous journey through academic Mandarin.
Looking through Indian eyes
Identities are produced through a series of social categorisations; who you are is a function of how you are treated because of the social categories you occupy. These different selves, which arise at the intersections of different lines of privilege and prejudice, are what critical theorists call subject positions.
Even though Chinese and Malay/Indian Singaporeans occupy the same physical space, we occupy different subject positions because we are included and excluded differently through circles of language, culture and power that contain us to varying degrees. Unfortunately, since who we are is so deeply connected to our different social realities, we often cannot look through each other’s eyes.
Film offers a solution to this disconnect by situating its spectator in a specific subject position. Through the strategic selection of camera angles and cuts, the film places the viewer within a specific physical space that simulates the experience of a particular social reality. In this case, “E8” gives its Chinese viewer the rare opportunity of moving through life with empathy.
Once the music video begins, it takes its Chinese spectator through a crash course of microaggressions that come in the form of backhanded compliments by Michelle Chong. Chong says, in Mandarin, with a condescending smirk that minorities know too well:
哇，你可以讲华语啊？Woah, you can speak Mandarin?
Woah, girl ah 很聪明 leh!
Woah, girl ah, you are very smart leh!
Luckily I didn’t say anything bad about you!
Note, also, the angle of Chong’s gaze; she glances down at you, the Indian Singaporean, because this attitude of assumed superiority is an experience minorities know too well.
Hidden within these lines are the powerful suggestion that Indians will always be perceived as half the Singaporeans that Chinese people are taken to be by default. Chong, the archetypical ignorant Chinese person, expresses shock at Preetipls’s Mandarin, but not just because of the incongruity between skin and voice, but because Preetipls has the audacity to venture into an in-group that isn’t meant for her. Chong doesn’t stop at the compliment to Preetipls’s intelligence (which, in itself suggests that to be smart is to understand Mandarin); she concludes by expressing relief that Preetipls didn’t hear her say the quiet parts out loud. Mandarin, a stand-in for Chinese identity, upholds a discrimination strategy that forms and polices an informal but exclusive social in-group. This insider status is built upon the exclusion of non-Chinese people, but Preetipls has breached its barrier.
It is little wonder, then, that when the screen cuts to Preetipls’s face, the first thing she does is roll her eyes. She is exhausted by the weight of feeling less than fully Singaporean, but she is compelled to express herself through humour because minorities must first purchase the privilege of speech by pandering to the comfort of the majority. Yet, as Chong expresses, Preetipls’s stealthy entrance into the inner circle disturbs a status quo that has entrenched Chinese privilege through the policing of language and belonging.
In light of this perceived sense of unlicensed entry, Preetipls’s final line before Verse 1 makes total sense:
In addition to forcing the spectator into an Indian subject position, “E8” also forces the Chinese spectator to deal with the consequences of partaking in a racist system. After showing things from an Indian perspective, the screen flips back to focus on Preetipls; the viewer is now back in a Chinese point of view, albeit one that cannot look away from her annoyance. We are situated in a face-to-face confrontation, in which Preetipls exasperatedly says “yeah, I speak Chinese!” We also find ourselves occupying the driver’s seat in the taxi of a “racist uncle”, looking at Preetipls through the rear view mirror. “E8” might make us laugh, but it also forces us into spatial and social positions in which we are compelled to wrestle with the discomfort minority Singaporeans go through on a daily basis.
We cannot look away.
Unapologetically, and with a huge splash of fun, Preetipls announces that discomfort is a non-negotiable part of her deal. She is here to make you question your Chinese privilege.
Ethnic drag and performance
As an extension of her ability to blur racial categories by playing with language, Preetipls is an expert manipulator of ethnic performance. By performance, I refer to the idea that your identity is a product of the way you manifest your identity through your speech, actions, beliefs and dress. For instance, I am Chinese not because I am born with an innate sense of Chineseness, but because I look Chinese, speak Mandarin, and am able to navigate society through behaviour that is made available to me because of my subject position. These social trends accrue throughout my life in a series of “stylised repetitions” (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble) that coalesce into my sense of identity.
Most people might go through life without recognising that identity is performance. Preetipls, on the other hand, is entirely aware of this. In addition to speaking in Mandarin, she has a perfect command of the behavioural codes that would, in most cases, configure her as a Chinese person. She brings ethnic Chineseness and cultural Chineseness into an impossible conversation.
