The day before Singapore’s National Day, Preeti Nair — more popularly known as the influencer Preetipls — uploaded a patriotic makeup tutorial, applying bright lipstick and red and white eyeshadow in homage to the country’s national colors.
National Day, on August 9, marks the anniversary of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and is celebrated with military parades, singalongs, dances, and pyrotechnics. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic still a concern, the parade was split into segments. Tanks rolled through residential neighborhoods, and the fireworks were set off in 10 different places, but the message was the same as ever — that Singapore is “one united people,” living in harmony regardless of race. Not everyone experiences it that way.
“So [the National Day parade] is also the time of the year where you hear ‘Munnaeru Vaalibaa’ played on TV,” Nair, now fully made up with an “I ❤️SG” temporary tattoo on her cheek, said. As she pointed out, many Singaporeans claim ownership of the song, a patriotic anthem in Tamil, one of the country’s four official languages alongside English, Malay, and Mandarin. However, outside of the flag-waving paean to unity that is National Day, the country’s Tamil-speaking minority are often sidelined.
As if to prove her point, three days after the National Day parade, organizers of the state-led celebrations had to apologize for errors that caused a line of animated Tamil text to come out as unintelligible.
Singapore’s national identity is one built on unity within its multiethnic society, which at the last census was around 74% Chinese, 15% Malay, and 7.5% South Asian. However, in its aggressive desire to preserve the high ideals of multiculturalism, the government has often ended up silencing discussions of race altogether, making it difficult for people to call out discrimination and double standards.
Preetipls is part of a new wave of young Singaporeans reviving these difficult conversations. On Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, the 26-year-old Nair is brash and bold, sarcastic and witty, unafraid of calling it as she sees it. She’s an entertainer and a musician, a comedian and a marketer. The content she produces ranges from makeup tutorials and music videos to commercials. She can be talking about lipstick in one moment and calling out exploitation of migrant workers in the next. This mixture of activism with comedy has resonated with young Singaporeans and turned her into an unexpectedly influential political figure in the usually conservative city-state. Her appeal largely comes from her unfiltered takes on everyday experiences that are almost never reflected in the tightly controlled mainstream media.
“I used to work [at the state broadcaster, Mediacorp]; I see all the things happening behind the scenes, and I really can attest that there are no brown people in the teams that approve half the things that go up,” she says. “So, I think, for me, I was just like, been there, done that; I’m just going to call this shit out.”
Nair’s first breakout video, in 2016, was a parody of a controversial “fashion police” video, featuring the fashion influencer Saffron Sharpe. Sharpe had singled out anonymous filmed passersby on a shopping street in Singapore and mocked them for their outfits.
“I remember thinking to myself, If a friend was in this video, if someone I knew got made fun of, I would be really pissed,” Nair says over a Skype call. “And then I realized, that’s the issue. You wait until you’re personally affected or someone you know is affected. We just scroll past something like that.”
In her parody, Preetipls paraded up and down the same street dressed in a black garbage bag. Eventually, the original video that Preeti spoofed was taken down, and Sharpe apologized.
While Nair never set out to talk about race, it was almost inevitable that she would be drawn to the subject. “Just based on my own personal experience, that’s something that I got made fun of a lot about when I was younger,” she says.
In 2017, she made another parody, this time of an item from the broadcaster Channel News Asia, in which an Indian Singaporean woman went to stay with a Chinese Singaporean family. It was presented as an exercise in mutual interracial learning, but the broadcast contained racist comments and microaggressions. At one point, the family’s nine-year-old son admitted, “I don’t really dare to go near a lot of Indians.”
In Nair’s parody, an awkward young Chinese man goes to stay with her family. The video has since been viewed 273,000 times on Facebook, with over 4,000 likes.
These parodies might seem relatively innocuous, but in Singapore, they walk a fine line.
Freedom of expression is limited in the city-state, but the government is particularly sensitive about matters relating to race and religion. Legislation like the Sedition Act or sections within Singapore’s Penal Code criminalize acts promoting “feelings of ill-will and hostility” between different racial or religious groups or acts committed with the “deliberate intention of wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person.”
