NETS E-Pay "Brownface" Saga (2019)

From Wiki.sg
Jump to: navigation, search

As part of its new unified electronic payment campaign, NETS released an advertisement on the E-pay website that had also been printed on banners. The advertisement drew heavy criticism from the public for its insensitive portrayal of Singapore’s racial minorities. The advertisement propelled a satirical video by siblings Preeti Nair and Subhas Nair, triggering a series of discussions on race issues and sensitivity in Singapore.

Mediacorp had been called out once before in 2016 for Shane Pow's use of blackface in a Toggle web-series.

NETS E-Pay Advertisement

The NETS advertising campaign where actor Dennis Chew portrayed characters of different races. Photo from YAHOO!
Dennis Chew as the character K. Muthusamy.

On 26 July 2019, NETS E-Pay advertisement was called out on social media for using “brownface” to depict a minority race.[1] “Brownface” is understood as the act of darkening one’s skin to mimic another race, at times for a caricature effect.


The artist featured in the advertisement, Mediacorp actor Dennis Chew, was dressed up as four characters that appeared to represent Singapore’s racial category: a Chinese lady, a Malay lady, an Indian man and a Chinese man. In his portrayal of a Malay lady, he wore a baju kurung and a headdress. In his portrayal of an Indian man, his skin was artificially darkened to depict the character of K. Muthusamy.


The advertisement was heavily criticised by various members of the public for its “poor taste” and for displaying “racial insensitivity”.[2] It was eventually taken down from the E-pay website by 28 July.

Apology statements

On 28 July 2019, Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm The Celebrity Agency and  Havas Worldwide Singapore, the company engaged in the production of the advertisement, issued a joint apology. Their statements read:[3]

"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 business.”

On 30 July, Mediacorp issued a second statement which says:[4]

"The portrayal of some races in the advertisement was done in an insensitive fashion. We take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly. We will have more stringent safeguards in place to prevent a repeat of such a mistake."

On 31 July, Havas Worldwide released its second apology:[5]

"Havas Worldwide Singapore would like to apologise for any hurt caused by the recent campaign to communicate that e-payment is for everyone.

The message behind the campaign is that e-payment is for people across all age groups and demographics. Our multicultural society defines us as a nation, and we regret if anyone has been offended by the campaign."

On 1 August, NETS issued its official statement regarding the incident:[6]

"NETS would like to apologise for any hurt that its campaign has caused.

The intent of the campaign was to communicate that e-payment is for everyone. The campaign was in connection with the unified e-payment initiative, a multi-agency effort led by Enterprise Singapore, where NETS was appointed as the master acquirer to handle payment transactions and drive adoption of e-payment in small food businesses."


Actor Dennis Chew also released an apology statement on 7 August 2019, stating that he "felt terrible about how things turned out".[7]

Preetipls rap video

A screengrab from Prettipls' response video to the NETS E-pay advertisement.
A screengrab of the petition urging CNA to reconsider the removal of Subhas Nair from the documentary.

In response to the E-Pay advertisement, YouTuber Preeti Nair (moniker Preetipls) and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair posted a video on Facebook on 29 July 2019. The video criticised the E-Pay advertisement for allegedly subscribing to racial stereotypes and the use of “brownface”. The satirical video, that included expletives, was intended to raise issues of racial discrimination and the lack of minority representation.[8]


Subsequently, on 30 July, a police report was lodged against the video for portraying “offensive content” towards another race.[9] It was reported that the police would investigate the case under Section 298 of the Penal Code which charges those who deliberately wound the religious or racial feelings of others. Under the Code, the individual would be punished with imprisonment for a term of not more than 3 years or fined, or both.[10]

Government response

According to the Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, the expletives used in the video was directed at Singaporean Chinese and “could turn minorities against the majority community”. Thus, as a pre-emptive action, there was a need for the government to step in to prevent similar videos from sprouting on social media sites.[11]


Following analysis, the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) noted that it “constitutes prohibited content under the Internet Code of Practice” and was assessed as offensive “on grounds of public interest and national harmony”. The IMDA also asked the siblings and Facebook to take down the video while advising other netizens to stop sharing and re-uploading it. Minister Shanmugam also criticised the NETS advertisement, citing that the use of ‘brownface’ was “done in poor taste”.[12]

Community leaders’ response

Community leaders empathised with the hurt felt by minority groups from the NETS advertisement. However, they agreed that Preetipls’ video could trigger a tit-for-tat action that would affect the relationship between the different races. These leaders called for “more intercultural literacy across all levels of society”. They urged for more open discussions and to seek clarity and understanding of the different races.[13][14]

Subhas Nair’s removal from CNA documentary

On 31 July, it was reported that Subhas Nair was removed from a musical documentary by Channel News Asia as a result of his involvement in the video. The documentary titled “Roar” initially featured 4 Singaporean musicians - Benjamin Kheng, Aisyah Aziz, Wang Weiliang and Subhas Nair. In the past, Subhas worked with Migrants Band Singapore, a band made up of foreign workers.[15]


His removal led to a petition on the website change.org which urged CNA to reconsider their decision. As of 1 August, more than 1,400 people had signed the petition.[16] CNA did not reconsider its position and the musical documentary continued with its planned premiere on 3 and 4 August.[17]

The Nair siblings’ apology

On 2 August, the Nair siblings posted an apology on their Instagram and Facebook accounts:[18]

"The message behind this music video is that opportunities must be for everyone. For that reason, K. Muthusamy, well-known for his ability to address privilege, power, and censorship in a single production in a light-hearted way, was selected as the face of this music video. He speaks to characters from all walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that only some people truly pay.

