Local designer called out for remarks against minority women 6 months later

  • The disparaging remark about minority women was made by Priscilla Shunmugam, founder and designer of local womenswear label Ong Shunmugam six months ago.
  • It floated to the top when the video of her speaking on her designs caught the attention of Instagram page Kebaya.Societe.
  • TheHomeGround Asia looks at whether fashion can be seen as progressive for women
(Photo source: kebaya.societe / Instagram)
(Photo source: kebaya.societe / Instagram)

She claimed that Chinese women are more progressive as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts.

She even claimed that she had done her research on the emancipation of Asian women.

So those were the reasons why founder and designer of local womenswear label Ong Shunmugam Priscilla Shunmugam, 40, justified her preference of designing cheongsams over other ethnic designs; that she could have “more room to play with the cheongsam”, and that she could have more “fun” as “the simple reality” is that “Chinese women can be more receptive”.

She was speaking at a talk held by Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) on designing Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity six months ago.

It was six months later, in March when women are being celebrated, that Ms Shunmugam got called out. A two-minute snippet of the hour-long video was posted on Kebaya.Societe, an Instagram page dedicated to showcasing Nusantara fashion in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the clip, Ms Shunmugam said, “Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts. It is not a modern day phenomenon, this is something that has been the way it has been since the 1960s.”

“Chinese women were culturally the first to adopt Western dressing whether it was the dress or the mini skirt. And I think that went hand in hand with Chinese women being able to join the traditional workforce whether it’s being a teacher or working in a factory. I think this is tied to their social realities, what was acceptable in their own communities,” she added.

Heckles are up by the callous remarks

In its Instagram post, Kebaya Societe called Ms Shunmugam out on her idea of what progressive meant. It wrote that 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. I actually find your response coming from a woman to be incredibly sexist, reducing physical touch as ‘progression’, and undermining the efforts of women who have progressed who do not fit into your definition of ‘progressive’,” the group said.

The snippet saw many netizens expressing their shock for a public figure like her to be making such disparaging remarks.

(Source: kebaya.societe / Instagram)

One netizen parvarms asks, “Since when does clothes equate to progression?” She adds that the designer “clearly have not done your research when you mentioned that Indian women weren’t progressive”.

Another netizen atheenasom says, “Adopting Western fashion does not equate to ‘freedom from social shackles’ or modernism! Shaking hands with men isn’t modernism! This is such a shallow perspective on fashion, especially considering you are a mixed race individual.”

A third, zarifah.zn, calls the video”so hard to watch”. “It’s sad than even today in 2022, women are looking down on other women, just because of her race. Despite speaking on progress, ironically her perspective is so backwards,” she says.

Admonishing her lack of research, ayunnih says Ms Shunmugam is going from one social conformity to another. “If you did enough research on fashion, especially the local scene, you would’ve known that Malay traditional attire have already gone through much fashion evolution since the advent of television and pop culture in the sixties.

Then, Malay women adopted Western fashion by incorporating it into traditional silhouettes of kebaya and baju kurung to modernise their outfits. These outfits were popularised by old Singaporean-Malaysian actresses Saloma and Sarimah.

Ironically, Ms Shunmugam has a collection called the Ong Shunmugam Geak Yee kebaya, that was adapted from the sarong kebaya. Geak Yee is available at Atelier Ong Shunmugam.

The contentious video was part of the ACMtalks series titled “Designing Singapore’s Contemporary fashion identity”, an ongoing effort by the museum to bring in leading scholars in conversation with curators to explore the museum’s core curatorial themes. It has since been removed.

The ACM webinars usually take place on the third Thursday of every month and is supported by Kris Foundation, a non-profit initiative set up in 2009 by Singaporean philanthropist Kris Tan.

The original hour-long ACMtalks video with Ms Shunmugam has since been removed and the museum has issued a statement on its Instagram Stories, acknowledging the posts and comments on the recent edition of ACMtalks. “We consider this feedback learning points for us for upcoming exhibitions on Asian fashion. Asian fashion is a new curatorial area ACM has recently embarked on for the long term. The subject of curating fashion from an Asian perspective, in general, is a new one for museums,” ACM said.

In a statement to Marketing Interactive, Ms 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.” She added that she is rightly being held accountable for what she said, and she apologised unreservedly for the comments she made.

Join the conversations on TheHomeGround Asia’s Facebook and Instagram, and get the latest updates via Telegram.

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