YOU WOULD never guess that Singapore has just celebrated Racial Harmony Day. An offensive advert for a government service has kicked off a debate here about how ethnic Chinese, who make up around three-quarters of the population, treat minorities, most of whom are of Malay or Indian descent. The government weighed in after two ethnic Indians made a racially provocative music video attacking the advert. Its heavy-handed response suggests it is not as unprejudiced as it thinks.
The trouble began with an ad campaign for E-pay, a government e-payment system. It depicted Dennis Chew, an ethnic Chinese actor, dressed up as four people, apparently intended to represent a cross-section of Singapore’s multi-ethnic society: a Chinese labourer, a Malay woman wearing a headscarf, a fashionable Eurasian woman and an Indian office-worker. For the latter, Mr Chew’s face was darkened. Havas, the agency behind the advert, said this was intended to convey the idea that “e-payment is for everyone”.
Preeti Nair and her brother Subhas saw something else: a Chinese man in “brownface”. On July 29th the Nairs’ music video, in which they chant “Chinese people always fucking it up”, went viral. Within hours of being posted on Facebook it had been viewed more than 40,000 times.
The government’s response was swift. It ordered YouTube and...