The year is 2019, yet brands and agencies still haven't learned that using face makeup to portray people of colour tends to go badly.
In the latest example, e-payments website E-Pay hired Singaporean-Chinese Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew to portray multiple characters including a Singaporean-Indian man by artificially darkening his face. The name on the character’s lanyard read K.Muthusamy. The ad also featured Chew as a Singaporean-Malay woman in a tudung, and a Chinese man and woman.
Havas, the agency responsible for the ad, issued a joint statement with Mediacorp's celebrity management arm The Celebrity Agency (TCA) following the entirely predictable social-media outrage:
"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 light-hearted way, was selected as the face of the campaign. He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay. We’re sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused. Behind the ad is an initiative to provide greater convenience to consumers, merchants and small food businesses."
The statement failed to acknowledge the use of brownface and the repercussions of it.
At present time, the characters have been taken down from the E-Pay site except for the Singaporean-Chinese man. However, the ad featuring all four characters still hangs at the Maxwell Food Centre, and the images still appear on Chew’s Instagram feed.
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In 2016, Mediacorp found itself in a similar predicament when its online TV service Toggle used a Singaporean-Chinese actor in blackface to portray a black man.
At the time, Mediacorp issued a half apology which highlighted a lack of understanding around the dangerous repercussions of blackface. The apology read: "The scene has been perceived as racially insensitive by some viewers, although that was never our intention in the production". The broadcasting giant was also fined SG$5,500 (US$4,012) by Infocomm Media Development Authority.
It’s not uncommon for Singaporean actors to portray other races in local productions (think the famous Gurmit Singh portraying a Chinese man in hit show Phua Chu Kang), but the reaction on social media to the E-Pay incident suggests that many still think that artificially darkening one’s face for a production is not racist.
It's undeniable that some dark-skinned Singaporean-Indians and migrants are victims of institutionalised discrimination that benefits majority races. One frustrated user said on Facebook as a reaction to the ad: "Singapore media is willing to go through such lengths to have CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) representation, even if it means having one Chinese actor play all the different groups... Brownface in Singapore punches down. We know what darker-skinned folk have to endure."
This article first appeared on PRWeek sister title CampaignAsia