Did MOM do right by playing up domestic helper stereotype in campaign?

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has partnered with celebrity Michelle Chong to remind employers not to keep the salaries of their foreign domestic workers on their behalf.

This saw Chong reprising her role as “Leticia Bongnino” from the TV series The Noose, and sharing a story about how the actions of her employer withholding her salary impacted her day to day life.

While likely made with good intentions, the use of Chong’s “Leticia Bongnino” character raised several eyebrows in the ad industry. This was because in the video, Chong was seen playing the role of a Filipino domestic worker with a heavily emphasised accent. Chong’s character has also been known to exhibit certain stereotypes associated with domestic workers, such as having a boyfriend of Bangladeshi descent and also portrayed as someone who congregates at Filipino-frequented areas such as Jollibee, a Filipino fast food brand.

In a conversation with Marketing, Robert Gaxiola, creative director/co-founder of manghamgaxiola mcgarrybowen said that while he liked The Noose, as well as Chong’s work, this is one character that made him feel a little uneasy, despite knowing the show is a satire.

“This is a curious move by MOM. I liked The Noose myself. But I always wondered how public television in Singapore would allow this character to carry on as long as it has. I don’t know if we’d see the same kind of character using an Indian, Malay or mainland Chinese person,” Gaxiola explained. He added:

I am very curious how domestic workers feel about her accent and characterisation of a domestic worker from the Philippines. Do they think it is re-enforcing a stereotype or do they think it is funny?

“For arguments sake, what if we see a Chinese person doing a similar act as an Indian in black face with a heavy accent? Is that more or less racist than this character’s portrayal of a Filipino? If it isn’t okay to do it to Malays, Indians, and those classified as ‘others’, then it should not be appropriate for any other race. Especially one with so little a voice,” Gaxiola explained.

Also weighing in on the topic was Farrokh Madon, chief creative partner at J Walter Thompson Singapore. Madon explained that while playing off stereotypes is never desirable, it is also one of the most common devices used by stand-up comedians in the world. This includes Chris Rock, Russell Peters, Singapore’s own Kumar and a whole lot more. He added:

The important thing to consider is whether this is just for a laugh at someone’s expense. Or is it using humour to get us to rethink our preconceived notions.

For Madon in this case, it is the latter and the message is getting across to large portions of the population. For him, the eyebrow-raising bit isn’t the type of humour, but the fact that viewers live in a society where campaigns need to be run to give workers the rights they should have had from day one.

Patrick Low, founder and creative partner at Goodfellas Consultancy, also said that at first glance, he thought the video was a sitcom from Mediacorp. But it turned out to be a video on employers withholding their employees’ salary. He added that given the seriousness of the topic and the fact that most of the domestic helpers are from the Philippines, employing a Chinese comedian to act as a Filipino is not a wise casting decision.

“It’s as insensitive as having a white comedian mimicking an African American highlighting racial inequality. The video would have been more believable and effective if a Filipino actress had been hired instead,” Low explained.

Fiona Bartholomeusz, MD of Formul8, said that while she understands the bigger picture that MOM was putting across, along with using humour to gain better traction, the execution was so stereotyped. It was also quite unnecessary to make her sound like such a simpleton, she explained.

She added that if another race in Singapore was mocked with similar portrayals, there would probably have been a huge outcry because it is insensitive. It would have also come across as picking on a marginalised race.

“It is quite derogatory to have a Singaporean play a stereotypical character with such an exaggerated accent for a national campaign and I was actually quite surprised to learn that it was endorsed by a government entity. MOM need to be cognisant and more self aware of the day and age we happen to exist in,” Bartholomeusz said.

As such, more care needs to be taken in how races are portrayed in the media, more so ones that are integral to many families in Singapore. Even though the video was targeted at employers and not the domestic helpers themselves, it can also perpetuate the myth that most domestic helpers are like Chong’s character.

“I’m pretty sure this video has been seen by the Filipino community and it really does set us back in all our efforts to promote racial integration,” Bartholomeusz added.

Stereotypes such as this are so overdone. It might have worked 20 years ago, but times have changed and we have to recognise that there are many domestic helpers who are well educated and fairly articulate and are only here because of their life circumstances.

Agreeing with Bartholomeusz was Joan Lim, ACD of Wild, who added that while this video may be effective in reaching out to employers, who are the target audience of the spot, the delivery cannot disregard the sentiment of Filipino domestic helpers.

“This is especially when MOM is a governmental body who supports both the employer and the helper. As such, the video needs to consider both audiences as the stereotypical image may not sit well with helpers,” Lim added.

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