It all started in July, when an advertisement of electronic payment service E-Pay, a Singapore government initiative, featured Chinese-Singaporean actor Dennis Chew dressed up as four characters, including an Indian character named K. Muthusamy. To portray him, Chew’s skin was artificially darkened. The use of brownface caused public backlash. The ad was plastered on leaflets, vouchers, posters, and online.
Among the many criticisms the commercial received, the one by YouTuber Preeti Nair, better known as Preetipls, and her brother, rapper Subhas Nair, received the most attention. Theirs came in the form of a video that remixed Iggy Azalea’s “Fuck It Up” with lyrics that spoke about discrimination in Singapore society.
The video has since been taken down but not before it went viral. Celebrities, the police, and politicians all weighed in on the video online, on TV interviews, and on various platforms. Everyone had their own take on the issue and, for the first time in a long time, the topic of racism was back in the nation’s discourse.
Their song had an infectious hook. “Fuck it up sis, keep fucking it up, Chinese people always out here fucking it up,” Preeti rapped while standing in front of one of E-Pay’s billboards. The video essentially criticised Chinese privilege, and the propagation of racial stereotypes against minorities, particularly discrimination against brown-skinned ethnicities. The Singaporean population is about 76% Chinese.
The Singaporean government did not take it well. Minister of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said the video needed to be taken down because it could lead to more videos that bash other races. “It worsens racism, not reduces it,” he said.
Preeti told VICE that the video was uploaded while she was on a flight to Bali, leaving her out of the loop on how things played out. She only found out that the video blew up when, in the middle of her vacation, a friend sent her a link to an article on how her video was being investigated by police.
She was not sure if it was a joke but it was later confirmed by an email from the government’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) which gave her three hours to delete every trace of the video online.
Then things got worse.
Preeti was detained at the airport upon returning to Singapore from her Bali trip. She was eventually released, but she spent the next morning at the police station answering questions from officers. Her brother Subhas and intern Wee San were also summoned for police questioning.
The controversy eventually led to an apology by advertising agency Havas, which created the E-Pay video. “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. He appears as characters from different walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that everyone can e-pay. We’re sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused.”
Preetipls and Subhas released their own apology on August 2, but not without shade. “The message behind this music video is that opportunities must be for everyone. For that reason, K. Muthusamy, well-known for his ability to address privilege, power, and censorship in a single production in a light-hearted way, was selected as the face of this music video,” they said, mirroring Havas’ apology.
“He speaks to characters from all walks of life in Singapore, bringing home the point that only some people truly pay. We’re sorry for any hurt that was unintentionally caused.”
Again, the government was not happy with the sarcasm. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) released a statement condemning the siblings for lyrics that were “blatantly false,” and alleging that their video was racist against the Chinese.
"This spoofing is a pretence of an apology, and in fact shows contempt for the many Singaporeans who expressed concern at their blatantly racist rap video," it said.
About the statement, Subhas told VICE: “When a ministry releases a public statement, what kind of license does it give people? When you imply someone is a liar and call someone a racist, you are giving license to everyone in Singapore to call these people those same words.”
The siblings eventually issued another apology.
“We unconditionally apologise for the tone, aggression, vulgarities, and gestures used in the K. Muthusamy (KM) music video. People are offended and we sincerely apologise for it. If we could do it over again, we would change the manner in which we approached this issue, and would have worded our thoughts better,” they said in a statement.
“We only wanted to spark a conversation and get corporations to stop painting people brown to portray a minority and instead simply hire a brown person because brown face is extremely offensive.”
The issue quieted down after the apology. The Nair siblings received a two-year conditional warning from the police under Section 298A(a) of the Penal Code, which covers offences that wound racial feelings. A conditional warning is usually given to first time offenders, and other offences during this period will likely lead to a charge.
Looking back, Preeti explained why they chose to spoof Havas’ statement. “It's been a lifetime of shitty apologies from people who have painted their face brown, it's been so exhausting. I wasn't going to let another shitty corporate apology go,” she told VICE.
