Just earlier this month, cracks were beginning to show in the picture-perfect facade of Singapore as netizens engaged in heated debates about majority privilege on social media.
At the center of the storm was Shrey Bhargava, the 22-year-old actor who claimed that he was a victim of casual racism during the casting call for Ah Boys To Men 4, a comedic film about National Service life in Singapore.
In this interview, he sits down with Arman Shah to talk about what transpired during the auditions, his thoughts on being defamed by local blogger Xiaxue, and the police report filed against him. He also opens up about using his newfound attention and influence to combat casual racism in Singapore.
Tell us more about yourself and how you became an actor in Singapore.
I’m second generation Singaporean. My parents are from India, and we moved here when I was one. As a kid, I used to mimic Batman and Barney all the time, so when I was five, my mom decided to put me in a speech and drama class because she thought I’d enjoy that.
I ended up doing drama from the time I was in kindergarten all the way through junior college (JC). Performing became a part of my life, and I just couldn’t separate myself from it – it’s something that I enjoy to this very day.
When I was in secondary three, I decided to audition for Buds Youth Theatre as it was the only theatre company in Singapore that offered a free youth programme back then. It became my introduction to local theatre, and I’ve been performing for various productions ever since.
Can you guide us through what happened when you auditioned for Ah Boys To Men 4?
When I found out that Ah Boys To Men was doing a casting call, I decided to audition for it. There were a few scripts to choose from, so naturally, I tried out for the Indian slash Malay male role. My script was originally in Chinese, but they eventually uploaded a version in colloquial English online.
In the audition room, the casting director told me to perform the scene which I had prepared in advance. After I delivered my lines in Singlish, the first thing she asked was, “Can you be more Indian?”. When I asked what that meant, she said, “For the next take, can you be a full-blown Indian man?”.
To clarify, I asked if that meant having a thick accent and exaggerated mannerisms, to which she said yes. My rebuttal was that not all Indians speak like that, but she said that’s what they want, so make it funny. I took a pause, and then delivered my lines. The panel thanked me, and I left the room.
What was going through your mind after you left the audition room?
As I was walking towards the MRT station, I passed by a café and decided to sit down to reflect on what just happened. Something didn’t sit well with me, so I posted my thoughts on the auditioning process on Facebook. Only people on my friends’ list could see the post at first, but I eventually made it public.
Why did you change the privacy settings for your Facebook post to public? Did you consider the possible repercussions?
When I first put up the post, I was getting a lot of positive response from people of various races and backgrounds within my Facebook circle. Not just the minorities; my Chinese friends were also expressing empathy and support.
As an artiste, I always want to change society for the better and get people to think, so I thought it would be good to make the post public to generate a discussion. I didn’t expect it to get over a thousand shares overnight.
How did you react to the controversial Facebook posts by Xiaxue about the whole situation? It generated a lot of negative and aggressive comments towards you.
I was shocked! I was shocked at how people misinterpreted my message. Many of them were also being very outwardly racist, calling me apunehneh and saying things like “Go back to India” or “Go flip a prata lah you hypocrite”.
I’m actually in the process of recovering from depression. I suffered from it for most of last year, so my family was afraid that this would affect me adversely and result in a relapse. My girlfriend had to filter many comments before I was allowed to read anything.
Xiaxue and her followers were defaming me and attacking my character online, so what do I do about it? I couldn’t fight hate with hate, so I thought it was best to comment on her post and clarify the misunderstanding through logic and reasoning.
You’re an auditioning actor who whined about taking direction; that’s the argument made against you. If that’s missing the point, please make crystal clear why you felt wronged during the casting call.
I regret I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. I didn’t expect the post to go viral, so I expressed whatever was on my mind during that moment in time. Reading the post again, I can understand why it can be interpreted differently if people don’t understand the context of what happened during the audition.
If the casting director had asked me to sound more like a stereotypical Indian – keyword being stereotypical – that would’ve been a respectful and technical request. My only issue then would be the lack of diverse roles for minorities, but that’s a whole other argument for another day.
My issue lies in the casting director’s choice of words and its implications. She asked me to be “more Indian” because she needs a “full-blown Indian man”. This means that she personally equated the Indian identity to the stereotype.
I don’t think she intended to be racist or had malicious intent, but that’s my point. Through my post, I wanted to highlight that generalisations of such nature are made by members of the majority, and they’re not even aware of it. That’s me calling out casual racism and the harm it can cause.
