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‘Brownface’ controversy: Society needs to do better, tit-for-tat is not the way, say govt and community leaders

SINGAPORE — While they slammed the “brownface” advertisement as offensive, government and community leaders also criticised a rap video which chastised the ad as being equally offensive. The video insulted the Singaporean Chinese community, and they said that two wrongs do not make a right.

Dr Janil Puthucheary (pictured) said that the E-Pay advertisement was “inappropriate, ill-judged and in poor taste” and the rap video in response to it was "vulgar and aggressive".

Dr Janil Puthucheary (pictured) said that the E-Pay advertisement was “inappropriate, ill-judged and in poor taste” and the rap video in response to it was "vulgar and aggressive".

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SINGAPORE — While they slammed the “brownface” advertisement as offensive, government and community leaders also criticised a rap video which chastised the ad as being equally offensive. The video insulted the Singaporean Chinese community, and they said that two wrongs do not make a right.

Both the advertisement and the video, they pointed out, showed that race is still a thorny and sensitive issue and that racial harmony in Singapore continues to be a work in progress.

Ms Grace Fu, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, said that while the advertisement was done in “poor taste”, the “tit-for-tat video done in response to it was disrespectful, and will lead us down a dark path”.

Noting that race is an “emotive issue”, she said that such incidents are a reminder that race relations “can never be taken for granted".

She added: “All of us must play our part to strengthen the social harmony we have worked so hard to build. Let us stand together as one people, instead of drawing lines that divide us.”

Commenting on his Facebook page, hours after the police said that they are investigating the video, Dr Janil Puthucheary, who is Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, said that the ad was “inappropriate, ill-judged and in poor taste”.

In the advertisement, actor Dennis Chew’s skin was darkened to portray a Malay woman and an Indian man.

Taking a jab at the ad, Dr Puthucheary, who is also chairman of OnePeople.sg, the non-governmental organisation that promotes racial harmony, said: “If the parties involved, or any other organisation, would like some training and capability development around ethnic considerations, cultural sensitivity and how to apologise sincerely, we at OnePeople.sg would be more than happy to help.”

The advertisement was produced for Singapore electronic payments provider Nets, which had engaged Havas Worldwide as its creative agency for a publicity campaign for E-Pay. Havas, in turn, engaged Mr Chew, who is with Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm The Celebrity Agency, as the face of the campaign.

Amid criticisms over the advertisement, Singapore rapper Subhas Nair and YouTuber Preeti Nair, who goes by the username Preetipls, posted a three-minute video on Monday, slamming it for its use of “brownface”.

The video also contained vulgarities and vulgar gestures directed towards the Singaporean Chinese community. TODAY understands that the video was taken down from Facebook at the instigation of the duo at about 5.45pm.

Dr Puthucheary said that the response contained in the video was equally offensive. The video is also “vulgar, aggressive, and does nothing to help either the initial mistake nor the circumstances that allowed it to happen”.

He added: “As the performers suggest, two wrongs don’t make a right. They do not seem to have heeded their own advice. We did not get this far in race relations by trading one offence for another.”

Saying that the society is “better than either of these two examples”, Dr Puthucheary said: “We have more work to do as a society to heal rifts, cross divides and become one people. We need to be better than this.”

His comments also came hours after Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam criticised the video as having crossed the line because it contained vulgarities directed at Singaporean Chinese and could turn minorities against the majority community.

Similar sentiments were also expressed by Mr Zaqy Mohamad, Minister of State for National Development and Manpower, as he described the advertisement as disrespectful as well as insensitive and the video as “totally offensive and uncalled for”.

“Race is always a sensitive issue, and these incidents remind us that racial harmony continues to be a work in progress,” he noted, adding that Singaporeans need to be respectful of each other to safeguard harmony and unity.

VIDEO DOES NOT HELP SITUATION

Mr Malminderjit Singh, secretary of the Sikh Advisory Board, told TODAY that the “tit-for-tat action could lead to a vicious circle” and suggested that another course of action could have been taken instead.

Though it is understandable that members of minority groups might be angry with the advertisement which was in bad taste, he said that the video “fuels the anger among minorities against the Chinese, (and) is not an acceptable response either”.

Dr Md Badrun Nafis Saion, chairman of AMP, previously known as the Association of Muslim Professionals, pointed out that while the video might be intended to be satirical, offensive content directed towards any racial group should not be condoned.

“It also highlights the need to have more conversations on race relations where everyone can come together and discuss issues honestly and openly,” he added.

Mr Ameerali Abdeali, former honorary secretary of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), said that it is important to assess whether the video had a nefarious intention.

“If it was something that he (the content creator) was unaware of, or (he was) trying to make some humorous video without realising that it is insensitive, I think we can take it less seriously and as a lesson learnt,” he added.

“It would be different if it is intentional or deliberately (designed) to hurt feelings.”

Whatever the case may be, Mr Ameerali said that the video “just prolongs and stirs things further and should not be encouraged”, adding that he “would not support such things”.

Following the furore over the advertisement, Mediacorp’s artiste management arm, The Celebrity Agency, and Havas Worldwide apologised in a joint statement “for any hurt that was unintentionally caused”.

“The message behind this advertising campaign is that e-payment is for everyone,” the statement said. “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.”

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