Important lessons from 'brownface' ad saga

The ongoing "brownface" advertisement saga is a precious learning moment for all of us.

If we step back a little, we will see that none of the parties intended to cause harm, even though harm was caused.

The producer of the advertisement may have failed to exercise good sense, which clearly offended many in the minority communities.

Ironically, the intent was to show that e-pay is for all regardless of race and other differences.

The rap video scored high on creativity and clever play on words. Yet, it offended many because the language was deemed crass and that it targeted an entire race - the Chinese.

However, the Indian brother-sister team who produced the video were seeking to speak out against what they saw as shades of discrimination by the ethnic majority community. To them, this is real and persistent, yet not acknowledged.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam's response was criticised for focusing on the "victims" while the producers of the advertisement - the ones who struck the first blow - were perceived to have been let off lightly.

That may be true, but the minister's intent was to prevent the situation from becoming a tit-for-tat between the majority and minority ethnic communities, eroding trust. He did what any responsible home affairs minister would be expected to do.

The discussion on the ground is unnecessarily polarised. In the determination to prove one's case, we are choosing to ignore intent.

In taking hardline positions, we dig in our heels. The result is that we are treating this as a binary situation where because I am right, you must be wrong. If it persists, everyone talks louder. No one listens.

With the producers of the advertisement and the video clip both sincerely apologising publicly, and Mr Shanmugam acknowledging that the video producers have the right to speak up against racism, perhaps we can move forward to deal with the real issue.

"Racism exists in Singapore." This acknowledgement by the minister is not insignificant. It is a good starting point for us to address the issue honestly, without losing civility.

What gives me optimism is that every time there is an issue such as this, a significant number of those who speak up for the minority are ethnic Chinese. We have certainly done some things right.

Viswa Sadasivan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2019, with the headline 'Important lessons from 'brownface' ad saga'. Print Edition | Subscribe