E-Pay advertisement fiasco: YouTube duo’s “escalatory” and “cutting” response a consequence of continuous institutional racism, says WP chief Pritam Singh

Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh has weighed in on the debacle surrounding rising Singaporean YouTube duo Preeti Nair and Subhas Nair’s satirising of an E-Pay website advertisement.

The controversial advertisement, which has since been modified to remove the offending material, portrayed Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew as multiple “characters” of different races in Singapore, such as a Malay woman in a headscarf and an Indian man with darkened skin, a Chinese woman in a pink jacket and a Chinese man with a moustache in the advertisement.

The advertisement drew flak from many Singaporeans, with parallels being drawn to “brownface” — the racist act of darkening fair skin for entertainment purposes at the expense of people of “brown” races such as Indians and Malays, regardless whether or not it is intentional. Many critics have also pointed out why actual Malay and Indian actors or models were not hired to portray individuals of their respective races instead.

Mr Singh, in a Facebook post on Wed evening (31 Jul), wrote that while he was barely fazed by the advertisement — a reaction he attributed to his own “threshold” for “distasteful or offensive” things, or even having developed a “thick skin” as a Singaporean of a minority race — he stressed that his own lived experiences may be different from other Singaporeans of minority races.

“Imagine having a racist or insensitive boss or being rejected from job after job because you do not speak the correct language, have to pray at certain hours, or being made fun of because you smelt different, or sport a turban or a tudung etc. If one experiences racism all the time, he/she would logically respond differently and feel like a lesser citizen. And when the response comes, it is usually escalatory and cutting, like the video in the question,” he illustrated.

Mr Singh observed that the current “status quo on race and religion in Singapore is a result of tolerance, compromise and give-and-take amongst different communities and racial group”.

“And the system – its safety valves and even perceived hair-triggers – play their part in keeping the peace. In other cases, social peace is the result of luck, with Singaporeans – both in the majority and minority communities – living in their own silos and own worlds.

“For them, far from mixing with the other races – they stick to their own, living under a veil of ignorance, perpetuating stereotypes and prejudices from one generation to another,” he observed, painting a picture of a façade of racial harmony rooted in fragile tolerance, as opposed to genuine acceptance and understanding.

“Whether in Singapore or elsewhere, racial minorities intuitively note how the majority community ‘treat’ them. To understand this, just ask some of your local Malay or Indian friends or Malaysian Chinese friends about racism and their experiences,” added Mr Singh.

He also said that matters concerning race and religion are tricky matters to handle, which is why “a fair amount of understanding should be extended to the authorities to manage and pre-empt potentially problematic issues”.

“After all, different people have different thresholds on free speech. But should things go awry, it is the authorities, the police and ordinary people who have to pick up the pieces, to say nothing of other unintended consequences,” warned Mr Singh.

Mediacorp responds to Pritam Singh, apologises for fiasco … but makes no reference to “brownface” allegations

According to Mr Singh, MediaCorp clarified that the advertisement was the product of HAVAS Worldwide, its creative agency, for the E-Pay promotional campaign. HAVAS in turn engaged Chew, a Mediacorp artiste, to be the face of the campaign.

Mediacorp stated that it takes full responsibility for the episode and apologises unreservedly. In addition, MediaCorp said that stringent safeguards will be put in place to prevent a repeat of such a mistake, according to Mr Singh.

This is not the first time that Mediacorp has found itself involved matters surrounding racial sensitivity.

Back in 2017, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) imposed a financial penalty of $5,500 on Mediacorp Pte Ltd (Mediacorp) for breaching the Video-On-Demand Programme Code.

An episode of Toggle’s Chinese-language web drama series “I Want To Be A Star”, which was first made available for viewing on 5 September 2016, carried a racially offensive remark.

In episode 6 of the series, veteran actor Chew Chor Meng reportedly said that Indians and Africans were the same, and that it would make no difference casting an Indian as an African in a TV production.

The segment also featured a character who had put on “blackface” makeup and role-played as a person of African descent, played by Chinese Singaporean actor Shane Pow. The character was cast as Chew’s son in the series.

IMDA stated that it has assessed that the segment was racially insensitive and constituted racial stereotyping that might offend certain segments of the community. The Authority also said that Mediacorp had promptly removed the offensive segment from the particular episode, and had taken remedial action to prevent a recurrence.

E-Pay advertisement not the first instance of “casual” racism in Singapore: Preeti and Subhas Nair

In the rap video response to the E-Pay advertisement, which was released on Mon (29 Jul), the siblings were seen repeatedly uttering “Chinese people always out here f***king it up”, while condemning Chinese Singaporeans who engage in the exploitation of minorities such as Indians and Malays for their own profit via such racism.

Subhas, who was notably dressed similarly to the “K Muthusamy” character portrayed by Chew in the advertisement, pointed out in the video what many Singaporeans have highlighted in their response to the parody: “You should have cast a makcik [informal term for a slightly older Malay lady], you should have called her.”

“How can a man wear brown and wear a tudung? Two wrongs don’t make a right,” read one of the lines in Preeti’s verse, in a subtle jab against the perceived act of “brownface” done by Chew in dressing up as a Malay woman in a hijab.

Preeti also poked fun at the C.M.I.O acronym — Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others — that typically characterises the fabric of Singapore’s multiracial society, saying: “Cancel Minority Is Ok!”.

In a scene depicting a conversation between Preeti and Subhas, the latter pointed out that an advertisement for last Deepavali entailed the same “brownface” act, in which a Chinese man was dressed to portray a Sikh man.

The video garnered 4,000 views and almost 150 shares on Facebook just two hours after it was posted. However, the video was taken down from Facebook and other social media channels by Tue afternoon after it was condemned by the government.

A police report was lodged against Preeti over the video, following which police said in a statement on Tue that the video was being investigated for “offensive content that causes ill-will between races”. Police has also reminded the public not to circulate the video.

Subhas was also removed from “ROAR”, a CNA National Day musical documentary, for his involvement in the video, CNA announced on Wed.