Black Lives Matter: Should we take skeletons out of people’s closets?

By Sean Lim


It has been almost a fortnight since George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by Minneapolis police when an officer pinned his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he gasped for air and groaned that he could not breathe. His death sparked nationwide “Black Lives Matter” protests in the US, which are sometimes accompanied by looting and destruction of property.

The movement has gained traction in Singapore with people expressing on social media their anger towards the American police’s treatment of Mr Floyd. Some of my friends took the opportunity to discuss the state of race relations at home. There is nothing wrong with standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, even though we in Singapore may not fully grapple with the historical circumstances behind the movement that has led to the current psyche and culture in the US.

I shall assume that people jump onto the bandwagon because they want to see change, although I also suspect many are merely paying lip service and want to appear righteous or fashionable. But that is a discussion for another day.

What is worrying was how some individuals pushed things too hard to the point of discomfort. Some of us in the Chinese majority, at least me, were frustrated at being put between a rock and a hard place in this episode: When we remained silent, some of us were deemed complicit for not speaking up against the injustice suffered by Mr Floyd, never mind that we were still trying to absorb and understand the issue. But when we eventually said something, we were labelled and criticised for commenting from a background of Chinese privilege.

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On Wednesday (June 3), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tweeted his appreciation for the Singapore Police Force, which was commemorating its bicentennial. It was an innocuous tweet, customary for the PM when marking an important milestone. You might even scroll past the tweet and not read too much into it.

But there were folks online who made a mountain out of a molehill and disapproved of the tweet. Some questioned the PM’s intentions, calling it insensitive given the current spotlight on police brutality in America. One tweet appeared to push an anti-police narrative by listing 16 instances of Singapore officers committing crimes, never mind that they were already dealt with by the law.

Fortunately, someone (Dhevarajan Devadas, a researcher from the Institute of Policy Studies) was sensible enough to point out on Twitter that the 200th anniversary of policing in Singapore is a major milestone and the situation in the US should not affect its commemoration.

Most disturbing of all, however, was when people started digging proverbial corpses from the depths of social media archives. Some of you would have seen by now the 2016 photo of a group of Raffles Institution (RI) students in “blackface’’, posing with a Slumdog Millionaire movie poster and a “whitening kit”, to celebrate their friend’s birthday.

The RI student who first posted the photo on Instagram told me that as far as he could remember, nobody raised a ruckus when it was first posted and he had his friend’s explicit consent for posting the photo. About a year ago, however, a few people highlighted the post to him and suggested that he takes it down, but it slipped his mind because it happened so long ago. It was not an excuse, he said.

The photo was resurfaced in a now-deleted tweet by user @twelfthgod, whose username has changed to @miss_andrist, and gained further notoriety after local playwright Alfian Sa'at shared it on Facebook. It must have rattled the former RI students, but they had the grace to apologise for something that took place four years ago. The apology from the 10 people was sincere and heartfelt.

Certainly, their actions were insensitive and displayed a certain blindness towards minorities. But given that the photo was taken more than four years ago and with the timing of the George Floyd tragedy, I cannot help but be sceptical of the Twitter user’s motives. The student told me that he did not know the Twitter user personally, nor did the user approach him regarding the photo before he or she tweeted about it. He only found out through his friends who were active on Twitter after the tweet went viral.

I have three questions:

  1. Did the person dig up the Instagram photo intentionally to ride on the global outrage surrounding George Floyd's death?

  2. Was it done because he had a personal animus against the former RI student who posted the photo?

  3. Why did the photo only surface now instead of four years earlier when it was first posted?

The kerfuffle over this photo reminded me of a similar case last year with local actor Tosh Zhang when he was appointed as an ambassador for Pink Dot 2019. A day after the appointment, Ms Sarah Yip published a Facebook post exposing Tosh’s homophobic tweets from almost a decade ago. His tweets may be inappropriate but the timing of the post raised questions over Ms Yip’s motives.

Ditto the demonstrators in France, who jumped onto the George Floyd bandwagon to demand justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while he was restrained by French police in 2016.

It is good to create awareness for the plight faced by racial minorities and get people to listen and have a conversation. You could even say it is heartening that many desire a more genuine discourse about race. Only then we can have a better appreciation of race relations.

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But how to approach the issue is equally important. Is digging up skeletons from the closet the right way to make a point? It is akin to saying that a leopard cannot change its spots or that youthful indiscretions or mistakes are character traits that cannot be erased.

Some have argued that the message, rather than the motive, is more important. I doubt, however, that anyone who has been singled out in such a manner would love to have been the prompt for the start of a discussion.

In the RI episode, people have taken to whacking the students instead of focussing on the issue. Some went further and attacked RI, saying that it is an elite school which breeds racism. RI has issued a statement saying that this is not what the school stands for.

On a general note, it is harder to rally support for a particular cause if those lobbying for it are seen as radical or too pushy, frightening people in the middle ground into taking countermeasures. It is also counterproductive to engage in too much finger-pointing because that does not buy hearts over. Making progress on contentious problems require small steps to convince the undecided to move along.

The folks at SG Climate Rally, a group of people who are concerned about climate change, exude passion but not aggression. It adopted a mellow and convincing stance to create awareness on climate change. Its messaging and position remain clear: To make climate change an urgent issue, and hold political and economic systems accountable in taking concrete steps towards meeting climate action targets.

It could have, for example, dug up a million skeletons from individual closets, such as businessmen and political leaders who have blindly put their faith in polluting sectors to push the economy and therefore declare that they are not in a position to speak on the issue.

And no, I am not encouraging such delving into the archives.

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