Different Shades of the Colour Brown
By Jonathan Chan
Brown is Redacted: Reflecting on Race in Singapore
The categorisation of people along discrete colour lines, the legacies of which continue to percolate across the globe, can be traced in part to the forms of racial classification and biological racism that emerged in Europe in the 18th century. Transformations in scientific thought would inform the impulse to taxonomise and situate, particularly the place of humanity in relation to the natural world. Some examples of this include Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie (1751) and the Comte de Buffon's Histoire Naturelle (1804), each featuring tensions between configuring humanity's place in relation to natural environs, especially how environments shaped bodily differences, and European civilisational superiority. The production of race as a sociological concept was given a veneer of legitimacy through such pseudoscientific arguments. Some classifications explicitly equated different 'racial types' to different colours. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist and zoologist, argued in Systema Naturae (1767) that there existed several "varieties" of human species such as Americanus (red), Europeanus (white), Asiaticus (yellow) and Africanus (black). There is no purchase to any of these ideas, but they indicate how racial difference continues to be animated by notions of colour identification.
From the 16th to the 20th centuries in Southeast Asia, the notion of a colonial colour line emerged under the exploitative conditions of European rule. The most influential critic of colonial capitalism in the region continues to be the scholar Syed Hussein Alatas. In his iconic study The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977), he systematically argues that an image of Malay indolence was created and propagated through stereotypical writings of European colonial administrators, scholars and travellers from the 16th to the 20th centuries. He asserts that the "ideology of colonial capitalism evaluated people according to their utility in their production system and the profit level" under European rule, drawing links between British-ruled Malaya to the rule of Java under the Dutch and the Philippines under the Spanish. A confrontation with the ruthlessness of whiteness under these conditions is perhaps culpable for creating an indigenous consciousness of colour; brownness as a formulation in response to whiteness. Writer Alfian Sa'at has cited several phrases as evidence of this. In Malay, there exists the phrase "sawo matang", meaning "ripe sawo fruit", and in Filipino, the word "kayamunggi" meaning "brown". Both are taken to be affectionate descriptions of having brown skin.
In particular, the emergence of "brown" as a unifying identity marker would become salient in the aftermath of 9/11 in the United States. As journalist Sakshi Venkatraman explains, the attacks led to spikes in discrimination against Muslims and Sikhs. South Asian activists would come to create "brown" coalitions with Arab Americans, Iranian Americans and Black Muslims who all came to find themselves under a new regime of racialised scrutiny, surveillance and violence. It provided a countervailing distinction to the term "Asian American", often conflated with East rather than South Asians in the country. However, while this would indicate the ascent of "brown" as an oppositional force to Islamophobia and anti-Sikh discrimination in the United States, as well as a general larger place in the imaginary of South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas, it would be erroneous to assert that this is the sole place from which "brown" as an identifier would become pertinent in Singapore. An upswing in xenophobia against Indian migrants to the country over the last 15 years might in part be culpable for the popularisation of identifying as "brown". Yet, this has much deeper roots in the scholarship of Tania Lee, Lily Zubaidah Rahim and Sangeetha Thanapal, each of which has been a substantial contribution to understanding racial discrimination in Singapore.
Brown is Redacted: Reflecting on Race in Singapore engages with the continuing force of racial difference and discrimination primarily through the lens of contemporary Singapore. I came to Brown is Redacted in a spirit of solidarity and curiosity – having migrated to Singapore in the 1990s from the United States and been raised in a mixed Malaysian Chinese and Korean household, I grew up feeling an alienation from the prevailing notion of "Chineseness" in Singapore. This discomfort motivated my work at a migrant aid agency in Singapore and my chairing of a campaign to decolonise the English curriculum at my university in England. An anthology woven of plays, reflective essays, poems and interviews, Brown is Redacted is concerned primarily with the experience of being minoritised within Chinese-majority Singapore. Editor Myle Yan Tay has spoken of the editorial team's desire to puncture a kind of hegemonic "brownness", a set of suppositions that unfairly characterise minority communities in Singapore, including the Indian, Malay and Eurasian communities. The anthology sets out to demonstrate nuance, variety and complexity within the particular, Singaporean formation of a brown community and identity.
Brown is Redacted is divided into five sections: the performance-lecture 'Brown is Haram', 'within', 'without', 'being' and 'choice'. The volume cites a variety of theoretical and creative sources as influences, from Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952) to bell hooks' All About Love (1999), from the short story anthology Singa-Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction from Singapore (2021) to Melissa De Silva's hybrid work 'Others' is not a race (2018) to Aswani Aswath's play Angry Indian Woman – The Trial. Playwright Nabilah Said writes that for the editors, western theorists provide "the terminology and terms of reference that give minorities in Singapore a language and teeth with which to speak about oppression and injustice."
