Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, told a crowd of about 300 students yesterday (10 Dec) that she personally did not find anything problematic with the “brownface” NETS advertisement.
In July this year, an advertisement for the government-led NETS E-Pay initiative drew severe backlash since it featured Chinese actor Dennis Chew dressed as a Chinese man, Chinese woman, Malay woman and an Indian man. Chew wore dark makeup or “brownface” to portray an Indian man.
Responding to the video, Preeti Nair – a Singaporean Indian comedian and YouTuber who goes by the name ‘Preetipls’ – and her brother Subhas Nair released an expletive-laden rap video that not only criticised the advertisement but went on to rail against the Chinese in Singapore and talked about casual racism against minorities in Singapore.
The siblings’ video drew backlash from the Government and was banned in Singapore. The Singapore Police Force (SPF) eventually issued a conditional warning to Preeti and Subhas.
Despite calling the E-pay advertisement “distasteful,” the SPF said that it would not take action against the company behind the advertisement even though a police report was made since the Attorney-General’s Chambers advised that no criminal offence had been committed.
Speaking at the OnePeople.sg Model United Nations opening ceremony at Yishun Innova Junior College yesterday (10 Dec), Ms Fu commented on the infamous NETS advertisement when a student asked her to share her view on how the Government had handled the situation.
The minister, who is among the ruling party’s fourth-generation leaders, said that the controversy showed the need to err on the side of caution and develop sensitivity and an understanding of when not to cross the line to avoid causing anger and ill-will to others.
Explaining that NETS was trying to show that one card can be used by everyone regardless of their backgrounds, Ms Fu said that the backlash against the advertisement showed how societal standards have shifted. She said:
“Does it make people angry, does it cause ill-will? If so, I think we should err on the side of caution…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.”
The minister, however, said that she personally did not find the advertisement problematic since Dennis Chew is known for cross-dressing and portraying multiple roles and since the characters he portrayed were not at all derogatory but “ordinary folks”.
The rap video, however, was “a different question” according to Ms Fu since it used profane language. Referring to the rap video, the minister asked:
“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?”
Ms Fu also pointed out that Preeti Nair had “made fun of Chinese New Year” in an earlier video, that could also have been considered insensitive.
Back in July, Ms Fu said that the NETS advertisement and the rap video serve as reminders that race relations in Singapore can never be taken for granted and is a constant work in progress. She said then: “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.”
At the Yishun Innova JC event yesterday, the ruling party politician added that she hopes there would not come a day when she would be told to stop wearing Indian saris and Malay sarong kebayas, that she wears from time to time, because of concerns over cultural appropriation:
“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…I would like to see that we are celebrating our diversity.”