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SG fashion brand Ong Shunmugam founder breaks silence with apology, explains stance

SG fashion brand Ong Shunmugam founder breaks silence with apology, explains stance

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Founder and designer of local fashion brand Ong Shunmugam, Priscilla Shunmugam, has spoken up about the recent online furore over the comments she made in a webinar done in collaboration with the Asian Civilisations Museum. Shunmugam had said that Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts.

In a statement to MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, she 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 apologises unreservedly for the comments she made.

Shunmugam stirred up online chatter recently when the ACMtalks video titled "Designing Singapore's contemporary fashion identity", which was posted six months ago. The video resurfaced after it caught the attention of Instagram page Kebaya.Societe. While the original webinar was over an hour long and livestreamed on Facebook, Kebaya.Societe posted a two-minute snippet of the session during which Shunmugam said Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts. She added that as a designer, designing with the cheongsam allows her to have more room to play. As such, Shunmugam feels she can have more "fun" as "the simple reality" is that "Chinese women can be more receptive".

“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 said during the talk. Shunmugam also questioned during the talk 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.

Netizens were shocked and outraged, with several calling the comments racist and questioning why ACM's moderator did not intervene while the comments were being made. They also questioned why ACM did not have more minorities on the panel. Since the virality of the clip, the Facebook Live video on ACM's page has been taken down and ACM has also said on its Instagram Stories that it is considering netizens' feedback as learning points for the museum 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," the museum explained. 

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. 

ACM's director Kennie Ting also told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that 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 with Shunmugam was livestreamed and posted simultaneously on Facebook, unedited, as are all of the videos of ACM's online lectures and symposiums, Ting said. He added:

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

He also explained 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. Ting explained that 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," he said, adding:

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.

According to Ting, 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.

Related articles:
Damage control: ACM and local fashion brand Ong Shunmugam cop flak for race-related comments
Marketing podcast: Not your museums with Asian Civilisations Museum

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