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Damage control: ACM and local fashion brand Ong Shunmugam cop flak for race-related comments

Damage control: ACM and local fashion brand Ong Shunmugam cop flak for race-related comments

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Local fashion brand Ong Shunmugam’s founder and designer has raised eyebrows after a video of her speaking on her designs caught the attention of Instagram page Kebaya.Societe. The video in which the founder was speaking was done in collaboration with Asian Civilisations Museum as part of the ACMtalks series titled “Designing Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity” and posted six months ago. However, it came to life when netizens began commenting and sharing their outrage on the snippet shared by the Kebaya.Societe where the founder and designer of the brand, Priscilla Shunmugam, shared why she chose to feature more Chinese ethnic wear.

In the two-minute snippet, Shunmugam said Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts. As a designer, she says, this allows her for more room to play with the cheongsam, and she feels she can have more “fun" as "the simple reality" is that "Chinese women can be more receptive".

Explaining her design choices, she says, “This is not a modern-day phenomenon, this is just something that has been the way it's been since the 60s. In fact, for example, Chinese women were the first Asian women to shake hands with men. […] Chinese women were culturally the first Asian women to adopt Western dressing, be it the dress or mini skirt.”

She continues to ask if "Malay women were allowed by their husbands or fathers to dress a certain way, go out and work, to perform certain duties" and the same for Indian women.

"How soon were they released from social shackles? If we understand that then the fashion answers come from there,” she said

The snippet saw many netizens sharing their shock her view, while others expressed disappointment at ACM for allowing such “racist remarks” and added there should have been more minorities on the panel.

The series titled ACMtalks have been an ongoing effort by the museum to bring in leading scholars in conversation with curators to explore the museum's core curatorial themes. The webinars take place on the third Thursday of every month and are also available for viewing on Facebook Live. ACMtalks is supported by Kris Foundation, a non-profit initiative set up in 2009 by Singaporean philanthropist Kris Tan. Currently, Ong Shungmugam’s Instagram page has 51.6K followers. 

A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE found that the original ACMtalks video with Shunmugam, which was an hour-long, has since been removed. The museum has also 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 explained.

"One thing we would be seeking to develop in this journey is new kinds of vocabulary to describe 'fashion' from an Asian perspective. Terms have to be updated and adapted, to better reflect Asia's rich, unique, multi-cultural histories, modernities and ways of life. One thing for certain is that dress is never a simple matter - how we as Asians and Singaporeans choose to dress and present ourselves is a complex and evolving subject worthy of attention," the museum added.

ACM also said that the journey "is a continuous one". "We seek your patience, indulgence, and most importantly, continued feedback, perspectives and personal stories - these help us find the right vocabulary to better explore and present the way we dress to ourselves and to the world," it said. 

Separately, ACM's director Kennie Ting told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that ACM has always been a strong proponent of exploring and sharing perspectives on regional history, heritage and culture. It is the reason why the museum has been active over the years organising talks. According to him, the purpose of organising these talks is to let guests express their views and opinions freely on various subject matters that may be of deep interest to the public. However, he said 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.

"We acknowledge that during one of our inaugural series of ACMtalks last year, certain verbatim remarks made by our guest speaker were deeply hurtful to some of our communities. ACM respects the views of individuals but if views are controversial or sensitive remarks were made, our moderator should have done better in getting our guest speaker to clarify them," he said.

Ting also explained that the moderator has shared that she found it difficult to react immediately in a live setting. It would have been appropriate that these remarks were addressed swiftly and decisively.

"ACM wishes to expressly state that the opinions of all our guest speakers are not reflective of ACM’s own views and positions, and we will ensure our future sessions are better moderated, particularly if remarks or opinions raised are deeply controversial and insensitive," he said.

During COVID-19, ACM's lectures had to be pivoted to virtual platforms and this edition of ACMtalks is the museum's first on contemporary Singapore fashion — a new curatorial area that ACM has recently embarked on. The video was livestreamed and was posted simultaneously on Facebook, unedited, as are all of the videos of ACM's online lectures and symposiums.

"There was a lack of experience and an oversight on our part in managing and reviewing every recorded live-stream. We sincerely apologise for this, and will improve our processes of managing our livestreamed talks and online content moving forward," Ting explained.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to Ong Shunmugam for comment.

