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The Epidemic of Racism in Singapore: Beow Tan and Chinese Culpability

Updated: May 30, 2021

The Epidemic of Racism in Singapore: Beow Tan and Chinese Culpability

We’ve all seen the memes, the jokes and even the expeditions people on the Internet have undertaken just for a glimpse of 57-year-old Catherine Beow Tan, better known on the Internet as Beow Tan, the infamous racist woman on the MRT who harasses minorities.

Tan has been reported to have been harassing minority races mostly documented to have been Malays on the train, making snide remarks about them and consistently asking other passengers, “What is your race?”.

In her episodes on the MRT, Tan was also reported to have been harassing people from minority races and recording them to post on her YouTube channel.

Her YouTube channel was later uncovered by Twitter users, and finally taken down by YouTube for violating their harassment and cyberbullying policies.

Beow Tan’s Consequences

Following the video of Beow Tan that had gone viral on social media, real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank Property Network Singapore released a statement on 27 April 2021 that they had terminated an associate who was reportedly the same individual who recently harassed commuters on the train while filming them.

Albeit Knight Frank not disclosing the associate’s identity or specific incident of misconduct, it said the conduct of its associate was brought to its attention around 26 April 2021.

Police reports had also been lodged against Tan for harassment, and the police announced on 27 April 2021 that a 57-year-old woman was assisting with investigations.

The Rise of The Memes

Following Tan’s investigation by the police, a surge of memes and jokes surrounding the 57-year-old went viral on social media, namely Facebook, Tik Tok and Instagram.

On Tik Tok, several users documented their hunt for Beow Tan, some even filming a vlog style documentation of their journey to the west, areas which Tan usually appeared at.

In these videos, the Tik Tok users went on specially planned outings for a glimpse of Tan. It is worth noting that many of such users were of the Chinese race, which is not part of Tan’s demographic of choice to harass in public.

Besides the vlog style video that have taken the Singapore algorithm on Tik Tok by storm, there have also been other videos made in the name of humour that pitted Beow Tan against the 53-year-old lady who refused to wear a mask at Marina Bay Sand on 7 May 2021.

What’s Wrong With Laughing?

In the memes that have circulated around social media poking fun at Tan, there has been more and more discourse making light of Tan’s racism and mocking her than actual discourse about racism in Singapore.

Racism can be a heavy topic of discussion as many people buy into the “racially harmonious” narrative that institutions push, which invalidates the daily encounters of racial discrimination, racial prejudice or even microaggressions that individuals may face.

Humour helps to lighten the mood of the issue, making it more relatable for other individuals and offers an easier, more palatable way for others to understand the issue of racism in Singapore.

However, humour is not a substitute for raising awareness of racism or being aware of racism.

Tik Tok user @pauriahcarey recently posted a video about the “memefication of Beow Tan”, discussing the memes and jokes that have arisen from her episode on the MRT.

“Her antics offer some extent of comic relief,” @pauriahcarey says, but cites French philosopher Guy Debord, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

He explains that Tan acts as a spectacle for us as bystanders to laugh at, while “being distracted from targeting the problem at its root”, the problem being racism.

“For Chinese people, she offers the relief of “heng ah, I’m not like her”, while everyone else gets distracted until the next racist auntie comes along”.

While @pauriahcarey points out how the humour and memes surrounding Tan’s antics distract from the main issue of her racist antics, there also exists the dichotomy between Chinese people making jokes about Tan, and Tan herself.

By fixating on Tan as the main proponent of racism in this issue, many other Chinese people distance themselves from Tan by making fun of her on the Internet, which supposedly establishes allyship with the minority races getting harassed by Tan.

However, by deliberately establishing a rift between Tan and other “normal”, “non-racist” Chinese via memes, the issue of racism is greatly diluted and the crux of the issue is no longer Tan’s intolerable racist behaviour, but how much of a spectacle they can make Tan out to be, to excuse themselves from having to bear the responsibility of eroding institutional racism in Singapore.

Going out to “hunt” is a fun pastime to engage in for the Chinese because their privilege as a non-minority shields them from her harassment.

It isn’t to say that humour should be exclusive from topics like racism which actively and adversely affects people, but humour shouldn't take away from the main issue of racism.

Instead, the role of humour should be to facilitate and ease people into learning more about their privilege and the racism others encounter albeit the widely accepted narrative that Singapore is a racially harmonious society.

While racism in Singapore isn’t as overt as in countries like the United States, more progress can be made socially and institutionally, and much of the responsibility lies on the privileged race to first realize their privilege and continuously question the system that perpetuates the myth of Singapore’s racial harmony.

Beow Tan may be the face of racism in Singapore, but remaining complicit isn’t a victimless crime for others of the Chinese race.

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