An ethnically Chinese actor who allegedly darkened his skin to portray characters of different races in an advertisement has sparked a “brownface” controversy in multi-ethnic Singapore.
Part of a government initiative to promote electronic payments, the ad features actor Dennis Chew, from the city state broadcaster Mediacorp, dressed as four characters, including what appears to be a Malay woman wearing a headscarf.
It has since been taken down.
Singapore is known for being a well-integrated, multiracial society. Its population is more than 75% ethnically Chinese, 15% ethnic Malay and 7% ethnic Indian, according to the Singaporean Prime Minister’s Office.
Critics online have questioned why Malay actors were not hired to portray themselves in the ad.
“Brownface in a Singaporean ad in 2019. I thought we already went over this,” posted Ruby Thiagarajan, editor-in-chief of a Singaporean cultural magazine.
Another Twitter user asked: “They could’ve hired an artist for every single race?? Is it really that hard?”
But some defended the ad, with one Twitter user posting: “As a Malay I find this funny. We also play Chinese characters from time to time, so I don’t really feel offended.”
Havas Worldwide, the agency hired to create the ad, and Mediacorp’s talent management group, The Celebrity Agency, have since apologized for the controversy.
“The message behind this advertising campaign is that e-payment is for everyone,” Havas Worldwide and The Celebrity Agency (TCA) said in a joint statement to CNN.
“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.”
The Singapore incident follows a number of recent “blackface” controversies.
In February, pop star Katy Perry’s namesake brand faced a backlash for two shoe designs that resembled blackface, while Gucci apologized for a black sweater that featured large red lips. American fashion model Gigi Hadid also faced criticism last year for her allegedly darkened appearance on the cover of Vogue Italia.