Playwright Alfian Sa’at’s Cultural Elitism: Trashing Of Director Jack Neo

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Playwright Alfian Sa’at’s Cultural Elitism: Precious Teapot Calling Kettle Black — Trashing Of Director Jack Neo
This article examines a ‘highbrow’ case of artistic snobbery cum hypocrisy in Singapore among some of her liberal elite.
Singapore dramatist Alfian Sa’at posted his second follow-up essay in on or about June 6 [ ] … it was an expanded elaboration in defense of fellow actor Shrey Bhargava’s charges of alleged racism that occurred in late May during a filming audition for director Jack Neo’s ‘Ah Boys to Men’ comedy franchise, a part-four sequel — Mr. Bhargava felt he had been racially slighted by the casting director’s instruction to have him exaggerate his Indian accent like a ‘full-blown Indian man’; he then bemoaned about it after the fact as downright racism.
Crucially, Mr. Sa’at’s essay despises filmmaker Jack Neo, opining that “Neo’s films are known for their lowbrow humour”, followed by his outright deprecation of it: “But should low brow humour be confused with comedy that is done in poor taste?”
Indeed, his latest comments smack of artistic and intellectual snobbishness writ large upon the lips of some Singapore’s liberal elite. Just how supercilious it is for Mr. Sa’at to arrogate to himself the right to be the bejeweled teapot branding the kettle black, to throw shade at his fellow artist, pooh-poohing Mr. Neo’s comedic work as unintellectual and insufficiently cultured — if one goes by the dictionary’s definition of what ‘lowbrow’ means. And how hypocritical of Mr. Sa’at to have never before bellowed a critical word about the ills of Mr. Neo’s ‘lowbrow’ films until just now when it is only expedient for him to do so.
To be sure, filmmaker Jack Neo’s calling card is one of characteristic ‘Singlishness’ in style and substance. And where comparison of his comedic oeuvre goes, it is neither lowbrow à la The Three Stooges nor the highbrow Monty Python, but singularly ‘Singlish’ in flavor — even his films’ titles themselves speak volumes, like ‘Money No Enough’ and ‘Where Got Ghost’. (As an aside, kid-actor Amos Yee once had a cameo role in one of Mr. Neo’s movies, in which he was set up as a perfect foil of standard English against the otherwise ‘Singlish’ tone of the movie; that’s vintage Jack Neo in essence.)
Surely, everyone is entitled to his/her definition of racism, Mr. Bhargava not least; he is free to ventilate it on the Net and to expect be countered accordingly. But for some liberal cultural elite to diss director Neo’s comedy works as being ‘lowbrow’ and, by implication, the legion of Mr. Neo’s fans, is grossly inappropriate and uncalled for; that’s indeed regrettable.
Postscript: a note of historical context … what prompted my first blogged causerie on June 3 about the Bhargava-racist allegation was in large part a response to Mr. Sa’at’s first essay on the said ‘racist’ incident, posted on his June 1 Fb page, which I’ve characterized as being totally ‘wishy-washy’ without addressing the specifics.                    [ ]
That presumably led to Mr. Sa’at’s second essay of the above. And in the interest of full disclosure, let it be noted that only recently did Mr. Sa’at remove the block against my posting on his Fb; the block was apparently in consequence of my 2 previous critical postings on his site, namely:
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Hmm…so what’s the point here? A little bit of racism is alright? Is it all relative since it’s non violent ? Let the racist role exist because some people find it entertaining and don’t care about the fact that it hurts others ? Is it better to sweep it all under the carpet and say out loud “There is no issue” or actually listen and understand instead of being blind to it.


  1. Thank you Jason for saying your piece. I’m afraid we would have to agree to disagree on the definition of the so-called racism as portrayed by Mr. Shrey Bhargava; his was not racism IMHO, as understood in the classic sense but rather a case of misplaced ethnic chauvinism on his part.

    Instead of posing your rhetorical question by lamenting that even a little bit of racism is deplorable, you are better off acknowledging that ‘racism’ in all its forms from subtle to blatant is simply ingrained in the web of life. Hence, we had better to pick our battle more wisely against racism — those veritable vicious types — lest we descend into what I would term the nimieties of the ridiculous such as the niminy-piminy caterwauling of actor-wannabe Mr. Bhagarwa.

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    Well, I think all you are showing here is a case of “the majority will tell you whether the fact you feel offended Is justified or not” and you should listen. I’m not particularly saying it is warranted or not warranted in this particular case, but just accepting it as a part of life seems like a poor option. Basically what you’re saying is “Yeah, people are racist. So those offended by it should learn to pick their battles”. I wonder if you would say the same were you on the other side. For example, it is common enough for certain people who look for rentals to be told “Sorry, only so and so race preferred by the landlord”. Is this a battle worth picking or too niminy-piminy? Are you the right person to decide? Where do you draw a line ? Should you even draw one? Is it only worth talking about when someone is physically hurt ?

    When I was a very young man being a newly-arrived student overseas — what seems like eons ago — sitting in a bus I was ticked off enough by some personal racist remarks from 2 local youngsters that I dared them to step off the bus for me to settle their hash. It was of course so foolhardy of me in retrospect to even think of doing what I did on that occasion, being foreign to the environs and not fully cognizant then of the prevalence of the American gun culture. And that’s what I meant by picking one’s battle wisely against issues relating to the ubiquity of ‘racism’.

    Surely, it is Mr. Bhargava’s prerogative to bellyache all he wants about triviality in a neat little place like Singapore. But IMHO, in making a mountain out of a molehill over the audition incident, mischaracterizing it as some sinister racism, Mr. Bhargava has done himself a great disfavor. Sadly, being that self-conscious and hyper-sensitive as a wannabe actor, I’m afraid he would have a tough time hacking it in his line of work.



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