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S M Ong
The New Paper
Aug 5, 2019
Dear Dennis Chew,
How are you doing, man?
Congratulations on playing Aunty Lucy for all these years. Who knew you could build a career on ripping off Jack Neo's Liang Xi Mei?
What a week it has been, right? It seems like everyone and their ad agencies have been apologising as a result of that E-Pay ad you did. Some more than once.
Well, everyone except you.
Your employer Mediacorp and the creative agency Havas Worldwide said in a joint statement on July 28: "We're sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused.
"The message behind this advertising campaign is that e-payment is for everyone. For that reason, Dennis Chew, well-known for his ability to portray multiple characters in a single production in a lighthearted way, was selected as the face of the campaign."
In this case, "everyone" in the ad meant Chinese men in drag and/or brownface holding a plate of food. That seems like a rather tiny demographic.
How does it feel to be the face of a lighthearted racist campaign?
Nets, one of the organisations behind E-Pay, also apologised "for any hurt that its campaign has caused".
Then Havas apologised again while Mediacorp released a separate statement: "The portrayal of some races in the advertisement was done in an insensitive fashion. We take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly."
YouTubers Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas also apologised for their video made in response to the ad. This was after Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam criticised both the ad and the video - but the video more harshly.
However, the siblings' apology was called out by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) as "mock, insincere" because it was "a spoof of an earlier apology issued by Havas".
So the video makers apologised again on Saturday, this time using the words "sincerely" and "unconditionally". MHA has yet to respond.
On the same day, writer Edwin Yeo apologised after writing an article for the Singapore Kindness Movement that said "casual racism" was "okay", among other things. Et tu, Singapore Kindness Movement?
That is like seven apologies in seven days over one thing. It must be a record of some sort.
I am still waiting for apologies from Enterprise Singapore, National Environment Agency, Housing Board and JTC Corporation. They are the other organisations behind the E-Pay initiative, along with Nets.
They must be wondering what the hell they got themselves into.
Here they are, just trying to get people to use a card or phone instead of cash to pay for stuff, and suddenly they're enmeshed in this messy debate about racism and majority privilege in Singapore because of one ad.
All they want is for you to pay for your prata with a QR code, no brownface required.
Now E-Pay will forever be associated with being racist. I believe some drastic rebranding is in order.
And, of course, another missing apology is from the brownface that started it all - yours.
But was it really your fault? You were probably only following Mediacorp's orders, right?
I mean, did James Lye ever say sorry for VR Man?
Would an apology make a difference anyway? Even a sincere, unconditional one?
While some have hailed the Nair siblings as champions for the under-represented, you'll always be the Chinese guy who wore brownface in that ad no matter what.
Perhaps you can take comfort in the careers of your Mediacorp colleagues Shane Pow and Desmond Tan, which seem to have survived, if not thrived, since they were separately called out for wearing blackface in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Both are still starring in TV shows on Channel 8 like nothing happened.
But then Pow and Tan didn't appear in an ad that was described as "in poor taste" by the Law and Home Affairs Minister. Yikes.
Oh well, you still got Aunty Lucy.
Hope I don't have to apologise for this column.