The scope of the anthology's genres and subjects reveal both the multiplicity and porosity of the notion of "brownness". The anthology's three editors are all of mixed heritage – Paul is Indian and Malay, Mysara is Malay and Arab, and Tay is Ceylonese and Chinese. It features pieces from not only Malay, Indian and Eurasian Singaporean contributors, but also Filipino, Burmese and Bangladeshi writers. The work of Brown is Redacted can seem both focused and contradictory, demonstrating, as the editors write in their introduction, how "other identities compound, complicate and colour racial discourse" while refusing to articulate a fixed boundary for who can be considered "brown". This tension between definition and plurality is best expressed in the book's originating work: the performance-lecture 'Brown is Haram'. Conceived as part of The Substation's residency, the Concerned Citizens Programme, in 2019, the performance was directed by Tay and written and performed in interweaving monologues between Paul and Mysara. Its second iteration, featured in the book, features a clearer and more robust narrative structure. To be brown is to be "haram": "forbidden", "profane", "incendiary". Among other lines the two leads trade in their process of defining what brownness is, these stand out like a mantra:
These lines form part of the performance's opening, foregrounding the fundamentally experiential process of defining "brownness". Here, brownness is defined not only in opposition to white dismissiveness and Chinese ignorance, but also by the fundamental contradictions of Singapore's restrictive racial categories. The constraining logic of a single racial identity as reflected in official documents. Religious, linguistic and hereditary diversity are swept aside in favour of bureaucratic discreteness. Yet, as with other ethnic identities, brownness is also defined in culinary terms: the intimacy of cooking and eating comforting food. The idea of being brown is also swept up in forms of inadequacy – state messaging and societal assumptions over the associational force between being "brown" and diabetic, academically subpar, or fetishised. Clearly, the idea of being brown in Singapore is expansive, not easily pinned to a single ethnic community.
Paul and Mysara's performance functions both as testimony and witness, interspersed with various anecdotes of real-life discrimination and microaggressions, as well as trauma suffused in dreamlike sequences. While it is unclear whether these incidents were experienced directly by either of them, they serve as vessels recreating such encounter through monologue. A Chinese classmate from junior college turns violent, "pummelling [Mysara's] body", causing her to "sink further and further into a thick pool of fluid". A bubble tea aunty "lets out a deep, guttural scream" before plunging a straw "into [Mysara's] left eye". After being rebuffed by a Chinese crush from church, Paul grabs "the area around [his] belly-button and [pulls]" until the "skin breaks and [he is] holding on to chunks of flesh in both [his hands]". Beyond visceral descriptions of body horror, the pair dissect other instances of racialised pressure and harassment. They include the fetishisation of Malay women by both Malay and Chinese men and being sexually harassed by a Chinese colleague in a sandwich shop while being teased exclusively in Mandarin. They include the societal accolades and markers that define success for Malay women and the racial profiling of a group of Malay friends by Chinese police. The script dives and weaves between Singlish and English, across class and gender lines, asserting the indignity of being harassed or singled out in ways that rouse uncertainty, self-doubt and suspicion. Yet, the performance turns to end with joy and defiance, returning to its original anaphoric lines:
Brown is Redacted flows from the same logic as 'Brown is Haram': brownness comes together through forms of poetic association, attempting to capture the variety of pains that come with being seen as darker-skinned under the conditions of Chinese majoritarianism. The electricity of Paul and Mysara's performance comes through on the page through sharp dialogue, repetition and careful stage directions. The performance-lecture is followed immediately by a critical essay on it written by the playwright Nabilah Said, a kind of meta-framing that ably contextualises the performance and analyses its concerns. However, such an arrangement also bears the danger of self-indulgence. After all, the three editors of the book directed, wrote and performed the lecture.
