The Priscilla Shunmugam Surprise

A modern designing woman with unfashionable views?

Less than six hours after the news broke that Priscilla Shunmugam made some “offensive” remarks came the designer’s swift apology: She told Today that what she said during an Asian Civilisations Museum-faciliated discussion last September about fashion and identity was “clumsy, hurtful, and insensitive”. In that Zoom session of the series ACMtalks, she had said—in response to a question about her designs being more ethnically Chinese—“historically, and even today, Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further, as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts”. Part of a two-and-half minute clip that was shared on social media, the broad remark had many viewers saying that Ms Shunmugam’s view is “racist”. In her response to Today, she added, “I apologise unreservedly for the comments I made”.

That ACMtalks session, “Designing Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity”, organised in conjunction with the museum’s #SGFASHIONNOW exhibition, has been removed from ACM’s Facebook page following the uproar. But in the said clip still circulating, there were more questionable remarks. Ms Shunmugam, who was not wearing anything that could be identified as Chinese, said: “This is not a modern-day phenomenon; this is just something that has been the way it’s been since, I think, the ’60s. In fact, for example, Chinese women were the first Asian women to shake hands with men. So, culturally, it was acceptable for Chinese women to shake the hands of men long before it was acceptable for Indian and Malay women to do so.” Her comment, we noted, did not take into consideration the social customs women had to observe (and still do) and the religious constraints they experienced before, and now.

Priscilla Shunmugam on ACMtalks. Screen grab: kebaya.societe/Instagram

As a proponent of ethnically-flavoured clothes and textiles, and their amalgamation, Priscilla Shunmugam’s observations were startling. CNA called her “the designer who reinvented the cheongsam with her unique flair for mixing traditional Asian textiles with modernised silhouettes”, yet this “flair” was blind-stitched into her surprisingly narrow view of how women across ethnicities have indeed progressed in the choice of their clothes. Playing the anthropologist, Ms Shunmugam also went on to say that “Chinese women, for example, were culturally the first Asian women to adopt Western dressing”. It’s hard to digest that. Thai women, for example, were no laggards. Look at Queen Sirikit: In the era that Ms Shunmugam singled out—the ’60s, she wore Western fashion by a French house—Balmain couture, no less—with as much ease as traditional Thai dress, and her choices influenced generations of women, even the present.

At the beginning of the clip, the Malaysia-born designer revealed that she did some research into the “emancipation of Asian women” before she started her brand Ong Shunmugam (named after her mother’s and father’s surnames respectively). If she was equating the emancipation of women only with the adoption of Western fashion (“the dress or the mini-skirt”), then she was negating the reality that education opportunities and economic circumstances influenced women in the clothes they bought and wore. And, if local non-Chinese women were slow to adopt Western clothes, have they been left behind “Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity”? Wearers of baju kurong or the sari are somehow stuck in a distance, away from progress, or denied it? We viewed the clip a few times and it surprised us that Ms Shunmugam, a trained lawyer, who touts herself to be “a regular on the speaking and judging circuit in the Asian design community”, could put forth her argument so unpersuasively. We thought that only happens with her fashion design.

Illustration: Just So

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