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Founder of fashion brand Ong Shunmugam apologises for race-related remarks at ACM event

SINGAPORE — The founder of a homegrown fashion label said she is sorry about the race-related remarks she made during a virtual lecture organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) last year, calling them “clumsy, hurtful and insensitive”.

A screenshot of a video footage that went viral, showing Ms Priscilla Shunmugam (bottom frame) in a video conference event organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum.

A screenshot of a video footage that went viral, showing Ms Priscilla Shunmugam (bottom frame) in a video conference event organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum.

  • Priscilla Shunmugam made remarks at an online event that were deemed racist by some people
  • The fashion label founder was talking about why the cheongsam is a recurring design in her work
  • The video clip containing excerpts of the event at Asian Civilisations Museum went viral
  • Ms Shunmugam has apologised and said she was “rightly being held accountable”
  • She acknowledged her remarks were “clumsy, hurtful and insensitive”

SINGAPORE — The founder of a homegrown fashion label said she is sorry about the race-related remarks she made during a virtual lecture organised by the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) last year, calling them “clumsy, hurtful and insensitive”.

Ms Priscilla Shunmugam, founder of the Ong Shunmugam fashion brand, told TODAY on Friday (March 25) that she is “rightly being held accountable” for what she said.

“I apologise unreservedly for the comments I made,” she said.

The lecture, titled ACMtalks: Designing Singapore's contemporary fashion identity was held on Sept 16 last year, but snippets of the remarks by Ms Priscilla Shunmugan — who had been invited to speak at the lecture with Ms Nadya Wang — were picked up only recently and went viral after Instagram page profile Kebaya Societe uploaded them on Wednesday. 

Ms Wang is a lecturer at the School of Fashion at Lasalle College of the Arts, and the talk was facilitated and moderated by Ms Jackie Yoong, a senior curator for fashion and textiles at ACM and the Peranakan Museum.

ACM has published other editions of its lectures, which revolve around themes such as maritime trade, faith and belief, as well as materials and design, but the original video with Ms Shunmugam is no longer available on its Facebook page.

In the recent video snippets, which are around two minutes long, Ms Shunmugam is heard responding to a question that was cut out.

She told TODAY that she was asked why the cheongsam — a traditional Chinese dress worn by women — is a recurring silhouette in her work.

She replied to the online audience then about how Chinese women have “progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts”.

She also said, among other things, that Chinese women were the “first Asian women to shake hands with men”, long before it was acceptable for Indian and Malay women to do so.

“If you study that, if we understand that, then the fashion answers come from that,” Ms Shunmugam said at the lecture.

“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 I can have more fun, and that Chinese women are more receptive, or they can be more receptive,” she added.

The viral video snippet then ends abruptly.

Reactions to the video were generally of shock and disappointment at what most online users saw as racist remarks.

In her reply to TODAY, Ms Shunmugam said that she ought to have been crystal clear with her answers.

“I acknowledge that it was clumsy, hurtful and insensitive. It was also uncharacteristic of the narratives championed in my work.”

COULD HAVE DONE BETTER

Separately, ACM also issued its own apology on its Instagram page.

The statement, which was signed off by Mr Kennie Ting, the museum’s director, said that it could have done a better job in moderating and managing a virtual lecture.

“Over the past couple of days, the museum has learnt a very important lesson in how we can improve the management of our talks.”

Mr Ting added that ACM respects the views of individuals, but if those views were controversial or sensitive remarks were made, “our moderator should have done better” in getting the guest speaker to clarify them.

“Our moderator has shared with us 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.”

Mr Ting also said that the opinions of all guest speakers are “not reflective of ACM’s own views and positions''.

He added that the museum will ensure its future sessions are “better moderated, particularly if remarks or opinions raised are deeply controversial and insensitive”.

The virtual lecture was livestreamed and posted simultaneously on Facebook on the day of the event. It was “unedited, as are all of the videos of our online lectures and symposiums”, Mr Ting said.

He recognised that there was a “lack of experience and an oversight” on ACM’s part in managing and reviewing every recorded livestream.

“We sincerely apologise for this and will improve our processes of managing our livestream talks and online content moving forward.”

Related topics

Ong Shunmugam fashion Priscilla Shunmugam Asian Civilisations Museum apology racist race

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