4 key issues to consider regarding offensive 'brownface' E-Pay ad

(SCREENCAPS: Social media)
The original ad (left) and an image (right) used for the FAQ section of the E-Pay website have both been taken down. (SCREENCAPS: social media)

SINGAPORE — The furore over the racially insensitive E-Pay advertisement and the subsequent video by Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas has sparked intense debate over the public portrayal of Singaporeans from different races.

Featuring Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew, the “brownface” advertisement showed him playing four different characters, including an Indian man with artificially darkened skin and a Malay woman wearing a headscarf.

The advertisement, which has been taken down from the E-Pay site, was widely criticised for being racially insensitive. It prompted an Nanyang Technological University student to file a police report, who said “the advertisement has a seditious tendency”.

The video by Preeti – who goes by the moniker Preetipls - and Subhas mocked the advertisement and “racist” Chinese people. It is peppered with expletives and vulgar gestures, and the Nairs imply that the advertisement is evidence of there being a racial bias against minorities here.

A police report has been lodged over the video. A spokesperson from the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) said IMDA had issued a notice to Preetipls and Subhas to take down the video and they complied.

The saga highlighted four key issues surrounding the advertisement so far:

Who should assume greater responsibility for the fiasco?

E-Pay is a government initiative led by Enterprise Singapore, the National Environment Agency, the Housing and Development Board and JTC Corporation. The four organisations appointed NETS last year to oversee the implementation of the e-payment system. E-Pay aims to roll out cashless payments in hawker centres, coffee shops, and canteens.

Creative agency Havas had worked with The Celebrity Agency, Mediacorp's celebrity management unit, for the advertisement. The two agencies issued a joint statement on 28 July to apologise for “any hurt that was unintentionally caused” by the advertisement.

Havas on Thursday (1 August) reiterated its apology and said, “Our multicultural society defines us as a nation, and we regret if anyone has been offended by the campaign.”

In response to queries by Yahoo News Singapore, NETS apologised on Wednesday “for any hurt that its campaign has caused”.

“The campaign was in connection with the unified e-payment initiative, a multi-agency effort led by Enterprise Singapore, where NETS was appointed as the master acquirer to handle payment transactions and drive adoption of e-payment in small food businesses,” NETS added.

Which parties were working with Havas and the Mediacorp unit on the advertisement? Was the advertisement approved by the client before it was released? If the government agencies or NETS were involved, should the relevant personnel who had endorsed the advertisement assume more responsibility for the fiasco than Havas or Mediacorp?

Why was the advertisement approved?

According to Havas and Mediacorp's celebrity management unit, the message behind the advertisement 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,” said their joint statement.

Similarly, NETS said in its apology, “The intent of the campaign was to communicate that e-payment is for everyone.”

In 2017, an episode of a Chinese-language series “I Want To Be A Star” that was broadcast on Mediacorp’s Toggle featured a local actor in “blackface” and a racially insensitive remark.

In response to public criticism over the episode, Anil Nihalani, head of Toggle, said then, “We’re sorry for the blackface portrayal. We take race-related issues very seriously and that portrayal should not have happened. We’ve removed the offensive scenes from the programme and will ensure something like that doesn’t happen again.”

The E-Pay “brownface” advertisement appeared to be more egregious for its racial insensitivity compared with the “blackface” saga as its message was partly targeted at Malay and Indian Singaporeans, and yet it was approved.

What is the stance of the industry watchdogs?

The IMDA fined Mediacorp $5,500 over the “blackface” saga in 2017.

Explaining the penalty, the agency said, “IMDA assessed that the segment was racially insensitive and constituted racial stereotyping that might offend certain segments of the community. IMDA notes that Mediacorp promptly removed the offensive segment from the Episode and has taken remedial action to prevent a recurrence.”

In the Toggle episode, a character remarked that Indians and Africans were the same and as such that it would make no difference casting an Indian as an African in a TV production.

The character was played by Shane Pow who was wearing an Afro wig with his face painted black. Is the depiction of “brownface” Chew in the E-Pay advertisement considered equally racially insensitive and hence warrant a similar penalty?

Yahoo News Singapore emailed IMDA on Wednesday to ask whether any similar action would be taken over the E-Pay advertisement.

Singapore’s advertising authority said that while the advertisement was “in poor taste”, it did not breach its code of practice.

The council of the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore felt that the advertisement was not done “with harm in mind or to deliberately put down any ethnic groups”, said its chairman Professor Ang Peng Hwa, adding that they have received two feedback about the matter.

What are the legal issues?

Regarding the E-Pay advertisement, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said he had been advised by lawyers that no offence had been committed.

On the portrayal of Chew as members of the minority races in the advertisement, Terence Seah, a lawyer from Virtus Law, said that “it is unlikely that any offence is committed under the relevant laws, specifically the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.”

Under the Sedition Act, a “seditious tendency” is a tendency “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”, among others.

Seah said, “In today’s societal standards, dressing up in the traditional costume of a particular group, racial or otherwise, may be distasteful if it perpetuates negative stereotypes or is intended to mock that group. Some may question whether the clothing chosen to be worn by the various races in Chew’s portrayal perpetuates stereotypes but that alone is unlikely to rise to the level of ‘seditious tendency’ in the Sedition Act.”

As for the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, a person may be given a restraining order to stop acts “causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups”.

Seah said, “In Chew’s portrayal, it so happens the traditional headscarf may also be seen as a reference to a religion but it is not necessarily an act ‘causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups’”.

-additional reporting by Wan Ting Koh

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