Edward Said, Crazy Rich Asians and Lee Kuan Yew

Crazy Rich Asians has been condemned as a blatant misrepresentation of the ‘Singaporean society’ because of the inaccuracy behind the meaning of ‘Chinese Singaporean’ in its marketing strategy and the contradictory foreign elements used to construct the film. Aside from the general identity politics that are wrought within the discussions of unequal depictions, Crazy Rich Asians is a film that can be passionately understood with political philosophy, especially those of the late Lee Kuan Yew and Edward Said – Asian values and Orientalism.

Within the plotline of the film itself, a large amount of time has been devoted to illuminating the distinct separation between the “Singaporean Chinese” and the “American Chinese”. Such a difference resonates with Lee Kuan Yew’s 1990s Asian values political ideology, which prioritised the importance of social collectivism over the individual. It was an idea that arguably unified people under a pan-Asian identity, free from the ideals of the imperial British, that concentrated on uplifting the nation through communality. Above all, communality was morally aligned with values of sincerity and magnanimity.

Actress Michelle Yeoh poses on the red carpet at the opening of the 70th Cannes International Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 17, 2017.

Hence, as Michelle Yeoh (Eleanor in the film) prominently orates in the striking mahjong scene within the movie, her refusal to bless the union of her son and the main protagonist (Constance Wu as Rachel Chu) was because she was not “kaki lang” or “one of us” – a prejudice predicated on Rachel’s personal ambitions to be an Economics professor which required the willing sacrifices of her mother to realise. It was a line that screamed Asian Values because it was considered selfish within the confines of the Singaporean Chinese family to put the self above the family (or community).

In 1978, Palestinian scholar Edward Said published a book titled “Orientalism” which controversially criticised the West for othering the East. He argued that the West’s view of the East was not just simply a stereotypical description, but rather a form of power control that consolidates its supremacy over “the Orient” or “the East”. Therefore, when a White man jokes that the American Chinese are wizards in Math or that Singapore is part of China, it is more than a simple joke – it connotes an imperial perspective upon a “lesser” entity.

Thus while Orientalism depicted a Western negative on the Oriental, the dynamics created through Crazy Rich Asians is entirely opposite: the subaltern has been lifted from its second-class status onto a more prolific light. However, does that mean that it is justified?

The film certainly meant to empower the Chinese minorities within the US. But because the marketing strategy of the film involved propagating a distinct Singaporean ethos, Chinese Singaporeans remain disenchanted with the disparity between said film and reality.

In an article to Foreign Policy titled “Hollywood has no time for Crazy Rich Asians”, prominent journalist Kirsten Han wrote about the sensationalism of Hollywood’s films. The story of Crazy Rich Asians plays on the stereotypical splendour of Singapore’s infrastructural skyline, denoting that the city-state and its inhabitants were supposedly “rich”. However, Han highlighted that even within the lustre of the city’s grandeur, poverty existed that the movie did not take into account.

Lim Zheng Jie Wo, 76, scavenges in a back lane of the financial district in Singapore on January 5, 2009. | ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Hollywood’s primary interest in the glamourous and less of its holistic picture laces the film with a flawed perspective of Asiatic societies.

Yet Orientalism is subjective because even within the bounds of Singapore, the supposed advertising strategy of the film finds ire with a larger pool of minorities. In addition to the Chinese, the film abandons the identity of minorities.

Through WearYourVoiceMag, a blog discussing different forms of queer politics, infamous activist Sangeetha Thanapal wrote a blog piece titled, “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is not a radical win for representation”, bringing the discussion under the banner of race privilege.

Though she did not specifically connect together the significance of the film to the disparities in Singapore, her alternative rhetoric reveals discrimination under the similar discourse of Western-Eastern power relations. The difference is that the dichotomy is described between the Singaporean Chinese and the rest of the minorities.

While Sangeetha’s concerns are indeed justifiable, are they comparable? The main question surrounding the debates about equality in the film are mismatched because of the different interpretations of what it means to be “equal”. Chinese Singaporeans flock under the banner of Singaporeanism (or Asian values) without truly understanding the sensitivity of minority groups (assuming they care for it). Yet, minority groups are equally guilty in refusing to acknowledge the “systematic oppression” of the Chinese within the global sphere.

The two cannot be compared because one looks at the issue from an international lens, while the other from a highly nationalistic perspective. Oppression has become synonymous with imperialism and while seeking to understand these relations is justifiable, they cannot degrade to a point where justification translates to enforcement. It would not only vilify the insight given by Orientalism, but also emulate the gestures characterised by imperialism.

Wayne Ang is an intern at the NUS Middle East Institute and a final year student at SIM-UOL majoring in International Relations.

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