by Nina Gan

The path to gender equality has been long and winding, partly because in multicultural Singapore, issues such as racism still clouds the way a lot of people think.

When Priscilla Shunmugam, founder of local fashion label Ong Shanmugam, participated in an online event for the Asian Civilisations Museum (for the ACMtalks: Designing Singapore’s contemporary fashion identity session) on Sept 16 last year, a comment she made about cheongsam and Chinese women rubbed audiences the wrong way. However, it wasn’t until Mar 24 this year that her comments went viral when it was shared by the Instagram page of Kebaya Societe.

It went down like qi-pow

The issue of race was actually brought up by Priscilla herself, when she was asked about the recurrence of the cheongsam (or qipao) silhouette in her collections. 

In her reply, she said that “Chinese women have progressed significantly faster and further as compared to their Malay and Indian counterparts,” and 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” in Singapore. She also mentioned that Chinese women were the first Asian women to adopt Western-style clothing, like the dress or the miniskirt.

In reference to the social norms of the era, she even went on to question if Malay (and Indian) women were “allowed by their husbands, fathers or brothers to dress a certain way or to go out and work” and how soon they were released from those social shackles.

While she intended to showcase the cheongsam as a representation of Chinese culture in terms of their openness to adapt to new influences, the way she phrased her answer drew a lot of flak. Many viewers were also surprised at the lack of moderation from fellow guest Nadya Wang and moderator Jackie Yoong.

Priscilla has apologised for her comments, but the issues she raised are worth discussing because they reflect a way of thinking that isn’t uncommon.

Racism and the colonialist mindset

Equating “progress” with Western customs – like shaking hands or wearing revealing clothing – points more towards a colonialist mindset; in essence, it’s going from one social conformity to another. It undermines the conventional meaning of “progress” where women are released from the social shackles of patriarchy. 

So what metrics do we use to measure “progress” when it comes to women’s freedom, especially in multicultural Singapore? 

Kebaya Societe commented that “progressive” is a mental state of mind, and not about “shaking hands with men” which reduces physical touch as a measure of progression. This undermines the efforts of Malay and Indian women who’ve progressed in society as educators, entrepreneurs, and the like – for example as early as the 1940s, we’ve seen the rise of women like Hajjah Maimunah and Hajjah Fatimah who were successful entrepreneurs. 

It’s also worthy to note that speaking of fashion, traditional attire of all cultures – from Chinese cheongsam to Indian sari and Malay baju kurung – were common in Singapore until the 1950s. Those who wore Western-style clothes weren’t more “progressive” – they were simply more wealthy, because one needed to buy imported clothes from high-end boutiques

In the 1960s, the Women’s Charter improved the rights of females in Singapore; more women went out to work, and their fashion choices expanded, influenced by television and magazines. Even the traditional baju kebaya had adopted Western and Chinese influences in their designs, as seen in their necklines and body-hugging silhouettes. Women of all races were wearing Western-style clothing because they were less restrictive and more comfortable to wear in our climate.

Perhaps Priscilla should’ve correlated handshakes and western-style clothing to openness in adopting other cultures or habits, rather than “progress.” Even if cultural attire was used as an analogy of progress, what women wear (according to their culture) shouldn’t be used to measure women against each other. By doing so, it suggests that one race is better or more progressive than the other simply by their heritage and not their abilities.

Regardless of race, every woman plays an essential role in dismantling gender inequality both past and present. As AWARE puts it succinctly: Championing progress for women means working to dismantle racism, and not perpetuating harmful and historically inaccurate stereotypes.

The good news is that since the 1960s, the gender gap in Singapore has only become smaller, and our tiny nation recently ranked 54 out of 156 countries in the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2021. We should celebrate how far we’ve come and celebrate our diversity, not homogeneity. 

Since we’re talking about gender equality…

It’s not just minority women who have to fight an uphill battle to get recognition. For the LGBTQ community, the idea of progress isn’t just about fighting for the freedom to love – racism also taints its progress.

A recent research paper documented how sexual racism among users of the app Grindr has caused some members to internalise their subordination. The report found that users were pigeonholed into racial categories which considered the Chinese majority to be more desirable, causing racial minorities to attempt to pass as Chinese. Even as the LGBTQ movement is fighting for equality, there seems to be no escape from racial preferences. 

It’s especially troubling when being non-Chinese can put one at higher risk of poorer mental health outcomes, especially when one is not cisgender and/or have a BMI above 25. Even if racism isn’t outright hostile, it can still cause suffering and disempowerment for racial minorities.

What is needed are nuanced examinations of how and why racial minorities are marginalised, because when it comes to the fight for gender equality – including LGBTQ rights – who will get to enjoy the fruits of success? From Priscilla’s takes to Grinder preferences in Singapore, it shows that no matter what strides have been made in the field of gender equality, it’ll always have the hurdle of racism to overcome before we truly become an equitable society.