By Yizhen Fung
It is sometimes said that a reliable way of gauging the mindset of a particular society is to look at how its people respond to controversy. By observing their reactions, we can identify their manner of thinking and reasoning, as well as the values and principles they hold dear.
There is thus a bit more to glean from the hoo-ha revolving around the recent 8TV public service announcements (PSAs) than what may initially meet the eye.
Before we move any further, however, it is imperative that we establish a few things.
Firstly, while it is indeed debatable whether the PSAs were racial, let alone racist in nature, we can at least claim with reasonable confidence, that 8TV frankly should have known better, creative liberties or not.
A PSA depicting a Chinese woman committing a series of social gaffes in the middle of a Ramadan bazaar — that is surely just inviting trouble, even if such blunders were comically exaggerated. The unfortunate truth is, as we have already seen, we are still in the process of shaking off our race-based mindset.
Secondly, it would be uncontentious to say that the people are angry — that much everyone will agree with. But less uncontroversial would be the question of why they are angry.
What exactly are they angry about? Are they angry because they perceived the PSAs as being racist in nature? Or are they angry because the ads were deemed highly patronising, both to the Muslims (loosely referring to the Malays) and the non-Muslims (and likewise)? What about the anger stemming from what is considered an inadequate apology on the part of 8TV? It seems that there is no one single reason prevailing. There is anger of several different reasons, but whether a particular anger is justified remains debatable.
Having said all that, let us move on to the real point. What does this entire fiasco tell us?
We indulge ourselves in lots of rhetoric about how we have transcended from our traditional racial divides and how we are getting tired of race-based politics and policies, yet we find ourselves still clinging on to our racial sensitivities.
Everyone who watches the PSAs sees a Chinese woman acting rather silly in a Malay Ramadan bazaar, but how many of us see a Malaysian behaving inappropriately in a Malaysian Ramadan bazaar?
This entire incident has served as a useful litmus test for gauging public sentiment and maturity on this issue, and it is clear that we still have quite a way to go in this direction. We are still quite easily provoked with the race card; this is illustrated by the mixed and rather chaotic bag of anger already mentioned above.
So what now? Where do we go from here?
We find ourselves grappling with a tricky chicken-and-egg question. We may be tempted to argue that the television station owes the public a duty to maintain some level of decency in its broadcasts, and thus should not have taken such a foolish risk in the first place, even under the cover of granting itself a liberal creative licence.
Without 8TV’s controversial PSAs, we would have continued going about our merry little way and life would have been fine and dandy and race-card-free. This would be akin to saying “thou shalt not stir the beehive.”
On the other hand, however, one can just as easily argue that we should not even be a beehive to begin with. Shouldn’t change of any sort begin with, and from, the people themselves? Shouldn’t we be the ones setting the examples? It is unsettling to imagine our society as one that is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode upon the slightest provocation.
So who should make the first (and bigger) move here? Do we point our fingers at 8TV, guilty of carelessly igniting a spark in what any reasonable man would call a volatile situation, or do we look at ourselves and question our own mindset and maturity?
Yes, 8TV screwed up; there is no doubt about that. But maybe we could have been a bit more gracious in reacting to it.
Perhaps we could have looked past the race card issue, and be angry for other reasons. Or perhaps we needn’t even be angry at all.
We could have instead directed our attentions at how objectively silly the PSAs were — having watched the PSAs myself, I found myself wondering how being cheerful and praising the food on display could constitute obnoxiousness (though granted she could have lowered her voice), or even how only a baju kurung two sizes too big is considered “appropriate attire.”
We could also have focused on how patronising the PSAs were. Yes, it is undeniably common courtesy for non-Muslims not to eat in public during the fasting month, but surely the Muslims are tolerant and strong-willed enough to look past that.
There were many other things we could have focused on, but we chose to look at the racial issue.
So who is truly the one who has failed the litmus test here — 8TV or the people?
Is 8TV the only one who is guilty of “getting carried away” here?
Yizhen has just completed her undergraduate law degree at the University of Oxford. She writes for the CEKU column in The Malaysian Insider. This article was published in The Malaysian Insider on 9th August 2011.