Singapore in ‘Brownface’

It was one of those only-in-Singapore moments. A state-backed marketing company is given the job of creating a campaign for the government’s new cashless transaction regime, called E-Pay. The firm hires a comedian to do impersonations of Malay, Indian and Chinese potential customers.

The impersonation kicks off a furor, with the minority races accusing the Chinese of institutional racism against minorities. The state-owned broadcaster apologizes, the ad disappears. An Indian couple do a You-Tube skit satirizing the affair. The Singapore government files a police report threatening to charge the couple.

The story began when Mediacorp, the broadcaster owned by the state-controlled investment fund Temasek, was given the job of publicizing the E-Pay card. The ad was part of a government-initiated campaign for cashless transactions in the tech-savvy city-state, featuring actor-comic Dennis Chew. He portrayed a Chinese man and woman, put on a headscarf to portray a Malay Muslim woman, then darkened his skin to depict an Indian man, each of them holding food putatively paid for with the E-Pay card. That is what started the trouble.

Singapore, dominated by the Chinese, who make up 76 percent of the citizen population of 5.4 million, is also home to ethnic Malays (15 percent), Indians (7.4 percent), and Eurasians and expatriates of varying shades and textures, making race a relatively sensitive issue, although not as sensitive as in either Malaysia or Indonesia. The government, to its credit, strives to treat the races relatively equally although there is considerable irritation among the minorities.

“Brownface,” as Chew’s darkened skin was called, bears pretty much the same connotation as blackface does in the United States. Chew’s lighthearted portrayal of the chubby Malay woman was hardly much better, especially issuing from a government-owned agency. The twittersphere exploded, leaving Mediacorp, through its Celebrity Agency unit, to immediately apologize “for any hurt that was unintentionally caused” and to announce that the message was an innocent one seeking to convey the message that “e-payment is for everyone.”

Chew, they said, was chosen as he is “well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production in a light-hearted way.” The ad disappeared although other social media users said they thought the ad was fine and cautioned against oversensitivity.

The controversy impelled a brother and sister, Preetipls and Subhas Nair, to make a YouTube video described rather charitably as “obscenity-laden” to the tune of a rap video by Iggy Azalea and Kash Doll called “Fuck it up” and calling out Mediacorp and by the extension the government for making what critics described as a racist advertisement.

The video, according to the Straits Times, attracted more than 1,100 likes and 110 comments almost immediately. It also attracted the attention of Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who was quoted in the Straits Times that “If we allow this then we have to allow other videos … what do you think will happen to our racial harmony [and] social fabric, how will people look at each other? When you use four-letter words, vulgar language, attack another race, put it out in public, we have to draw the line and say not acceptable. It is not a defense to say, oh, I did it in response to something that I didn’t like,” he added. The information ministry, he said, “has asked Facebook to take the video down and that’s the latest.”

The police also issued a statement saying they “are aware of an online video that is directed against the E-Pay advertisement. A police report has been lodged against the online video for its offensive content and police investigations are ongoing. The police will not tolerate any offensive content that causes ill-will between races.”

The two Indian rappers almost immediately removed the video from social media platforms and later apologized. Preetipls apparently has flown to Bali.

“What happened is that the controlled media Mediacorp produced a racist advertisement with brownface and when Preetipls and Subhas Nair made a video to call it out, instead of taking action against Mediacorp for producing a racist advertisement, the government decided to shoot the messenger and got the police to investigate Preetipls and Subhas for calling out the racism in their own way,” said Roy Ye Ling Ngerng in a message to Asia Sentinel. A blogger and critic of the government who was sued and convicted of defamation by the Prime Minister several years ago, he now lives in Taiwan.

“As I reflected these few days, it made me realize that when an authoritarian regime such as the PAP imposes its rule over Singapore, and prevents certain conversations from having had, by using the law to persecute those who try to have such conversations, it prevents the voices of these people from being heard, it prevents us from understanding what is actually going on the ground. When people do not talk about their feelings but there is this shared form of feeling discriminated, this shared form of having their right stolen from them, it results in a pervasive form of repression that spreads across a huge swath of our society.”

The bloggers have now joined a considerable swath of Singaporean society that, like Roy Ngerng, discovered it doesn’t pay to get too mouthy in the island republic. Another is Amos Yee, who in 2015 issued an equally “obscenity-laced” video, insulting Christians and, among others, the late patriarch Lee Kuan Yew. Yee was arrested and charged with intending to “wound the religious feelings of Christians.” On his way to court, a 49-year-old assailant came out of the crowd to beat him in the face. When his defiance continued, first he was jailed and eventually was ordered remanded to a mental institution for observation. When he eventually got loose, he moved to the United States and asked for political asylum.

The Lion City doesn’t seem to be letting up.