PR professional Edwin Yeo, GM of SPRG, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that while ACM's Instagram Stories suggests that fashion is new to the organisation, and that it is still learning, as an expert in history and culture, the homework needed to be done.  "ACM should have acknowledged that they could have done a better job, especially since we are meant to trust that what they present as history is accurate. That's not to say ACM can't make mistakes. There should be an acknowledgement that the video was released without enough homework being done if such was indeed the case," he explained.

Yeo added that as this was streamed live, there was very little ACM could do to challenge those views if the moderators didn't have the knowledge or research at their fingertips. However, prior to archiving it on social media, ACM could have fact checked her comments and ensure that it is historically accurate.

"If in doing so, found that her research was not factually accurate, then perhaps go back to her and challenge her view about minority races not being as progressive. As a museum, curation and verification has to be in their DNA, and this shouldn't just be for artifacts, but also any historian or expert that they associate their name with," Yeo explained. The absence of such a verification process gives the appearance of endorsement of her views as facts, which the Instagram poster seems to suggest it is not, he said.

Meanwhile, marketing communications consultant Charissa Guan described today's consumers as "savvy, opinionated, and want answers fast". Before issuing an apology, Guan would advice taking a look at the context. With its unrelated Instagram Posts now taking the heat for its apology, Guan says the brand should have thought harder about which platform would be best to issue a statement in response to a critical situation. It also needs to question if the response is sincere and genuine while demonstrating clearly to stakeholders that concrete steps are being taking to ensure a similar situation doesn’t happen again.

Guan added that although ACM and Shunmugam have come under fire online for the statements made, it is crucial to first understand the situation in its original context. This was curated as an online talk about Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity through the lens of a fashion historian and a local fashion designer, moderated by a curator of the museum. While the other persons involved in the talk may have fallen short in calling out an industry peer, Guan said it is understandable that someone might not immediately know how to react when confronted with an uncomfortable situation.

However, the fact that the video remained available online for six months and was suspiciously removed when the clip went viral on social media, is disappointing.

"It would be safe to assume that a post-mortem was done after the event, giving ACM the opportunity to choose whether or not to respond with urgency, which unfortunately did not happen," she said.

Another industry practitioner commenting under anonymity said the discourse that has risen, is one worth engaging in. If anything, this is an opportunity for ACM to take a bold step forward to reengage in a dialogue with Asia's fashion community.

"A future panel event reconciling Asian fashion and cultural identities is one worth exploring head-on. If the response on social media is anything to go by, it seems like there's a ready audience for it," she said.

She added that event hosting and panels are not just about coordinating logistics and this is a good example of why.  Thoughtful efforts to include diverse lived experiences is critical and so much more can be done to ensure that panels introduce voices who will not only reflect existing sentiment but have the right language to take the conversation further. This requires event teams to go beyond easy-to-find profiles outside of their immediate circles.

Another underappreciated role in panel events is that of moderators. Moderators don't just ask the right questions, but have to be well versed enough to guide dialogues so that even controversial perspectives can be contextualised into something meaningful.

No response from Ong Shunmugam brand

A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE at the time of writing found that Shunmugam has yet to release a statement via Ong Shunmugam's social media channels. Guan thinks it is equally critical for Ong Shunmugam to release a statement. "It’s important to remember that behind every brand are humans; humans who work hard and are bound to make mistakes. If the brand acknowledges its error and makes a true commitment to doing better, I think the brand has a shot at maintaining brand equity," she explained.

Meanwhile, SPRG's Yeo said Shunmugam perhaps more research should have been conducted on the cultural emancipation of women and their progression today as compared to the past. According to Yeo, one of Singapore's most famous fashion designers, Ashley Isham, is Malay. Kavita Thulasidas has also been very progressive in infusing Asian culture into Indian fashion, just as Adlina Anis is doing with the hijab

That said, Yeo added that while Shunmugam is certainly more of a fashion history expert than he is, the Instagram post by Kebaya.Societe is now challenging her research and that is probably due to her large sweeping statements. What might help the situation is if Shunmugam acknowledges her statements and gives context on the research which led to the conclusion. "If she was indeed correct in her research, then minority fashion designers should easily back up what she has said as well. But if her research was flawed or incomplete, then she should acknowledge that as well," he added.

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