When Malaysians are apathetic to racism

When Malaysians are apathetic to racism
By Zan Azlee

I HAVE a problem with those who didn’t find the recent advertising campaign by pharmacy chain Watsons racist. The company’s now-infamous “blackface” advertisement blew up the Internet in Malaysia last week, and not in a positive way.

In conjunction with the coming Aidilfitri celebration, Watsons produced and released a short film on their Facebook page called Legenda Cun Raya Watsons. It was based on the old Malay folklore known as Dayang Senandong.

The video shows a nobleman who dreams of a woman with a beautiful voice. Upon waking up from the dream, he decides to organise an audition to track down the woman. Beautiful women from across the land appear at his palace but not one seems to possess the woman’s voice.

Suddenly, he hears it… that familiar lilting tone of the woman in his dreams. But to his horror, the woman unveils herself to show a face as black as night. He makes a few insulting remarks about her skin colour and rejects her.

But after she washes her face to reveal her fair skin beneath, he accepts her.

The video has since been taken down but you can still easily find it online.

Of course there was an insane number of people who were outraged by the video. They lashed out on social media, calling the ad racist for perpetuating a long-derided beauty standard that black isn’t beautiful.

Unfortunately, there was also a significant number of those who actually thought there was nothing wrong with it. Luckily, they were a minority and Watsons has since apologised for offending the public.

Those who defended the ad argued that society today has become overly-sensitive and politically correct. According to them, we need to loosen up, be a little more lighthearted and accept humour and jokes as they are, instead of crying bloody offence for every little thing we find remotely insulting.

I do agree that too much political correctness is fast becoming something of an annoyance. Satire and comedy should be allowed because it has an important role to play in society, which is to critique social issues, apart from, of course, providing entertainment.

People need to learn and accept comedy and satire that are done in good humour, especially those who become the butt of these jokes. However, these jokes must also be respectful and tasteful. Satire is an art that requires the right skill and knowledge in order to get a message across.

There’s a reason why comedy is a profession. Not everyone has the skill or talent to be a comedian and let’s not forget that comedians too constantly practice and perfect their art. There is a fine line between comedy and insult.

The Watsons video was distasteful, and was not in any way a critique of a pertinent issue. Plain and simple, it was an outright insult to those who are dark-skinned. Not only that, it was also misogynistic and portrayed women as inferior beings. The comments made by the main character – the rich man were insulting to women.

Another argument the ad defenders raised was that people only take offence to something whenever it suits their fancy, and that it all boils down to personal perspectives. So it would be impossible to make everyone happy.

To me, this just shows there’s a lack of empathy among Malaysians. If an insult isn’t aimed at us then we think that everyone should just relax and take it as good-natured fun. But this is selfish, childish and arrogant. Because… what if the tables are turned?

The response by those who accused others of being oversensitive is a reflection of how little Malaysian society has progressed from always viewing things through a racial filter. Racial insults and jokes are so commonplace in Malaysian society that some are even beginning to think they’ve become acceptable.

But there’s a big difference between sharing a private joke among friends at a coffee shop and a regional corporation turning a fundamentally racist observation (never mind that it was based on a Malay folklore) into a national ad campaign.

This is the perspective that needs (and should) to be taken into context, because while the former has an audience of three or four, the latter speaks to a population of 30 million. And when a corporation like Watsons endorses such racist thinking (that black equals ugly), racism then becomes a systemic problem.

[This article was originally written for and published at AsianCorrespondent.com]

Get Zan Azlee’s latest book ‘JOURNO-DAD: The chronicles of a journalist who just happens to be a dad!‘ today!


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