Rap video criticising ‘brownface’ ad crossed the line by attacking Singaporean Chinese, says minister

In response to a video by rapper Subhas Nair and YouTuber Preeti Nair, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that it is not acceptable to use four-letter words and vulgar language to attack another race and put it out in public. ― Picture by Raj Nadarajan via TODAY
In response to a video by rapper Subhas Nair and YouTuber Preeti Nair, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said that it is not acceptable to use four-letter words and vulgar language to attack another race and put it out in public. ― Picture by Raj Nadarajan via TODAY

SINGAPORE, July 31 — A rap video, which called out a racially offensive advertisement, crossed the line because it contained vulgarities directed at Singaporean Chinese and could turn minorities against the majority community, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said.

His comments came yesterday after it emerged that the police were investigating the video.

He added that the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA) has also asked Facebook to take down the three-minute video by Singapore rapper Subhas Nair and YouTuber Preeti Nair, who goes by the username Preetipls.

TODAY understands that the duo, who are siblings, agreed to take down the video and this was done at about 5.45pm, so Facebook did not have to step in.

In response to media queries, IMDA said that it has assessed that the video “constitutes prohibited content under the Internet Code of Practice” and is “objectionable on grounds of public interest and national harmony”. 

In an interview with the media, soon after police said a report had been made against the video for its “offensive content”, Shanmugam said: “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’.” 

TODAY understands that the police are investigating the case under Section 298 of the Penal Code, which covers uttering words with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any individual. It carries a punishment of up to three years in prison, or a fine, or both.

“This rap video insults Chinese Singaporeans and uses four letter words on Chinese Singaporeans, vulgar gestures — pointing of middle fingers — to make minorities angry with Chinese Singaporeans," Shanmugam said.

He said that questions might be raised as to why the authorities are taking the video so seriously, as some might argue that it was unlikely to trigger violence. Others might also laugh it off, he added.

“Maybe so, but think of it as: If we allow this, then we have to allow other videos. There can be then hundreds of such videos. You allow one, you have to allow a hundred. What do you think will happen to our racial harmony, social fabric; how will people look at each other?” he asked.

"And suppose you allow this video, let’s say a Chinese now does a video attacking Indians, Malays using four-letter words, vulgar gestures, same kind of videos, and let’s say there are hundreds or thousands of such videos, how do you think the Indians and the Malays will feel? Would people feel safe? Would the minorities feel safe?"

He added: “We will not allow it, not this government. When you put out statements that wound racial, religious feelings, that’s an offence in Singapore. I’ve asked the police to investigate, we cannot allow these sorts of attacks.”

It is not a defence, Shanmugam said, to say that the video was made in response to “something that I didn’t like”.

“Something that you didn’t like, then you ask for an apology. If you think it is criminal, you make a police report. You don’t yourself cross the line.”

The controversy was sparked by an advertisement for Singapore electronic payments provider Nets, which had engaged Havas Worldwide as its creative agency for a publicity campaign for E-Pay. Havas, in turn, engaged artiste Dennis Chew, who is with Mediacorp’s celebrity management arm The Celebrity Agency, as the face of the campaign.

In the ad, Chew is dressed up as four characters, including a Malay woman wearing a traditional headdress and an Indian man. To portray these characters, Chew’s skin was made up to look darker. 

Preeti and Subhas then posted their video on Monday morning, in which they take turns to criticise the ad for its use of "brownface", racial discrimination and lack of real minority representation.

Speaking to reporters at the Ministry of Law, Shanmugam also criticised the advertisement as distasteful.

“You need the cultural sensitivity. 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.”

There are good reasons why Singapore is different, he stressed. Chief among them is the existence of racial harmony here, which allows all races, including minorities, to feel safe, Shanmugam said. “And we must maintain that. We will maintain that,” he added.

Asked whether action could be taken against those responsible for the advertisement, Shanmugam said that he had consulted lawyers, who told him that there is no criminal offence involved.

Responding to whether the majority Chinese ought to be more racially sensitive, Shanmugam said that “all will have to be racially sensitive — majority as well as minority”.

“It is in fact in the interests of the minorities to be sensitive as well. Because if you attack, you must expect counter attacks. For us, the law applies equally whether you’re a majority or minority.

He continued: “We all have to treat each other with respect, with courtesy, so that we create a better environment for everyone. So, it behoves the majority, it behoves the minority, everyone to be sensitive and sensible.” ― TODAY

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