Monday 5 August 2019

E-Pay Dennis Chew brownface ad controversy: Everyone is apologising – well, except...

Dear Dennis Chew,

How are you doing, man?

Congratulations on playing Aunty Lucy for all these years. Who knew you could build a career on ripping off Jack Neo’s Liang Xi Mei?

What a week it has been, right? It seems like everyone and their ad agencies have been apologising as a result of that E-Pay ad you did. Some more than once.

Well, everyone except you.

Your employer Mediacorp and the creative agency Havas Worldwide said in a joint statement on July 28:
“We’re sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused.

“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 lighthearted way, was selected as the face of the campaign.”
In this case, “everyone” in the ad meant Chinese men in drag and/or brownface holding a plate of food. That seems like a rather tiny demographic.

How does it feel to be the face of a lighthearted racist campaign?

Nets, one of the organisations behind E-Pay, also apologised “for any hurt that its campaign has caused”.

Then Havas apologised again while Mediacorp released a separate statement:
“The portrayal of some races in the advertisement was done in an insensitive fashion. We take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly.”
YouTubers Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas also apologised for their rap video made in response to the ad. This was after Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam criticised both the ad and the video – but the video more harshly.

However, the siblings’ apology was called out by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as “mock, insincere” because it was “a spoof of an earlier apology issued by Havas”.

So the video makers apologised again on Saturday, this time using the words “sincerely” and “unconditionally”. MHA has yet to respond on whether it’s another spoof.

On the same day, writer Edwin Yeo apologised after writing an article for the Singapore Kindness Movement that said “casual racism” was “okay”, among other things.

Et tu, Singapore Kindness Movement?

That’s like seven apologies in seven days over one thing. It must be a record of some sort.

(UPDATE: Singapore Kindness Movement General Secretary William Wan has also apologised.

So it's now eight apologies in nine days.)

I am still waiting for apologies from Enterprise Singapore, National Environment Agency, Housing Board and JTC Corporation. They are the other organisations behind the E-Pay thing, along with Nets.

They must be wondering what the hell they got themselves into.

Here they are, just trying to get people to use a card or phone instead of cash to pay for food, and suddenly they’re enmeshed in this messy debate about racism and majority privilege in Singapore because of one ad.

All they want is for you to pay for your prata with a QR code, no brownface required.

Now E-Pay will forever be associated with being racist. I believe some drastic rebranding is in order.

And, of course, another missing apology is from the brownface that started it all – yours.

But was it really your fault? I mean, you were probably only following Mediacorp’s orders, right?

Yeah, that was the same kind of excuse the Nazis used.

I’m trying to remember whether James Lye ever said sorry for VR Man.

Would an apology make a difference anyway? Even a sincere, unconditional one?

While some have hailed the Nair siblings as champions for the under-represented, you’ll always be the Chinese guy who wore brownface in that ad no matter what.

Perhaps you can take comfort in the careers of your Mediacorp colleagues Shane Pow and Desmond Tan, which have survived, if not thrived, after they were separately called out for going blackface in 2016 and 2015, respectively.

Both are still starring in TV shows on Channel 8 like nothing happened. Did they ever apologise?

But then Pow and Tan never appeared in an ad that was described as “in poor taste” by the Law and Home Affairs Minister. Yikes.

Oh well, you still got Aunty Lucy.

Hope I don’t have to apologise for this column.

- Published in The New Paper, 5 August 2019

Dear Mr Ong,

I am a retired 66-yr old uncle, and I had spent many years watching Gurmit Singh in various portrayals - as a chinese man, chinese woman, malay man, malay woman, indian man, indian woman, caucasian man, caucasian woman - on TV, roadshows, newspapers, magazines, Internet, stage, advertisements, brochures, flyers, posters, postcards, etc. And what happened. Nothing happened. No problem. Gurmit Singh was not wrong. Mediacorp and its agencies were not wrong.

Gurmit Singh had done it all. Nobody thought there was anything wrong.

I hope you find time to compile old images of Gurmit Singh in his various portrayals and write an article about the evolving perception of racism in Singapore and other countries.

The person hardest hit is not Dennis Chew but Gurmit Singh bcos after what happened last week, Gurmit Singh has to stop what he does best, which is portraying various ethnic men and women.

Where do we draw the line now, after what happened last week? Jack Neo cannot portray Liang Po Po? Dennis Chew cannot portray Auntie Lucy? Kumar cannot portray you-know-what? Wang Lei (getai king) cannot portray "Kong Foo Po" (cantonese granny)? Thank you.

i was at Pink Dot @ Hong Lim Park on Sat-29-June-2019.

Preetipls and her brother were on stage talking and rapping, stirring up the crowd with hate speech that would make Amos Yee blush.

You lack insight to comment on their latest video if you weren't at that Pink Dot event to witness what they did there.

I believe your media company has recorded plenty of footages of what the siblings talked and rapped about at that event. Why don't you look at those recordings?

You should monitor closely how they are hijacking various events and platforms to promote their private agenda of hate.

This is my last email to you on this matter. I will not be drawn into politics and hate speech, as I don't have the energy and time to do so, considering my frail health and lack of resources in my sunset years.

Do you still want Dennis Chew and Mediacorp to apologize? Then what is your view on Gurmit Singh and Jack Neo and Kumar and Wang Lei, etc? Where you draw your line?

UPDATE: Dennis Chew finally apologised on Instagram on Aug 7, two days after this column was published.