Fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam gets flak for 'insensitive' ethnic comments

A file photo of Chinese-Indian fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam, taken in 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Local fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam is in hot water after a video of her speaking on her designs and making allegedly racist remarks sparked outrage on the Internet.

In a two-minute snippet that has been circulating online, the 40-year-old founder of womenswear label Ong Shunmugam - known for its modern spins on cheongsam - is seen giving her views on cultural dressing at a panel discussion organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum.

When asked by the panel why her brand has more ethnic Chinese wear, she opined that "historically, and even today, Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further than their Malay and Indian counterparts".

She said her research showed Chinese women were the first Asian women to shake hands with men as it was more culturally acceptable for them to do so. They were also quick to adopt Western dressing such as mini skirts, she added.

"I think as a designer, I can only say that when I play around with the cheongsam, I feel, not that there are less restrictions, but that I can have more fun, and that Chinese women are more receptive," she added.

Many netizens also took offence to the questions the designer - who is of Chinese and Indian parentage - raised about Malay and Indian women.

"Were Malay women allowed by their husbands, fathers or brothers, to dress a certain way? To go out and work?... And we can also ask the same about Indian women. How soon were they released from social shackles?"

In response to queries from The Straits Times, Shunmugam said: "During the Q&A session, I was asked why the cheongsam is a recurring silhouette in my work. I ought to have been crystal clear with my answer and I acknowledge that it was clumsy, hurtful and insensitive. It was also uncharacteristic of the narratives championed in my work.

"I'm rightly being held accountable for what I said and I apologise unreservedly for the comments I made."

The original hour-long video was recorded as part of an ACMtalks series titled "Designing Singapore's contemporary fashion identity" that was posted on Facebook in September last year. It has since been removed.

It came to light recently after catching the attention of Instagram page Kebaya.Societe, who posted the snippet two days ago.

In the caption, the page questioned Shunmugam's definition of progressiveness, and called "the statement you've put out regarding the Malays and Indians to be of false narrative".

"Progressive for Malay women may not be about 'shaking hands with men' or wearing thigh-high slit dresses or mini skirts. Progressive is a mental state of mind - not physical," it wrote.

The page also shared images depicting Malay women in the 1950s in Western dress, from pages from Fesyen (1950-1970), the first fashion weekly magazine in Malaya.

The page is run by an anonymous Malay founder who seeks to offer "rare insights into the world of Nusantara fashion in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia from the 1900s to 1980s". Nusantara is a Javanese term for the Indonesian archipelago.

Since then, a handful of Instagram users have posted pictures of themselves in Malay ethnic dress with captions saying they have never felt "disempowered" or less progressive. They tagged Shunmugam's brand and Kebaya.Societe.

On Friday (March 25), ACM posted a statement on Instagram from its director, Mr Kennie Ting. It wrote that "over the past couple of days, the museum has learnt a very important lesson in how we can improve the management of our talks".

In the statement, he apologised for the museum's "lack of experience and an oversight… in managing and reviewing every recorded live-stream", which "was posted simultaneously on Facebook, unedited".

He added that the moderator had found it difficult to react immediately in a live setting, to address the remarks "swiftly and decisively".

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