Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said on Tuesday (10 December) that she did not find the controversial “brownface” advertisement that sparked public outrage earlier this year problematic.
The advertisement, which was an advertising campaign by e-payment firm Nets, featured Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew impersonating different races.
Mr Chew was seen dressed up as different races in Singapore such as an Indian man with darkened skin as well as a Malay woman in a headscarf in the advertisement. He also portrayed the role of a Chinese woman in a pink jacket and a Chinese man with a moustache in the advertisement.
As expected, the ad did not go down too well the public, with many criticising the need to use one person to play different roles instead of hiring people of the actual races to play the characters.
It even prompted Singaporean influencer and comedian, Preeti Nair, famously known as Preetipls, along with her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, to release a rap video attacking the video in vulgarities for being racist.
The video titled “K. Muthusamy” contains offensive content. In the video, the siblings can be seen repeatedly uttering “Chinese people always out here f***king it up”, while condemning Chinese Singaporeans who they claim are racist and exploit minorities for money.
On the other hand, Subhas was also dressed similarly to the brown-toned look by Chew in the original advertisement.
In response to this, Ms Fu said that she personally didn’t find the ad by Nets problematic because if were to look at it in the context that DJ Chew is someone who is known to cross-dress and portray multiple roles.
However, she did warn the public that they need to have sensitivity in knowing when not to cross the line.
“Does it make people angry, does it cause ill-will? If so, I think we should err on the side of caution,” Mr Fu noted.
The Minister told this while speaking to approximately 300 students at a dialogue on race relations during the OnePeople.sg Model United Nations opening ceremony held at Yishun Innova Junior College.
The OnePeople.sg Model United Nations is a yearly event that sees youths from the age 13 to 20 debate national cultural issues with the focus on racial and religious harmony. This year is its fifth edition.
Societal standards have changed
While at the dialogue, a student from Marsiling Secondary School asked Ms Fu if she could tolerate the publication of the “brownface” ad in her capacity as a Minister. The student also asked Ms Fu’s view on how she thought the Government handled the issue.
As a reply, Ms Fu explained that all Nets was trying to portray was how one single card can be used by people from all walks of life, regardless of their backgrounds.
She added that the incident is a great example of how societal standards have changed.
“What’s wrong and what was right in the past may not be wrong or right now. And I think we need to make adjustment in order to take into consideration the standard expected from the public,” she pointed out.
Ms Fu also went on to say that the characters portrayed in the “brownface” ad were not derogatory, but in fact just “ordinary folks” with different roles like a housewife and worker.
She also said that the majority of grassroots leaders and residents, including Indians, whom she sounded out on did not find the ad offensive.
Rap video is offensive
However, the rap video by Nair siblings was “a different question” as it used very foul language, the Minister said.
“If we said, ‘Okay, let’s not do anything about this’ – in the heat of the moment, if a Chinese made a similar rude video about minorities with profanity, what would that do to the relationship between the two races?” she asked.
Additionally, the Minister also highlighted that Ms Nair’s video channel had “made fun of Chinese New Year”, which could be interpreted as being insensitive.
The Minister stressed that apart from the Chinese cheongsam, she occasionally wears the Indian saris and Malay sarong kebayas, and hoped that they would not come a day where she wold not be able to do so.
“I really do not want to go to an extent where someone says ‘Okay, Minister, you are Chinese, you cannot wear a sari. Because a sari is not (part of) your race, your culture – and if you wear a sari, it is an appropriation of my culture. I really would not like to see that day,” she said.
She added, “I would like to see that we are celebrating our diversity.”