Ad Nut
Jun 16, 2020

Frontline heroes they are, yet Singlife's celebration of them is less heroic

A lesson in how poor semantics can lead to an erosion of brand purpose.

Singapore-based digital insurer Singlife wants to celebrate essential workers who have stepped up for the community during COVID-19. These include a young woman who helps the homeless at MRT stations and a young man who takes care of migrant workers in isolation. The videos are presented as online Q&A sessions and moderated by theatre actor Adrian Pang. So far, so good.

But let’s take a look at why semantics are so important when it comes to scripting.

The first video in question features a young man named Amsyar Ramlee, a show captain and performer at Resorts World Sentosa. When COVID-19 struck, the government redeployed his services to the Singapore Expo Convention Hall and Exhibition Centre, which has been converted into a caring facility for 8,000 migrant workers.

Ramlee describes that most of the workers don’t have families here, and he speaks about their loneliness of being stricken with illness while away from loved ones. “We are there to take care of them and to make them feel like it’s a whole community,” says Ramlee.

Then something mildly problematic happens. Moderator Pang continues to ask him a series of questions that make Ramlee’s work sound unimaginably excruciating and unsophisticated.

“You have to wear the full PPE?” Pang asks with a note of mild repulsion.

“Do you have any concerns about your own health?” Pang asks with an expression of deep concern.

“Did you have a choice to say yes or no to accepting this work?” Pang continues to ask, his concern only intensifying.

These questions, though fair to Ramlee, signals that caring for migrant workers during this time is the work of unimaginable torture. This group has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and amid the wave of illness, many are forced to deal with xenophobia. And the language chosen by Singlife only escalates the ‘othering’ of migrant workers, themselves frontliners in this fight.

You might think that Ad Nut is reading too much between the lines. But one must understand that this fits into a pattern of discrimination that is reflective of how Singapore has presented and consumed information relating to COVID-19 cases affecting migrant workers. Mainstream media and the Ministry of Health, for example, have often segregated COVID-19 statistics as “community cases” and “migrant worker cases”, and this casually indicates that migrant workers may not be perceived as a part of the community.

If Pang had instead interviewed a healthcare worker in a hospital, you wouldn’t imagine “Did you have a choice?” or “Do you have concerns about your own health?” as some of the questions. Ramlee’s work is certainly noble; but its nobility doesn’t lie in the “sacrifice” of “being in proximity” with migrant workers, rather it lies in his unconditional empathy towards an already vulnerable group.

The video ends with Pang offering Ramlee SG$500 through a SingLife account, for which Ramlee is grateful.

The second video features Roslina Toh, a volunteer who helps out at a homeless shelter, especially catered to Malaysian workers who have been out of jobs and sleeping at MRT stations. Toh goes out onto the streets between 10pm and 3am and contributes food or sleeping bags to those in need.

Toh—who sounds like an angel descended from the heavens—is then asked by Pang to talk about her childhood story. She does. It’s a story that’s incredibly tragic and the video pauses halfway for Pang’s reaction shot of utter disbelief.

After Toh shares her lifetime’s worth of trauma, Pang has a gift for her. You guessed it: SG$500 through a Singlife account! The video ends with Toh gushing with thanks to Singlife.

Firstly, Ad Nut fails to understand why Toh was asked to tell her story on camera. Maybe Toh herself wanted to, a courageous decision if so. But the way the video is scripted appears to Ad Nut as slightly exploitative: “Hey could you tell us about the amazing volunteer work you’re doing, and then relate it back to your traumatic childhood for context? Don’t worry, we have a surprise gift for you at the end!”

Speaking of the gift, SG$500 strikes Ad Nut as measly. It’s better than nothing, yes, but for the brand to hail these individuals as national heroes and then proceed to gift them a fraction of a month’s rent in Singapore... it's just not good enough. Perhaps a tertiary education fund for Toh would have been more justifiable.

Well, Singlife could certainly afford to hire Mr Crazy Rich Asian himself, Henry Golding, as an ambassador late last year.  

Ad Nut is a surprisingly literate woodland creature that for unknown reasons has an unhealthy obsession with advertising. Ad Nut gathers ads from all over Asia and the world for your viewing pleasure, because Ad Nut loves you. You can also check out Ad Nut's Advertising Hall of Fame, or read about Ad Nut's strange obsession with 'murderous beasts'.


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