SINGAPORE: Financial services firm NETS has apologised for a recent advertisement of its electronic payments campaign E-Pay, which drew a backlash online for its stereotypical portrayals of the different races in Singapore.
"NETS would like to apologise for any hurt that its campaign has caused," the company said in a statement on Thursday (Aug 1).
In the ad, Mediacorp actor and deejay Dennis Chew, who is Chinese, appeared in "brownface" - the act of darkening one's fair skin to mimic that of another race - as an Indian character and as a Malay woman wearing a headscarf. It also showed him cross-dressing as a Chinese woman.
NETS said the intent of the campaign "was to communicate that e-payment is for everyone".
It added: "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."
Amid the online flak, local Internet star Preeti Nair, who goes by the name Preetipls, posted an online video on Monday in response to the ad. Police on Tuesday said it was investigating the video for "offensive content", after a report was lodged against it.
In the video shot outside a food court featuring the e-payment ad, Ms Preeti and her brother Subhas rapped about racial stereotypes faced by the Indian and minority communities in Singapore.
The video was laced with profanity, targeting the Chinese.
It was watched more than 40,000 times on Facebook. It was also uploaded on YouTube and a portion of it was posted on Instagram.
The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) issued a takedown for the video on the three online platforms, saying that it "is objectionable on grounds of public interest and national harmony".
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday that a line has to be drawn on videos that "attack another race".
“This rap video insults Chinese Singaporeans, uses four-letter words on Chinese Singaporeans. Vulgar gestures, pointing of middle finger to make minorities angry with Chinese Singaporeans,” Mr Shanmugam told reporters.
"When you use four-letter words, vulgar language, attack another race, put it out in public, we have to draw the line and say not acceptable."
Mr Shanmugam said he could also understand the flak received by the E-pay ad.
“You need the cultural sensitivity,” he said. “You have a Chinese brown out the face and pass off as an Indian or Malay, there's going to be a lot of distaste. Similar things have happened in other countries and really should have taken a reference from that to see how people will react.”
NETS had engaged creative agency HAVAS Worldwide for the publicity campaign, who then engaged Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm, The Celebrity Agency, to cast Chew as the face of the campaign.
Both HAVAS Worldwide and The Celebrity Agency have apologised 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 light-hearted way, was selected as the face of the campaign,” the agencies said in a statement on Monday.
In an additional statement issued on Thursday, HAVAS Worldwide said it "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," the agency added.
"Our multicultural society defines us as a nation, and we regret if anyone has been offended by the campaign.”
Mediacorp has said on Tuesday that the portrayal of some races in the advertisement was “done in an insensitive fashion”.
“We take full responsibility and apologise unreservedly,” it added. “We will have more stringent safeguards in place to prevent a repeat of such a mistake.”