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Is it because he’s Chinese?

I don’t wonder any more about why people don’t want to talk about race. Anything you say can be mis-interpreted. Worse for you, if you are inarticulate about expressing your views.  The only phrases that would be acceptable are how we should “increase multi-racial tolerance” (or is it harmony?) and grow as a cohesive nation “despite our race, language or religion” (and sexual orientation?).

We’re becoming a fractious people, belabouring over the extent of an offence and even whether it is, in fact, offensive. And offensive to who? With what sort of consequences? We will either shrug off the “offence” or go to the other extreme to paint doomsday scenarios with the usual slippery slope arguments.

Of course I blame Internet. Racist comments are excised from the mainstream conversation because the objective is to maintain the peace and to be “sensitive” to people’s feelings. But comments carry on being uttered anyway on the universal megaphone known as social media. What was private can easily be made public and, as in the case of the Nair siblings’ video, dramatised for further effect.

I have been looking at the “offending” ad on E-Pay and the “offending” video in response. (I am using quotation marks advisedly).

What’s the genesis?

The ad is a publicity campaign by NETS, “to communicate that e-payment is for everyone”, it said in a statement apologising for any hurt the ad had 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 engaged HAVAS Worldwide as its creative agency, which then engaged Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm to cast television actor and deejay Dennis Chew as the face of the campaign. Or rather, Mr Chew became several faces, including female and brown.

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I gather that the draw of having Mr Chew is his television drag persona as the neighbourhood busybody Auntie Lucy, adorned with wig, lipstick and plucked eyebrows.

Mr  Chew, said NETS, was picked because he’s well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production. “He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay.” (Note the phrase “walks of life”, not different races.)

I suppose he would be a recognisable face to heartlanders who patronise hawker centres, where E-Pay was being rolled out. I think this is the part where the players involved fell down. They think their target audience, which is the majority of people here (read: heartlander Chinese), would chuckle at the sight of Mr Chew impersonating other faces/races.

It can’t be for lack of money to hire other actors, given that E-Pay is a big push in our Smart Nation initiative. It is more like some not very smart people failing to take into account how an Indian or a Malay would feel about having a Chinese impersonating them. I mean, have people at The Celebrity Agency forgotten how its own company MediaCorp was fined in 2017 for featuring a Chinese actor  as a black man with black face makeup in an episode in I Want To Be A Star ?

I know the counter: What about Gurmit Singh who played contractor Phua Chu Kang? No Chinese got offended. Let’s face it: Gurmit could pass off as a Chinese character anytime. Also, the Chinese community here is probably less “sensitive” to other ethnic groups portraying them. Why? Because they are in the majority here and hence, are more secure about their place in society. They can laugh at themselves, and think that others should laugh along when the same gimmick is applied to them.

But a joke to a big group is a reminder to another from a small group about how small they are and how easily they can be poked fun at. It is, in other words, not funny.

Remember the kerfuffle in May last year when a Caucasian American girl in the donned a cheongsam for high school’s prom night, boasted about it on Twitter and was accused of cultural appropriation by, ahem, “non-whites”? And that was just a dress.

Some have raised the continued popularity of drag queen Kumar’s shows which also poke fun at the races. But the audience members who pay to see Kumar perform know what to expect. Methinks this is different from having something pushed into your face for your attention, like an ad.

Workers’ Party secretary-general Pritam Singh put it best when he said on FaceBook that the ad left him non-plussed (confused/bemused/unsure how to react).

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“That is probably a reflection of my own threshold for what I consider to be distasteful or offensive or perhaps even how thick my skin is,” he said. “But my lived experience is different from someone else’s. If one experiences racism all the time, he/she would logically respond differently and feel like a lesser citizen.”

I agree. Face it. How many people looked at the ad after the news broke to decide if it was offensive or not? If you do not find it offensive, then others who complain must be over-sensitive. Right? If you think it is offensive, then those who think it isn’t must be insensitive. Right?

I am pretty ambivalent about the ad, but that’s just me. But I don’t have to be in advertising to know how some people on the ground would react. And I definitely wouldn’t have put a name tag on the brown faced “Indian”. The fault, therefore, lies with the big boys who put out the ad; they should have known better.

Nevertheless, I wonder what accounts for the sudden rise in political correctness over the years? This is Singapore, not the United States with its history of slavery and segregation. As different communities, we’ve lived together long enough in harmony not to have to tip-toe around each other for fear of being perceived as insensitive.

Which brings me to the video which was put out in response.

I think the video was a crass production, a vulgar, over-the-top response to the ad. Given how in-your-face it is, I wouldn’t call it satirical – as some people have. Could the siblings have made the same point without castigating the Chinese community? I would have aimed my fire at the people behind the ad, who may or may not be Chinese.

What’s interesting is the G’s response. I wish it had weighed in after the ad appeared,  rather than only after the  video went viral. Though politicians were careful to criticise both the ad and the video, the brunt of the criticism fell on the siblings, to the point of having their livelihoods affected. So ChannelNewsAsia, an arm of MediaCorp, dropped Mr Subhas Nair from its musical documentary because it “strongly objects to all such offensive content which threatens racial harmony and will not associate with individuals who intentionally create such content”.

The thing is, individuals will make mistakes, get emotional and act impulsively. I don’t know what the siblings are going through now with so much public attention on them, but we haven’t heard a peep from them. They might want to think about proffering an apology to those they’ve offended.

On the other hand, organisations and companies have protocols to adhere to, and have more heads looking at an issue. I have no doubt that NETS et al never intended to denigrate other races with the ad. As I said, they are just not very smart people who didn’t think carefully when coming up with a marketing concept. In fact, it’s a wonder that the E-Pay ad made it through from conceptualisation to final dissemination without anyone raising a red flag.

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I have a strange feeling that the outpouring of ministerial angst is about laying the groundwork for hate speech laws. I hope the G remembers that individuals are merely human beings who love, hate and sometimes lose their heads. But we should expect more from organisations and institutions.









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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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