Some of the anthology's best pieces retain a similar kind of power to 'Brown is Haram'. They are moving, reflective, and laced with rage and hope. They often weave between different identitarian intersections – being brown and disabled, brown and queer, brown and female – each of which expands and enriches an understanding of brownness. Laika Jumabhoy's essay, interspersed with lines of her poetry, beautifully illustrates her experiences of being brown, female and disabled. She gawks at the piteous gaze she encounters when she is on her way to work or out with her daughter. "I am too much. I am someone's good deed for the day," she writes. She writes of encouraging her daughter to see "being brown is a source of pride" and is heartened by her daughter declaring "I am fiery jam tart warrior princess." Jumabhoy's lines are exquisite:
Jaryl George Solomon's piece 'The History of Whales' reflects on his experience of racism and body shaming both online and offline in Singapore's gay and queer community. Reviled as a "whale", Solomon's essay recounts how his "brownness was repulsive" to predominantly Chinese suitors on dating apps, but also that his "size meant quickfire rejection" from his "fellow brown brethren". His journey towards body confidence would evolve through his Twitter alt-account. nor's piece 'What You Want?' speaks of an emergence into trans identity, of playing in a magic box that when entered would allow one to "switch to the opposite sex". Yet, this is met with the muscle of exorcism, with nor accused of being inhabited by "a malicious spirit, a peri". nor writes of the experience causing them to vomit, with "no demons to leave [their] body". Such conditions of oppression can only be met with a kind of joy, one that comes from a growing understanding that "desire can start small". The valences of brownness in these instances are therefore not defined in opposition to whiteness or Chineseness exclusively, but also within brown communities themselves.
Other pieces that stood out were frequently from younger contributors. In a podcast, Tay spoke of both a surprise and delight at the work the Brown is Redacted editorial team received from writers still in secondary school, junior college, or just out of National Service. While many of these pieces could read as raw or needing more editorial guidance, they nevertheless demonstrated a moving sense of burgeoning pride among their writers. raihan's essay 'Senang Diri' deftly grapples with the tensions and contradictions of being one of few Malays in the army, about the politics of military representation in higher ranks and the fraught relationship between the Malay community and the Singapore Armed Forces. Ashwin Ram Saravanan's 'Do I Really Want to Change?' is a brief, albeit unpolished, piece reflecting Saravanan's contentment with his brown identity despite being bullied in primary school – being called a "turd", "weirdo" and "dork", yet also having the opportunity to "showcase [his] talents" during Mother Tongue Literary Competitions. And Poorva Maithani's epistolary poem 'A letter to my father' is a stirring tribute to her father who emigrated from India to Singapore. Her speaker describes a similar move from shame to pride in her Indian identity as a way of showing love to her parents. She writes:
Here, a brown identity is also an immigrant identity, one defined by marginality, newness, code switching and assimilatory pressures.
Where I sometimes felt unease when reading the volume came with the choice to include pieces by migrant writers as well as the placement of these pieces within the anthology itself. For example, the book jumps from Madhu Vijayakumar's epic account of matrilineal trauma in her poem 'Tendrils', to excerpts from Saif Tamal's diary recounting his days stuck in a dorm amidst the pandemic, before jumping again to Laavanya Kathiravelu's academic article on the complexities of rising xenophobia towards new Indian migrants. Each piece has its own strength as a poem, a diary entry and a sociological study respectively, but something about this arrangement almost feels like a kind of flattening of experience despite there being vast socioeconomic differentials between them.
Another critique I've been mulling over is the extent to which some of the "migrant writers", a fraught term which I use as shorthand to describe writers in Singapore on Work or S Passes, would feasibly self-identify as brown. I say this not as a way of policing the boundaries of what is constitutive of "brown" identity. Rather, I wonder the extent to which Bangladeshi, Filipino and Burmese migrants to Singapore have, by virtue of being configured within the racial imaginary of Singapore, see themselves as "brown" or even as "minorities". Intersectionality necessarily demands an awareness not only of race but class. Circular schemes of migration ordinarily entail that such workers are not officially provided pathways to Singaporean citizenship or permanent residency. Many migrant workers often see themselves as foreigners, separate from Singaporean citizens. Yet, many are content to see themselves as such unless they have lived in Singapore for decades. I wonder if they even see themselves as having more in common with workers from China, Malaysia or Thailand, than Singaporeans.