Subhas said he didn’t want to apologise initially because, “I'm a rapper and this is what I do. I expected hip-hop to stand up."
"But I guess we aren’t built like that here. Apart from one rapper who reached out to Preeti, where was hip-hop? Where were our Singaporean artists? Musicians .gif stood up, Jeremy Monterio stood up. Most will accept grant money and work on government campaigns, but few ever speak up,” he said.
In their first interview since the controversy, Preeti and Subhas spoke with VICE about their initial intention for the video, how they felt when everything was playing out, and where they stand now.
VICE: Can you tell us more about how you made the video?
Preeti: I was chilling with Wee San, my intern, and my phone started blowing up because people were tagging me in this brown face advertisement.
So I see it and I roll my eyes. I'm not surprised at this point but I'm like “OK, this happened again.” Minutes later, Subhas walks into my room and says “Did you see this thing?” and says we should do a song. At first, I wanted to make a video like “10 Things That Happened in the Mediacorp Office To Get This Approved.” But then he said, “If it's not a song I don't want to do anything.” So I agreed.
Subhas: It's the most hip-hop thing to do, to use music to get people thinking, talking, and questioning power. I felt like it was a duty to make a song about it. This ad was cultural appropriation and exploitation yet again, but this time it was from a corporate level. I couldn’t let it go. I don't punch down, but I love punching up. It’s the reason I do what I do.
Seeing the K. Muthusamy character was a big “Fuck you” to me. So I said “Fuck it, let’s make this happen.” They were yet again taking our trappings, our names, and all the tropes of being brown to collect our brown dollars. My brownness doesn’t get washed away. So for me, it was like, let's reclaim this shit, this is my shit, my culture, my people, our names… it's us. Let's give this person life. You want to make a ‘K. Muthusamy’? Nah, bitch, I'm K. Muthusamy. So I went to Preeti and I said just give me a beat and I'll write to it.”
Preeti: So obviously, I picked Iggy's “Fuck It Up” because I love the song. It made so much sense because it says “Fuck It Up,” and in Iggy's context, it's a whole different thing, but if you hear it normally, you think to screw something up and make a mistake.
Did you expect the video to have such a big impact when you released it?
Preeti: We didn't hope for a certain outcome. I call out a lot of bullshit, so it was normal. I thought people would like it because it's a catchy song and it speaks the truth. I didn't have time to think of it much because I was on a flight when it was uploaded.
Subhas: I just did it for my people. I did this for people who look like me who may not be able to articulate their anger and frustration; those who needed a soundtrack to that feeling. They needed to know that artists like Preeti and myself are always going to use our platforms. When I spoke to the police, I told them, “If we didn't have a song like this, it could have been a lot worse. The slippery slope can go down both ways. It's not fair that you get to determine which side it goes.” You can't say this will lead to hundreds of videos, when this could also have become something actually dangerous if we did not have a tension release like this… this shit builds up.
How did it play out when the backlash hit?
Subhas: I was at my job, and I got texts and calls from a bunch of news outlets. Basically, I was learning a lot at the same time as the members of the public were. I was called down to the police station and they asked me for a lyric breakdown of the song. I told them I usually charge for a lyric breakdown, but I'm trying to avoid a charge, so I'll do this free of charge. I went down to the station at around seven and stayed ‘til midnight, so about 4 to 5 hours. The police acted quickly. They already had mini screengrab mugshots of all of us, our names and ID numbers. They had all our information, every single thing.
What happened once you were back in Singapore from Bali?
Preeti: I got home super late the next day and I expected to get detained at the airport, even though Subhas spoke to the police and they told him they wouldn’t stop me. The officers made me wait a good 40 minutes until they asked me to verify all the details of my trip. The next day, I went to the police station at 10 a.m. and they asked Subhas to come back for a follow-up statement. We were there for a total of nine hours that day. They asked me questions about my intentions, who came up with it, whose idea it was. I had a half-hour break for lunch before I had to dive into a full lyric breakdown. I had to explain each lyric and visual, and sometimes, the visual was us pointing a middle finger and I had to explain what it meant.
