THE EASY WAY
TAP OR SCAN, ALL ALSO CAN
Meal times should be convenient and hassle-free. With a wide range of e-payments, there are easier ways to pay for your food. Try it now in selected coffee shops, hawker centres and industrial canteens.
Screenshot sourced from Channel News Asia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/nets-apologises-e-pay-ad-campaign-race-11771224
In today’s diverse age, countries all across the world love to brand themselves as “cultural melting-pots”. Some countries will take every opportunity they can to point out the wide varieties of local culture and custom present, like peacocks baring their multi-coloured feathers. One country in particular that arguably has a stronger claim to diversity than most is Singapore. On Singapore’s streets, in Singapore’s hawker centres, road names, schools, religious buildings – the evidence of cultural diversity can be clearly seen. Singapore’s racial diversity is so often discussed, it is summarised by the handy (if problematic) Colonial-era initialism of CMIO – referring to the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other populations present on the island. However, with racial diversity and a celebration of difference also comes the looming issue of racial tensions. As Singapore grows more diverse, tensions also increase, and the Singaporean government has attempted to stymie this issue with political speeches, racial harmony days and all sorts of racial events – meagre bandaids slapped on wounds to placate growing dissent. Singapore’s cultural sensitivity issues run deeper than can be solved by these meaningless platitudes – what’s needed is an honest discussion and breakdown of the long held assumptions and stereotypes present across the various peoples of Singapore. Whilst this mere thinkpiece could not hope to even begin approaching a solution to the deep seated racial issues in Singapore, perhaps it can bring about at least a small conversation around these larger issues through an exploration of a text that is in some ways a microcosm of the racial environment in Singapore.
To begin with: an investigation of the text. On the surface, studying only the text part of the text (its words) it is an innocent, maybe even gently humorous take on encouraging more Singaporeans to use an E-Pay system as an alternative payment option. The main tagline of the ad, with it’s fun little rhymes, is intended to reflect the colloquial accent and grammatical habits of Singaporeans speaking English. “ALL ALSO CAN” appears like bad English to the Western reader, but to those speaking English within Singapore with other Singaporeans, it is simply the local vernacular, or “Singlish”. The rest of the ad addresses the use of E-Pay within the context of paying for a meal. Food is of paramount importance to Singaporean culture as a whole, and “coffee shops, hawker centres and industrial canteens” are all rather local places to get food – the preferred eateries of the Singaporean everyman. This ad immediately reads like an appeal to the regular citizen of Singapore. With this in mind, let us now turn to the problem child of this ad – the image. If you don’t look to closely, it appears to be a portrayal of three of the four CMIO race groups in Singapore – an Indian man, a Malay woman, a Chinese man and a Chinese woman. The controversy is of course that if one inspects the piece further, it becomes apparent that these four people are portrayed by one man – a local Chinese actor by the name of Dennis Chew.
When one has recovered from the shock of seeing an ad so potentially fraught with issues (that was somehow approved by the large PR firms presumably under the employ of NETS and its associated banks), one may begin to attempt to placate those angry. Yes, perhaps this was less than ideal, and a little insulting, but this was simply a dumb mistake by a company. It’s not as big a deal as it’s being made out to be. This view is unfortunately ignorant of the deeper issues in play with this portrayal. It is not merely an insensitive decision, but an uncovering of the deeper racial issues in Singapore. Portraying the other races with a Chinese man communicates the inherent bias towards the Chinese race present in Singapore in two ways. One, it treats the Chinese race as the “blank canvas” of races in Singapore – on which the fun, extraneous cultures of the other races are painted on. The default race is Chinese, and the other races are simply add ons. Nice to have, but ultimately unnecessary as parts of Singapore. Two, in this ad so clearly addressed to the regular people of Singapore, the Chinese man alone is present – thus implying that the regular citizen of Singapore is, on average, a Chinese man, and all others are deviations from the norm, even second class citizens. More problematic inferences can be made from this image if one chooses to look for them – for example, that the Chinese man is dressed for a white collar job, whereas the Indian man appears to be dressed for blue collar work; that the hijab can apparently be worn by just about anyone, downgrading its status from important religious symbol to a fun costume; that an expatriate is missing because they are rich, elitist and therefore not in any way sympathetic towards the regular Singaporean citizen.
Of course, one can claim that in reading so far into this ad, we’ve already put infinitely more thought into this ad than the firm that produced it clearly did, and that unnecessarily probing so far into it is equivalent to simply searching for reasons to be offended. And if one was to consider this ad in a vacuum, away from Singapore, this might be a valid viewpoint. But these inferences arise not from the ad on its own, but from the ad being placed in the context of Singapore’s cultural background and racial tensions. On its own, the ad is perhaps a little degrading. But in the context of majority Chinese Singapore, this ad is less creating an issue than it is voicing the underlying attitudes and assumptions made in Singapore – Chinese is default and normal, all else is deviation from the norm. Earlier in this piece, I noted that this ad would appear as a microcosm of the larger race issues of Singapore, and here we can see that clearly. The issue is not the ad, or the brownface, or the man wearing a hijab. The issue is that the fact that the firm considered those actions as tantamount to the norm in Singapore is revelatory of the racial attitudes in Singapore that need to be changed.
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