In her second post, Xiaxue dug up an old clip of you performing with a deliberate South Indian accent during a stand-up gig. What is your take on that?
That was my first attempt at stand-up comedy. It was for a small bunch of friends in JC about three years ago. I was exploring accents, and I actually put out a disclaimer that I might say something offensive to them.
Xiaxue left that part out and only showed the part where I mocked South Indians with my accent. What many do not know is that I also apologised to my friends after the performance, although it wasn’t recorded.
Watching the clip, I realise that as much as I face racism, I can be as racist towards other communities too. I admit that, which is why it’s very important for me to advocate for anti-racism now. I’m learning from my mistakes.
But I guess Xiaxue and many of her followers think that I’m a hypocrite and that I’m still the same artiste from three years ago. The truth is, people are allowed to change their minds, grow and move on from their past.
Someone actually filed a police report against you. Can you share what happened at the police station, and how did you feel?
I was scared, of course. My girlfriend is studying to be a lawyer, and she looked up Singapore’s Sedition Act to determine the basis for someone filing a police report against me. According to what I read, you can get fined or spend three years in jail for causing racial discord, regardless of intent.
I spoke to (local playwright) Alfian Sa’at about it. He was always checking in on me ever since my post went public. He said that after it got a thousand likes, it was bound to get hate. He’s an advocate for minorities and has had his tussles with the police before, so he told me what to expect to calm me down.
When I went down to Tanglin Police Station, I met with the Investigation Officer. He was a very nice Chinese man who assured me that I’ve not done anything wrong. He wouldn’t tell me why the police report was made or by whom, but he did ask why I put up that post.
I spent two hours talking to him in a room. He was very understanding and seemed to be on my side. He wrote out the whole statement, and after I signed it, I was free to go.
You’re in an interracial relationship. Can you tell us more about that, and what does your girlfriend think about the whole situation as a local Chinese?
Yes, my girlfriend is Chinese. We’re super good friends. When I met her, I got to know her beyond her race. We’re both artistic people – she plans to be an entertainment lawyer – so we connect on every level; we’re like soulmates.
As you can gather from what I shared so far, she’s been very supportive throughout this whole ordeal. She acknowledged that she can too be oblivious to what minorities go through, and actually apologised on behalf of all the Chinese people who have been mean to me.
What are your thoughts about casual racism in Singapore after everything that has transpired in such a short period of time?
I would like to say this – casual racism is not about good people versus bad people. The problem is, when you bring up the matter of racism, a lot of people want to shut you down because they assume you are blaming them for being bad people.
When I say that there’s a culture of casual racism in Singapore, I’m suggesting that the issue lies in ignorance, obliviousness and misinformation, and I believe that the media’s portrayal of minorities contributes to it.
To solve this problem, we need to continually be kind, compassionate and have more open discussions without blame. When you tell someone to sweep a problem under a rug because addressing it threatens national stability, we are merely at that stage of racial tolerance as a country.
True racial harmony is about coexisting in a loving and accommodating space where we can listen to and understand one another.
Have you noticed the positive impacts of talking about casual racism openly?
I have. For every hateful comment I received on my post, I received 10 supportive private messages that were 10 times longer.
Some people expressed how grateful they were that someone finally spoke up about a topic that they can relate to, while others said they’d be more aware of what they say after realising their own mistakes; I think that’s wonderful.
Friends have also shared that JC students are discussing the matter in General Paper classes, and that a teacher in class even drew up a chart on casual racism, with my name on one end and Xiaxue’s name on the other. It blows my mind that it’s becoming a talking point.
Do you consider yourself the new face of anti-racism in Singapore? And what do you intend to do with this newfound attention?
To be honest, people like Alfian Sa’at and (stand-up comedian) Rishi Budhrani have been talking about casual racism their whole lives, but in a way, I do feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back.
With attention comes influence and responsibility, and when responsibility is pressed upon you, you have to step up to it. Now that I’ve seen the productive discussions that people are having about casual racism, I’m in a good head space to create meaningful work.
As a result of what I went through, I’ve been receiving a lot of stories from people about their experiences with casual racism. With their consent, I was thinking of publishing these stories in an anthology, or maybe even presenting them in the form of an art installation.
It could be an ongoing series where I continually collect stories from members of the public, and we’ll get to see how the narrative changes over time. I am very confident that we will make change slowly, and I hope that as an artist, I can do my best to contribute to that change.
Shrey will be appearing in “Anew”, a short film by Nightingale Films on enduring the journey of love. For more information, click here.
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