This is a vague definition that can catch all sorts of commentary, which Nair and her brother Subhas found out in 2019, when they reacted to a government-backed advertising campaign for cashless payment, in which the ethnically Chinese actor Dennis Chew put on brownface to play an Indian man and a Malay woman in a headscarf.
“My reaction was like, Ugh, not again! I don’t know how many times Mediacorp has done brownface,” Preetipls says, referencing a long history of blackface and brownface in Singapore. “It’s just so frustrating, and I wasn’t surprised, but I was just like, Come on, it’s 2019. Are we still going there?”
The siblings produced a parody of Iggy Azalea and Kash Doll’s “Fuck It Up,” dancing under a billboard with the offensive brownface and rapping: “Fuck it up, sis, keep fucking it up. (Racist) Chinese people always out here, fucking it up.”
After the video attracted more than 40,000 views, the police opened an investigation over its “offensive content.” The video was pulled from social media, and the Nairs’ electronic devices were seized. Their first apology, a riff on the one issued by the ad agency behind the campaign, was deemed insufficient by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which issued a strongly worded statement calling the video “blatantly racist.” Although people also filed police reports against the original ad, the authorities determined it did not constitute a criminal offense. Both Chew and the ad agency made public apologies.
The case against Preeti and Subhas Nair probably helped to cement Preetipls’ credibility as a significant voice on race in Singapore. “It has won people over to see that, if even the state has decided to take serious action against you, then surely the issue that you’re calling out must have valid concern,” says Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist and ethnographer of internet cultures at Curtin University, who has studied online discourse in Singapore.
Nair’s influence has grown, in part because there is now a willing audience of young people in Singapore who are far less reliant on conservative mainstream media than previous generations and far more attuned to progressive global movements. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have not only provided more vocabulary to discuss issues of racism and sexual harassment but also pushed young Singaporeans to examine how these matters play out in their own city.
The growing power of this demographic was apparent in June 2020, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called a snap election. With the coronavirus pandemic still looming, few people expected race to be a major part of the agenda. However, as the campaigns hit their stride, the police announced that they were investigating an opposition candidate, Raeesah Khan, for old comments on Facebook, in which she had criticized perceived classist and racist double standards in policing and sentencing. The parallels with Nair’s case — a minority figure being investigated for calling out systemic inequities — were obvious.
“I think a lot of people, a lot of first-time voters, they got to see that, oh my God, this is a constant thing that keeps happening.” Nair says. “I think that’s when people started talking about the microaggressions, the little things that we’re doing behind the scenes, the constant silencing and tone policing.”
Young Singaporeans rallied behind Raeesah on social media. On Twitter, people changed their display names to identify as “Raeesah stans,” and the hashtag #CatsForRaeesahKhan began to trend as people posted feline content in support of the cat-loving politician.
This outpouring of support seemed to surprise the incumbent People’s Action Party; on the final day of campaigning, they backpedaled from a strongly worded statement accusing Raeesah of racism and questioning her suitability for office, and instead framed reactions to the matter as one of a generational divide. Raeesah was elected to parliament.
Although the PAP — which has been in power since 1959 — won as expected, the election shone a light on a new generation of Singaporeans with different baselines and expectations of politics from their parents and grandparents. With Covid-19 safety measures pushing more election campaigning online than ever before, first-time voters leaned into politics in a big way, reading manifestos, scrutinizing candidates, and crowdsourcing resources.
Nair, herself a first-time voter, used her platform to interview opposition politicians, bringing her followers along on her efforts to become an informed voter. That leading political figures agreed to take time out of an intense nine-day campaigning period to be interviewed by an influencer like Preetipls was an acknowledgement of her clout.
“This is the first year I cared about politics, to be extremely honest. I never talked about it; I never discussed it,” she says. “Just putting [my thoughts] out there is so important because my followers are so young. … It’s probably their first time ever caring about the elections as well, caring about the double standards in Singapore.”
Speaking out brings additional jeopardy for Nair right now. Her conditional warning from the brownface video means that, if she commits any crime within 24 months of the original offense, she will be charged for both. The maximum penalty for that first offense is imprisonment of up to three years or a fine, or both.
This threat is still at the back of her mind when she makes videos, she says, but it won’t stop her from calling things as she sees them. “If there’s something for me to say,” she says, “I’m definitely ready to say it.”