PA and the Wedding Standee: Racist or Just Culturally Insensitive?

On June 14 (Monday), the People's Association (PA) released a statement in denouncing Ms Sarah Bagharib’s accusation that the association is racist. While the PA and its vendor was in the wrong for using the image and Ms Sarah is the aggrieved party, that by itself does not provide an unrestrained license to weave narratives without evidence.

The cut-out standee of Ms Sarah and her husband was displayed at a Tiong Bahru housing estate [Photo: @sarahbagharib via Instagram]

By Darcel Anastasia Al Anthony

On June 14 (Monday), the People’s Association (PA) released a statement in response to Ms Sarah Bagharib — denouncing her claims that the association is racist. While the point-form statements on the PA’s Instagram page fell short as it was over summarised, I agree with its more substantial statement on its website and Facebook page.

I do acknowledge that the PA did make a cultural oversight by using a photo of a couple who had gotten married at the respective CC to represent a Muslim celebration, and was in the wrong to have used Ms Sarah’s image without permission. It is an area that demands thorough analysis and checks lest a similar incident happens in the future. 

As an organisation that was founded in 1960 to “promote racial harmony and social cohesion in Singapore“, the PA’s staff should have been more aware of the various cultures in multicultural Singapore. While oversights are bound to happen as it is impossible to expect a person to remember such comprehensive details or to be perfect, the PA should put in place checks and balances by ensuring someone of a respective cultural or racial background reviews public collaterals to prevent similar mistakes from repeating.

With that being said, at the height of the issue in the public limelight, apologies were swiftly given by both the PA and the vendor who wrongfully downloaded the photo of Ms Sarah’s wedding to be used as a Hari Raya decoration. In response, the PA immediately removed the standee of Ms Sarah and her husband while the vendor personally apologised to Ms Sarah on May 28, a day before the PA made its first public statement.

The PA staff have personally reached out to Ms Sarah and her family, giving an explanation and acknowledging that they are responsible for the mistake. In an earlier Facebook post, the PA stated that it will take the necessary actions to ensure that such an oversight will not happen again and will continue to educate its staff to be more culturally sensitive. As a bystander, I feel that both the PA and the vendor seem sincere in their apology and immediate actions.

Ms Sarah first commented on the incident through an Instagram post on May 28 [Photo: @sarahbagharib via Instagram]

Singaporean Malay actor Suhaimi Yusof took his views on social media and said, “everyone makes mistakes” — and I agree. The PA staff members and the vendor are humans, they are bound to make mistakes too. 

While Ms Sarah is the aggrieved party, that by itself does not provide an unrestrained license to weave narratives without evidence. During an Instagram live stream with associate professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah on June 7, the PA claimed that she had insinuated that the PA’s members who did not find any wrong with the standee were “blind to racism”. The PA also said that two Instagram stories by Ms Sarah showed that she had suggested that the incident was a racist act.

Attributing deeper racial animus to the mistake is not justified or warranted by the currently presented facts. Racism is a loaded word and is defined by Oxford Languages as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group”. Not every case of racial insensitivity is racism — most cases of racial insensitivity are merely due to ignorance and human error. 

If someone is not fully knowledgeable of the traditions of a specific culture or ethnic group and then makes a mistake, would that make them guilty of racism? I think not. In this situation, I believe that the PA’s intent was not to denigrate the Malay or Muslim culture.

As a Singaporean Indian Catholic, I myself do not know all the details about the various cultures in Singapore — including Indian practices and traditions. If I were to make an oversight on the Indian culture, would that make me racist? No, perhaps just misinformed. 

Being a member of a minority ethnic group in Singapore, I am very much sensitive to these conflicts. Racial harmony must not be undermined in Singapore. I believe that we should always forgive instead of holding grudges. Instead of wrongfully calling the PA out for their supposed racism, we should forgive them and use this mistake as an opportunity to educate others instead of creating a division.

Despite our racial and religious backgrounds, we are all Singaporeans at the end of the day. Our differences are celebrated and both the people and the government value racial harmony. Promoting division or making hefty accusations will just tear each other down as Singaporeans and does nothing to educate or encourage harmony — what we need is civil discourse that encourages learning and acceptance.

In Malay classes, I was taught many wise idioms — or “peribahasa”. One that stood out to me is “buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih”, which means to discard the dirty item for a new one. 

We should all forgive and learn from this incident, so let’s move on to creating a clean state.