Singapore, is racism really funny?

While most of the developed world fights for equality, inclusion and the rights of minorities, mocking other nationalities and racial stereotyping are still part of mainstream entertainment in the island nation. 

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“Leticia,” a Filipino domestic helper character is played by Singaporean Chinese actress Michelle Chong

This is something about Singapore humor and pop culture that has always bothered me. For a country that is in most ways as economically progressive and modern as any country in Western Europe…why all the mainstream racism?

In a new campaign, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower has decided to embark upon a campaign — ironically meant as a form of public service — casting a Singaporean-Chinese actress to play a dimwitted Filipina domestic helper. Chong does a heavy faux Filipino accent, speaks in a form of pidgin English and relates anecdotes about her servile role within a typical Singapore family. The performance reprises a character first created for Mediacorp TV show The Noose, aired on terrestrial Channel 5.

The campaign has already raised the eyebrows of two media trade media publications, Campaign and Mumbrella.

In any other country, would such a portrayal not be considered offensive? Apparently not in Singapore. It’s just par for the course. Don’t believe me?

Another racial stereotyped character on The Noose is Pornsak Sukhumvit, played by Singaporean-Chinese actor Chua En Lai. Pornsak is portrayed as a bumbling, effeminate reporter with an exaggerated Thai accent.

How would the typical Singaporean Chinese feel if a white actor put on a dark-haired wig and started mimicking a Singaporean accent on US television? We already know how Singaporeans reacted when an episode of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders portrayed Singapore in a less-than-flattering light. Suddenly here was a stereotype that turned the whole country thin-skinned!

UPDATE (26 Jan 2018): Domestic helpers react to MOM ad campaign.

Note: I have been an employee of Mediacorp since 2016. My opinions are my own and do not represent the company nor any other organization or  super-hero team with whom I may be affiliated.

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3 thoughts on “Singapore, is racism really funny?

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  1. In a way I have to defend this. In the case of Leticia Bongnino, there is a pretty bad choice between maids in Singapore being portrayed in this manner, and being completely invisible culturally. I think there is some level of awareness that it’s the employers of the maids who are being mocked, as much as the maids. I’m not sure that these guys will even see the light of day in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia and the UAE.

    Also, as somebody who remembers what the 90s in Singapore was like, this is a bit like progress. Back then, TV was dismal, there was no culture to speak of, and also I need to point out that half of the characters portrayed by Michelle Chong are caricatures of Singaporeans. Eventually we’ll need to progress from this, but the existence of these portrayals was already some form of progress.

    It’s true that Asians – including Singapore and Filipino – are thin skinned. In both cases, that’s a rather unfortunate thing.

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