We’re sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused. Behind the music video is an initiative to provide greater consciousness to consumers, corporations, and the many faces of Singapore."

Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) response

The MHA slammed the “pretence of an apology”, citing that the references made showed “contempt for the many Singaporeans who have expressed concern at their blatantly racist rap”. The Ministry reiterated that the video was “not the first time the siblings have expressed ‘racist sentiments’” and cited examples from Preetipls’ videos and Subhas’ lyrics.[19]


In response, the siblings uploaded a second statement, apologising “unconditionally” for the rap video. In their statement, both noted that they would have approached the issue of ‘brownface’ differently and worded their opinions better if they could do it over again.[20] The siblings refuted MHA’s claims that they had expressed racist sentiments in previous material. They noted that MHA had taken their works out of context, which, in turn, dissociates them from the artists’ original intentions.[21]

ASAS advertising recommendation

Following the incident, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) planned to issue a recommendation to advertisers and marketers to “take special care when their projects involve race and ethnicity”. While they did rule that the NETS advertisement did not breach guidelines because there were no ill-intentions behind its production, ASAS noted that more could be done to prevent a repeat of this saga. The new recommendation would highlight “the potential sensitivities involved if race and ethnicity are (used) in campaigns”.[22] As of 4 August 2019, the wording of the recommendation was still under review.

References/ Citations

  1. Faris Joraimi. Facebook. July 26, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/DarthFaris/posts/10220499270498316
  2. Faris Mokhtar and Kimberly Lam. “‘Brownface’ controversy: Society needs to do better, tit-for-tat is not the way, say govt and community leader”. Today Online. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/brownface-controversy-society-needs-do-better-tit-tat-not-way-say-govt-and-community
  3. “NETS apologises for ‘any hurt’ caused by controversial E-Pay ad”. Channel News Asia. August 1, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nets-apologises-e-pay-ad-campaign-race-11771224
  4. “NETS apologises for ‘any hurt’ caused by controversial E-Pay ad”. Channel News Asia. August 1, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nets-apologises-e-pay-ad-campaign-race-11771224
  5. “Havas issues new apology over E-Pay ‘brownface’ ad: ‘We regret if anyone has been offended’”. Channel News Asia. August 1, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/havas-apology-brownface-ad-nets-dennis-chew-preetipls-11773008
  6. “NETS apologises for ‘hurt’ caused by e-payment ad”. Today Online. August 1, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/nets-apologises-hurt-caused-e-payment-ad'
  7. "'I feel terrible': Dennis Chew apologises over controversial E-Pay ad". Channel News Asia. August 7, 2019. Accessed on 8 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/dennis-chew-apologises-over-controversial-e-pay-ad-11789480
  8. Ong, Justin Guang-Xi. “Police investigating ‘offensive’ rap video directed at e-payment ad”. Today Online. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/police-report-made-against-rap-video-directed-e-payment-ad
  9. Ong, Justin Guang-Xi. “Police investigating ‘offensive’ rap video directed at e-payment ad”. Today Online. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/police-report-made-against-rap-video-directed-e-payment-ad
  10. “Section 298. Penal Code”. Singapore Statutes Online. November 30, 2008. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/PC1871?ProvIds=pr298-.
  11. Faris Mokhtar and Kimberly Lam. “ ‘Brownface’ controversy: Society needs to do better, tit-for-tat is not the way, say govt and community leader”. Today Online. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/brownface-controversy-society-needs-do-better-tit-tat-not-way-say-govt-and-community
  12. Faris Mokhtar and Kimberly Lam. “ ‘Brownface’ controversy: Society needs to do better, tit-for-tat is not the way, say govt and community leader”. Today Online. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/brownface-controversy-society-needs-do-better-tit-tat-not-way-say-govt-and-community
  13. Co, Cindy. “ ‘ Two wrongs don’t make a right’: Ministers, religious leaders on rap video and ‘brownface’ ad”. Channel News Asia. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/preetipls-ministers-religious-leaders-rap-video-brownface-ad-11766998
  14. Faris Mokhtar and Kimberly Lam. “ ‘Brownface’ controversy: Society needs to do better, tit-for-tat is not the way, say govt and community leader”. Today Online. July 30, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/brownface-controversy-society-needs-do-better-tit-tat-not-way-say-govt-and-community
  15. Lim, Adrian. “Nets and Havas apologise for hurt caused by ‘brownface’ ad, advertising authority says it did not breach guideline”. The Straits Times. August 1, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/nets-apologises-for-hurt-caused-by-brownface-advertising-campaign
  16. Lim, Adrian. “Nets and Havas apologise for hurt caused by ‘brownface’ ad, advertising authority says it did not breach guideline”. The Straits Times. August 1, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/nets-apologises-for-hurt-caused-by-brownface-advertising-campaign
  17. “Rapper Subhas Nair removed from CNA musical documentary over ‘offensive’ rap video”. Today Online. July 31, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/rapper-subhas-nair-removed-cna-musical-documentary-over-offensive-rap-video
  18. Preetipls. Instagram. August 2, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/B0pnsWblhNb/
  19. Low Youjin. “MHA slams ‘mock, insincere apology’ by YouTuber Preetipls and rapper Subhas Nair”. Today Online. August 2, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/mha-slams-mock-insincere-apology-youtuber-preetipls-and-rapper-subhas-nair
  20. Preetipls. Instagram. August 3, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/B0sUiDllKYe/
  21. Preetipls. Instagram. August 3, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/B0sUiDllKYe/
  22. Adrian Lim. “Guideline to ensure careful use of race, ethnicity in ads”. The Straits Times. August 4, 2019. Accessed 6 August 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/guideline-to-ensure-careful-use-of-race-ethnicity-in-ads