Tuesday 17 August 2021

Oh, brother! I once pitched to Mediacorp Channel 5 an idea for sitcom about a Malay family and was told to add a Chinese character

Oh no, she didn’t!

But she did. I think someone just called Mediacorp racist.

Or did she?

That someone is broadcast journalist Sharanjit Leyl.

In a BBC radio programme that aired two days before National Day, she said: “My pride in multicultural Singapore comes with the acknowledgement that had I been born Chinese, my life would have been a lot easier.”

She talked about how even though she had a master’s degree and broadcast journalism experience in Canada, “I struggled to get my foot in the door at the local news broadcaster”.

The “local news broadcaster” she was referring to is, of course, Mediacorp.

So she got a job at Bloomberg, where one of her duties was to provide currency updates to Mediacorp.

“They told my bosses they didn’t want me doing TV updates for them,” said Ms Sharanjit.

“I know the man who ran the newsroom of that same TV channel, who ironically happens to be Indian Singaporean.

“And I confronted him about why there were still so few Indian and Malay anchors presenting their programmes.

“His response was that viewers did not like watching darker-skinned presenters.”

So she was not actually accusing Mediacorp of being racist. She was accusing Mediacorp of accusing its viewers of being racist.

Mediacorp has since released a statement that Ms Sharanjit appears to be referring to its editor-in-chief Walter Fernandez, who did not say what she said he said.

He said: “To my recollection, I did not reference race or skin colour at all in our conversation.”

The company also said that it is “committed to equal opportunities and diversity in our workforce” and its “hiring policies and practices are based on merit”.

I was once (actually thrice) a Mediacorp employee and this reminds me of my own experience there.

I used to work on Channel 5 shows like Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, Under One Roof, Living With Lydia and Shiver.

We regularly had pitch meetings where we proposed new show ideas for the channel.

One day, I decided to pitch a sitcom about a Malay family. It had never been done on Channel 5 before. The closest we got was Police & Thief, starring Mark Lee and Suhaimi Yusof, which was about a Malay family – and also a Chinese family.

It seems that on Channel 5, while Chinese characters can be the leads, if there are minority characters, they are part of the ensemble or co-leads at best.

The rationale, of course, is that since Singapore is majority Chinese, this should be reflected in the casting of the show to get the most viewers.

But when I analysed the viewership of the most popular Channel 5 programmes, what I noticed was that Malays comprised a sizable chunk disproportionate to their population.

I figured that if I could grow this demographic, I could get boffo ratings for my show. Most Chinese viewers are watching Channel 8 anyway.

So my motivation was more commercial than woke.

I also thought that a Channel 5 series with an all-Malay cast would be a first and make a great marketing hook.

When I pitched my concept, the feedback I got from the executives running Channel 5 (all Chinese) was they liked the idea – but could I include a Chinese character as well?

What? That would defeat the whole purpose of the show!

No, I wasn’t going to change anything, I snapped.

My reaction was so antagonistic that the executives just didn’t want to deal with me any more and moved on to another pitch.

I immediately regretted my outburst. I guess I could have added a Chinese character. Or pretended that I would.

But in hindsight, perhaps it was for the best. A blessing in disguise. I am probably not the most qualified person to create a sitcom about a Malay family.

My idea was a show called Brudder! which would centre around two brothers. A lot of the dialogue would just be them going “Brudder!”

That would not have aged well. I definitely dodged a bullet there. I should thank those Channel 5 execs for saving me from myself by rejecting my pitch, even though it was due less to its lack of merit and more to my obnoxiousness.

But I did do a pilot about an Indian family starring Gurmit Singh for Channel 5 that didn’t go to series and was never aired.

Yes, it did have Chinese characters.

Well, at least nobody told me that Channel 5 viewers did not like watching darker-skinned characters.

- Unpublished