'Brownface' ad in S'pore in 2019 removed after getting called out for being racially insensitive

Mediacorp has apologised.

Sulaiman Daud | July 28, 2019, 02:17 PM

Singapore is ready to celebrate its 54th birthday, but racial harmony will always be a work-in-progress.

As a reminder that is so, an advertisement for E-Pay, an e-payments website, was called out on social media on July 26 for being racially insensitive.

"Brownface" ad

The ad featured Mediacorp actor and deejay Dennis Chew (Zhou Chongqing), as four characters: A Malay woman wearing a tudung, an Indian man in office wear, a Chinese woman in a pink jacket, and a Chinese man with moustache in blue overalls.

Screen shot from epaysg.com

The Indian character also appeared on the FAQ section of the website.

The name tag of the character read "K. Muthusamy".

Screen shot from epaysg.com

Chew's skin tone was "artificially darkened" to portray this Indian character.

The main gripe was that the ad campaign went to the extent of inventing characters to represent Singapore's minorities, instead of hiring minority actors to portray them.

However, the epaysg.com website has removed the characters, with only the moustached man in blue overalls remaining.

epaysg is a unified e-payment system rolled out at more than 500 hawker stalls.

Nets was appointed by Enterprise Singapore, the National Environment Agency, the Housing Board and JTC Corporation to unify the cashless payments system in September 2018.

Mediacorp apologises

In a statement given to The Sunday Times on July 28, Mediacorp apologised for the ad.

Havas Worldwide, a creative agency hired for the advertisement, and The Celebrity Agency (TCA), Mediacorp's celebrity management arm, said: "We're sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused. Behind the ad is an initiative to provide greater convenience to consumers, merchants and small food businesses."

The apology also justified the use of Chew for multiple characters.

It also said: "The message behind this advertising campaign 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."

Mothership has contacted Enterprise Singapore for comment.

Characters included on voucher

Chew's Instagram also features him holding up a voucher with the same four characters.

In the video, he invites fans to attend an event to promote the E-Pay system.


Mediacorp fined for "blackface"

In 2017, Mediacorp was fined S$5,500 after a male Chinese actor used "blackface" make-up to role-play an African.

Another character also said that Indians and Africans were the same and that it would make no difference casting an Indian as an African.

The Chinese series was aired online.

Why brownface is offensive

Blackface or brownface refers to the practice of making an actor's skin artificially darker so that he can portray a person of a different race, usually a minority.

It is arguably more prevalent in the United States, which has a long history of actors in blackface performing in minstrel shows during the mid-19th century.

These shows typically mocked black people in America, depicting them as lazy, ignorant, and sexually aggressive.

As these minstrel shows were sometimes the only representations of black people that non-black people saw, harmful stereotypes of the community began to grow.

The problem persists today, with blackface incidents on college campuses.

Singapore context

While Singapore may not share the same history of race relations as the U.S., the campaign could still be seen as offensive.

The actor and the people behind the ad campaign may not have intended to cause offense, but offence can be taken anyways.

Top image from epaysg.com.