Preetipls exploits the friction that arises between her ethnic performance and our preconceptions of her that are based on her skin colour. Similar to how a drag queen produces humour by conflating and confusing gender categories, Preetipls flirts with the CMIO model in order to get us to laugh at the artificiality of these divisions.
As one moves through “E8”, one marvels at Preetipls’s uncanny knowledge of Chinese culture. Even though language can be used to exclude, Preetipls uses her Mandarin to unite with her Chinese viewers by referencing our shared experiences of learning Mandarin in school. She drops idioms like 风和日丽 (roughly “sunny and harmonious weather”) and the ubiquitous 小明 (Xiao Ming, who is to Mandarin compositions what Bala and Siti are to math problem sums). She plays mahjong, chugs pi pa gao, wears a cheongsam and walks down a lantern-lit Chinatown street. Preetipls bends race around her with comedic flair and a sociologist’s critical wit.
Yet, while uniting us, Preetipls also reminds us of the stark lines of division that run through our society. As she says,
买家有 quotaWhen minorities buy flats, we have quotas
After school, we play DOTA
In her lyrics, Preetipls weaves systemic disadvantages and the mundanity of everyday local life into a comedic but piercing whole. In the shoes of a minority Singaporean, these burdens are, unavoidably, just a part of your daily existence in a system that effectively works against you.
As a person who occupies conflicting categories in our social imaginations, Preetipls might not be easily comprehended, but it is in this muddling that she finds her greatest power.
Laughter and social responsibility
Preetipls is funny, but obviously some people think she’s enough of a threat to warrant a police report. Breaking boundaries can indeed be funny, but people who swerve through categories without regard for social norms can also be seen as terrifying.
Noël Carroll, a scholar of horror, tells us that the literary monster par excellence is
a composite that unites attributes held to be categorically distinct and/or at odds in the cultural scheme of things in unambiguously one, spatio-temporally discrete entity. (The Philosophy of Horror).
Ghosts, vampires and zombies are scary because they force the mortally opposed concepts of life and death into the same physical body.
Preetipls, then, might scare some people because she blends various opposing concepts into one. Chinese/Indian; laughing with/laughing at; disavowal/complicity; racism/responsibility.
When I watch a Preetipls video, I am entertained, but I am also struck by an ethical urgency that compels me to interrogate why I find this funny, and whether I find this funny at the expense of the lived experiences of minorities.
Preetipls is the comedian that we need, because we are a society that thinks racial harmony is achieved as long as Chinese people dress up in baju and sari once a year; a society in which our understanding of racial harmony is the enforced silence against debate; a society in which racial harmony is a cosmetic bandage patching up deep layers of unresolved trauma.
If you’re asking yourself why Preetipls and Subhas had to be so angry in their video, ask yourself why you let Xiaxue get away with her furious persona.
Humour is great, but comedy works because it exposes unspoken biases that paradoxically structure society while keeping others down. At the heart of comedy like Preetipls’s is a deep desire to stop feeling like only half of a true Singaporean.
Preetipls is the comedian that we need because she brings these conversations out of the dark and into the light. It is through this productive struggle, a reckoning of our biases, that we can move towards a more equitable society.
Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine. I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own. Because, like it or not, your story… is my story. And my story… is your story. I just don’t have the strength to take care of my story anymore. I don’t want my story defined by anger. All I can ask is just please help me take care of my story.
Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world. And that… is the focus of the story we need. Connection. Thank you.Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette” (2018)
Read more on the Preetipls/Subhas issue: “We Need to Talk About Race” by Isaac James Neo
As of writing, this article has the honour of having drawn upon the most number of academic resources in Kopimotion’s history. Here are some of the ideas I have used:
Apparatus theory – this Wikipedia page. For further reading, consider Christian Metz, Jean-Louis Baudry, Laura Mulvey
Subject positions – Louis Althusser, or this reader here
Emotional reactions to the disruption of social boundaries – Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, or this Wikipedia article on abjection; Noel Carroll, Philosophy of Horror
In-groups and out-groups in language – Henri Tajfel, or this Wikipedia page
Performance as identity – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble; or this document
About the Writer: Ben is interested in how films and society relate to each other. He was taught well by both his parents and teachers to recognise and stand against racism. He likes rap music and thinks Preeti and Subhas are wonderful additions to our media culture. Ben’s other interests include horror, comedy, psychoanalysis and spicy food.
Keep updated: subscribe to Kopimotion on Facebook!