The year is 2019, yet brands and agencies still haven't learned that using face makeup to portray people of colour tends to go badly.
In the latest example, e-payments website E-Pay hired Singaporean-Chinese Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew to portray multiple characters including a Singaporean-Indian man by artificially darkening his face. The name on the character’s lanyard read K.Muthusamy. The ad also featured Chew as a Singaporean-Malay woman in a tudung, and a Chinese man and woman.
Havas, the agency responsible for the ad, issued a joint statement with Mediacorp's celebrity management arm The Celebrity Agency (TCA) following the entirely predictable social-media outrage:
The message behind this advertising campaign is that e-payment is for everyone. For that reason, Dennis Chew, well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production in a light-hearted way, was selected as the face of the campaign. He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay. We’re sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused. Behind the ad is an initiative to provide greater convenience to consumers, merchants and small food businesses.
The statement failed to acknowledge the use of brownface and the repercussions of it.
At present time, the characters have been taken down from the E-Pay site except for the Singaporean-Chinese man. However, the ad featuring all four characters still hangs at the Maxwell Food Centre, and the images still appear on Chew’s Instagram feed.
In 2016, Mediacorp found itself in a similar predicament when its online TV service Toggle used a Singaporean-Chinese actor in blackface to portray a black man.
At the time, Mediacorp issued a half apology which highlighted a lack of understanding around the dangerous repercussions of blackface. The apology read: “The scene has been perceived as racially insensitive by some viewers, although that was never our intention in the production”. The broadcasting giant was also fined SG$5,500 (US$4,012) by Infocomm Media Development Authority.
It’s not uncommon for Singaporean actors to portray other races in local productions (think the famous Gurmit Singh portraying a Chinese man in hit show Phua Chu Kang), but the reaction on social media to the E-Pay incident suggests that many still think that artificially darkening one’s face for a production is not racist.
It's undeniable that some dark-skinned Singaporean-Indians and migrants are victims of institutionalised discrimination that benefits majority races. One frustrated user said on Facebook as a reaction to the ad: “Singapore media is willing to go through such lengths to have CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) representation, even if it means having one Chinese actor play all the different groups... Brownface in Singapore punches down. We know what darker-skinned folk have to endure."
UPDATE, July 31:
In response to the incriminating ad, Singaporean-Indian influencer Preeti Nair aka Preetipls released a rap video yesterday (July 30) featuring herself and her brother. A parody of Iggy Azaela’s hit ‘Fuck It Up’, the song picks on the ad and taps deeper into Singaporean-Indians at the brunt of racism and being exploited for money in the country.
The video was taken down and is currently being investigated for ‘offensive content’ by the Ministry of Communications and Information. Before it was taken down, it was shared 600 times. However, it’s been re-uploaded by an anonymous YouTube account.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told Channel News Asia (CNA) that Preetipls had “crossed the line” and promoted anger towards the Singaporean-Chinese community.
“When you use four-letter words, vulgar language to attack another race, and put it out in public, we have to draw the line and say that it’s not acceptable. And it’s not a defense to say that ‘I did in response to something that I didn’t like’,” Shanmugam told CNA.
“If we allow this video, then we have to allow other videos. There can be hundreds of other such videos. What do you think will happen to our racial harmony, social fabric, and how people look at each other? Would people feel safe?”
Chinese person: gets paid for doing brown face in an ad for the government— Preeti Nair (@plspreeti) July 30, 2019
Me (seeing my third brown face incident in local media at this point): Racist Chinese people need to stop fucking up and it’s exhausting af
Chinese ppl proving my point: omg you’re racist!
Meanwhile, there hasn’t been an official government statement about the original offensive ad. According to Mothership, Shanmugam urged those who believed the ad crossed a criminal line to file a police report. However, he added that lawyers who looked at it did not deem it to be an offence.
Why does the ad industry keep making racist mistakes?
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