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Whose standards of ‘progress’ should we apply in a multi-cultural society like S’pore? — AWARE on Priscilla Shunmugam’s ‘insensitive’ ethnic comments

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“It is also inaccurate to portray Indian and Malay women as historically lagging behind Chinese women in some way. Indian and Malay women in Singapore have had rich and full histories of their own. They have played an essential role in dismantling gender inequality in both the past and the present.” — AWARE

Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group AWARE said on Sunday (Mar 27) that it was disappointed at fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam’s comments on ethnicity. It noted that women’s dresses are the sites of far more complexity than her assessments imply.

Ms Shunmugam came under fire after a video of her speaking on her designs was mixed with allegedly racist remarks.

A two-minute snippet of her comments during a talk facilitated by the Asian Civilisations Museum in September 2021 went viral on social media last week, sparking outrage among netizens.

The 40-year-old founder of women’s wear label Ong Shunmugam, known for its contemporary take on the cheongsam, gave her views on cultural dressing and why her brand has more ethnic Chinese wear.

She said that “historically, and even today, Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further than their Malay and Indian counterparts.”

She added that 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.

She noted that Chinese women were also quick to adopt Western dressing, such as mini skirts.

“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,” said the fashion designer.

AWARE said in its Facebook post that Ms Shunmugam’s comments raised issues “worth discussing” as they indicate ways of thinking that are “unfortunately not uncommon”.

AWARE asked, “what metrics should be used to measure women’s ‘progress'”?

“Whose standards of ‘progress’ should we apply in a multi-cultural society like Singapore?” the organisation asked, noting women’s dress, among other forms of expression, are the sites of far more complexity than the above assessment would imply.

“It is colonialist to present the proximity of one’s life, practices or styles of dress to Western culture as an indicator of progress.”

“It is also inaccurate to portray Indian and Malay women as historically lagging behind Chinese women in some way. Indian and Malay women in Singapore have had rich and full histories of their own. They have played an essential role in dismantling gender inequality in both the past and the present,” said AWARE.

Ms Shunmugam has since apologised for her statement, noting it was “clumsy, hurtful and insensitive.”

“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,” she said in a Straits Times report on Mar 25.

 

“I’m rightly being held accountable for what I said, and I apologise unreservedly for the comments I made.”

AWARE highlighted that championing progress for women means “working to dismantle racism, not perpetuating harmful and historically inaccurate stereotypes.”

“What we need, ultimately, are nuanced examinations of women’s history in Singapore, specifically the histories of women marginalised by race and other identity mark,” it added. /TISG

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