In addition, pieces such as Wint Shwe Sin's beautiful 'the sound of rain', a recount of her experience being recognised as wearing thanaka, and Zakir Hossain Khokan's ambivalent 'A Poem and Chu Ange', a reflection on his experience being invited to recite a poem at a Chinese Singaporean girl's birthday party, do not necessary reflect on racial identity so much as they do on national identity. It is here where I wonder how fraught it is to see Burmese, Indian and Bangladeshi nationals as being within the fold of a common "brown" identity, bearing in mind the ways in which South Asia was riven by colonial, geopolitical and military conflict in the latter half of the 20th century. I was also reminded of how, in such respects, the book lacked a much firmer position on class than I would have liked, particularly how class informs, shapes and structures manifestations of racism in Singapore. As sociologist Stuart Hall evocatively wrote, "race is the modality in which class is lived." I also wonder whether there is any kind of meaningful solidarity that they experience with one another around a shared "migrant" identity. Bhing Navato attempts to articulate this sense of relationality in her poem 'Shovel and Trolley'. Told from the perspective of a domestic worker walking with her trolley, she describes an ostensibly South Asian labourer she encounters:
Navato's form of relation is romantic. Her poem is a critique of the Singaporean state's biopolitical regulation of migrant workers, with its prohibitions on workers becoming pregnant or getting married in Singapore. However, there is some danger within the poem of its blazon recreation of another kind of fetishisation of South Asian men. It felt an uncomfortable echo of the fetishisation described by Paul in 'Brown is Haram', where a Brown man was harassed by his Chinese female colleague.
Perhaps this was my main difficulty with Brown is Redacted. Its editors did a fine job in accepting submissions that demonstrate the devastating ways racism functions in everyday life, primarily psychologically and affectively. Yet, in attempting to be comprehensive and insisting on demonstrating the heterogeneity that lies within "brownness", I found myself questioning the usefulness of the category altogether. Is "brownness" a category mediated by the state's bureaucratic muscle, or is it a more powerful expression of ethnic solidarity from communities themselves? Is being "brown" merely a way of describing how Chinese ignorance proscribes reductive understandings of the histories, cultures, religions and practices of minority communities? If an Indian, Burmese, Filipino or Bangladeshi person migrates to Singapore, does an encounter with Chineseness create a kind of consciousness of being brown? Might there have been an opportunity to showcase the experiences of Singapore's Nepali community, especially its Gurkhas? How about the varied experiences of Singapore's Sikh community? I think of Singapore as the historical meeting place between Indian, Malay, Burmese and Chinese nationalisms at one point or another between the 1920s and 1950s. How do these histories meet a burgeoning awareness of how racism structures daily life in Singapore, to the extent that "brown" can function as a way of uniting people in common cause?
In a recent talk, the scholar Philip Holden describes the intellectual influences on former Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam from Afro-Caribbean and Indian thinkers, as well as Rajaratnam's encounters with white racism in London in the 1930s. The seeds of what he conceived as a "race-blind" society would be forged there, shaping subsequent cultural, social and foreign policy. Would the book have been better had it delved into the longue durée of race and racism in Singapore, one that has not always been the result of the strictures of Chinese majoritarianism?
More broadly, how can a burgeoning sense of being "brown" in response to a consciousness of Chinese privilege meaningfully connect to historical ways in which ethnic identity was defined in Southeast Asia? Is the multiplicity or plurality of the idea of brownness always the most helpful frame for thinking about ethnicity within a broader Southeast Asian context? I think of Filipino national hero Jose Rizal's dream of uniting the Malay peoples, a vision that would carry forth to Filipino President Manuel L. Quezon's plan of establishing the confederation of "Maphilindo". I think of arguments that non-Malays can "masuk Melayu", or embrace Malayness, by converting to Islam, learning Malay customs and speaking Malay. Where does brownness meet such Nusantara identities – being Malay, Javanese, Iban, Kadazan, Bugis, Boyanese or Orang Laut, among other groups?
Perhaps this is too much to ask of Brown is Redacted, especially given that its attention is primarily on the affective and experiential, albeit with scholarly essays such as Laavanya Kathiravelu's article on Indianness and xenophobia, the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics' essay on the living and working conditions of migrant workers, Paul Jerusalem's analysis of the pedagogical and activist functions of anti-racist social media pages, and Hazirah Mohamad's piece on racialised health framing and its impact on the Malay community. These essays indicate where the experiential may be connected to the structural, though part of me wishes there was still a stronger theoretical frame for defining racism in Singapore that the book articulated. I am tempted to argue that I would have preferred if Brown is Redacted had a more defined focus, but to do so would be to demand that it becomes something it did not set out to be. It would instead be something more like Raffles Renounced (2021), What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian (2022) or Budi Kritik (2018).
Perhaps Brown is Redacted's strength is as a one-stop resource pulling together writing and scholarship relating to disparate minority communities in Singapore. One hopes that it serves as a gateway for uninformed readers towards more careful, compassionate engagements with questions of race with their communities and loved ones, while affirming the persistence and presence of brown joy. As 'Brown is Haram' concludes:
QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023