Controversy over 'brownface' ad shows need to err on side of caution: Grace Fu

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu speaking at a dialogue during the Model United Nations opening ceremony at Yishun Innova Junior College on Dec 10, 2019. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - The "brownface" advertisement controversy earlier this year, which had a Chinese actor-deejay painting his face brown to depict an Indian man, shows a need to err on the side of caution to avoid causing anger and ill-will to others, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu.

The incident also shows a need to develop sensitivity in knowing when not to cross the line, she said.

"Does it make people angry, does it cause ill-will? If so, I think we should err on the side of caution," she said.

She was speaking to about 300 students at a dialogue on race relations on Tuesday (Dec 10) during the Model United Nations opening ceremony at Yishun Innova Junior College. Model United Nations is an annual event where youngsters aged 13 to 20 debate national cultural issues with the focus on racial and religious harmony. It is into its fifth edition.

During the dialogue, a student from Marsiling Secondary School asked Ms Fu about the advertising campaign by e-payment firm Nets which showed Mediacorp actor and DJ Dennis Chew portraying four characters.

Besides an Indian man, he was also shown dressed as a Malay woman wearing a tudung, and apparently a Chinese man and woman.

The ad sparked public outcry for insensitively portraying Indians and Malays. Mr Chew, Mediacorp, Nets and creative agency Havas later apologised.

The controversy deepened when YouTube artist Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas posted a parody rap video that attacked the ad with profanities calling out racist ethnic Chinese.

The government ordered the duo to take down the video and they were later given a conditional warning by the police as the video was deemed to be racist.

The student asked Ms Fu if - in her capacity as a minister - she could tolerate the publication of such ads, and her view on how the Government had handled the situation.

Ms Fu said that what Nets was trying to portray was how one card could be used by all people, regardless of their backgrounds.

The incident was a very good example of how societal standards have shifted, she said.

"What was wrong and what was right in the past may not be wrong or right now. And I think we need to make adjustments in order to take into consideration the standard expected from the public," she said.

She added that she personally did not find anything problematic with the "brownface" ad if one understood the context of how the actor was someone known to cross-dress and portray multiple roles.

The characters portrayed were not at all derogatory but "ordinary folks" with different roles, such as a housewife and worker.

Most of the grassroots leaders and residents, including Indians, whom she sounded out on did not take offence to the ad too.

But the video in response was "a different question" as it used very foul language.

"If we said, 'Okay, let's not do anything about this' - in the heat of the moment, if a Chinese made a similar rude video about minorities with profanity, what would that do to the relationship between the two races?" she asked.

Ms Fu also noted how Ms Nair's video channel had "made fun of Chinese New Year", which could also have been construed as being insensitive.

The minister pointed out that besides the Chinese qipao, she wears Indian saris and Malay sarong kebayas from time to time, and hoped there would not come a day where she would be told to stop doing so.

"I really do not want to go to an extent where someone says 'Okay, Minister, you are Chinese, you cannot wear a sari. Because a sari is not (part of) your race, your culture - and if you wear a sari, it is an appropriation of my culture. I really would not like to see that day," she said.

"I would like to see that we are celebrating our diversity."

Asked for his view on the controversy, Catholic Junior College student Pranav Ghosh, 18, said that in such situations, no specific party could be blamed fully.

"I thought public reaction was very divided in the sense that people really felt that one side had to be right and one side had to be wrong," he said.

In July, Ms Fu had commented on the Nets advertisement and the siblings' video response, saying they served as a reminder that race relations in a society as diverse as Singapore's can never be taken for granted.

She had noted then in a statement that this was a constant work in progress.

"Mistakes will sometimes be made that cause misunderstanding and hurt among people. But as a society, let us resolve such issues in a spirit of mutual respect," she had said then.

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