What was it like to be interrogated?
Preeti: They took my laptop, my phone, and my hard disk all for forensics. Like I killed someone. They downloaded all my data to another computer… Eventually, [the cop] went on to ask me if I was going to apologise. So I said that I was potentially willing to, but that I needed to discuss this with my brother.
The next day they called me again. I thought I could pick up my laptop but no, it was to check on our apology. I was so mad.
Subhas: When they asked me if I was willing to apologise, I said: "For what, Chinese fragility?"
What are your thoughts on people saying you were influenced by the politics in America?
Subhas: It's from here. The anger is from here.
Preeti: I don't think this song would have existed if I wasn't in Singapore. So it's very [unfair] to immediately try and disassociate from it and be like "Oh it has to be because of the pop culture references and the West references. We didn't teach this in school so we don't know where Preeti and Subhas learned this from."
Subhas: But then you listen to the radio, we don't say local radio stations borrow from the West when most of their airplay is American pop music. It’s sad because we have created this negative feedback loop where so many local artists try to sound or look like they are from somewhere else just to get recognition here. Besides, it’s so hypocritical that people say we are ‘influenced by the politics of America’.
Preeti: Also, I hate when they say brownface is Western. Like sure, the conceptual idea originated in America, but the act of painting yourself a different skin colour is fucked up. Can we acknowledge that? Whether it's blackface, brownface, yellowface or whiteface, it’s whack. You can't say brownface is not a Singaporean thing. You are making it a Singaporean thing by doing it.
What do you say to the people who said, "I've faced racism before in my life but it doesn't mean I am making these kinds of videos?"
Preeti: For people who are making that comment without cynicism and are genuinely affected by racism but are silenced by their situations, I, who have an independent platform, should say something… I have bills and rent to pay too sis, but some things are more important than money.
Subhas: Primarily, this system will always benefit the elite in society and make them richer. It's working at optimum efficiency right now. I'd tell these people who may not believe in what we do that it’s all a process. Many people are comfortable here. But there are a whole lot of people who have to suck it up their whole lives without expressing their sentiment. You don’t have to make videos or write raps. There are other ways to make change. And they are ways you are probably already making change in some way or form right now. We are political beings. There is no neutral.
It's scary being the only brown person in a Chinese dominant space, and there are far too many spaces like that. If someone is coming up after this and saying 'I face this and this but I don't speak about it. Why should you?' then you are complicit in your oppression. And that’s ok. Do what you need to do. There are power and privilege asymmetries between brown people too and I’m not necessarily focused on those people. I'm focused on the people who want to change business-as-usual. Because some things are simply not ok.
That's why I say it’s bigger than us. I grew up hating my Indian-ness because there was not much for me to look up to and aspire to be. Today, I'm living my best life because I love my sister, my mom, myself. I have forgiven myself and those around me. So by just existing and creating, we are fighting something bigger than us. That's why I did the second apology. It was unfair to the allies and to those standing in solidarity fighting those online battles.
What have you taken away from this experience?
Subhas: We must redefine what justice means in Singapore. If we are going to find a way forward, it starts with dialogue. If you are a creative in Singapore, there's nothing to fear. You will always have our voices, as we will always defend your right to have one. So even the people who called us and dissed us, do it. Say it.
Preeti: The amount of news that came out of this is insane. I put out two apologies, and sure call the first one a joke, but if you read it properly it makes a shit-ton of sense. And the second one, the most sincere apology I'll give in my entire life. Look at the comments in the post and the one after that. The amount of racism from people commenting on my skin colour and how I look. The best one was someone telling the government to revoke my PR status. I'm Singaporean, that's why I am angry.
Subhas: Not all skin folk are kinfolk. A lot of brown people have also been reaping so many benefits from this system.