A couple was met with a rude shock after discovering that their wedding photograph was used, without their permission, as a prop in the People’s Association (PA)’s display at an HDB estate in Tiong Bahru for the recent Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations this year.
The photograph was enlarged into a life-size standee — which has since been removed — and was placed near a banner with an image of Melvin Yong, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Radin Mas SMC. The banner also carried Mr Yong’s Hari Raya wishes to residents.
30-year-old Sarah Bagharib, a communications specialist, said in an Instagram post on Friday (28 May) that “neither the photographer” nor herself and her husband were at any point “approached to give consent for the use of our photograph for this purpose”.
“This incident certainly does not display the proper regard towards copyright laws that are essential to our community’s civil society,” she said.
What she and her husband found most disturbing, said Ms Sarah, was how their wedding portrait “was used as a theatrical device for residents of Radin Mas SMC to portray a caricature of Malays/Singaporean Muslims celebrating Hari Raya”.
This is particularly because such photographs are “taken within a celebratory context and a marker of personal memory”, she said.
Ms Sarah also heavily criticised the PA’s “flagrant disregard for copyright laws, norms of proprietary, privacy and disrespect for Malay/Singaporean Muslim culture stemming from sheer ignorance” through its use of the wedding photo in question.
She found it “disappointing and frustrating” to witness the “confused cultural messaging” in PA’s use of a bride and groom photo in their traditional Malay outfits to advertise its “ostensible celebration of Hari Raya” when both are “completely different” cultural events.
This is particularly when the photograph is replete with elements of the Malay traditional wedding symbols such as bunga rampai, Ms Sarah added.
“As an organisation whose mission is to “build and bridge communities in achieving one people, one Singapore” and was established to “promote racial harmony and social cohesion in Singapore”, this display reflects the superficial understanding of the Malay/Singaporean Muslim culture.
“On top of that, it is absolutely tone deaf in the larger climate of Singapore’s call for our society to be more culturally sensitive, multiracial and inclusive and also once again, goes against People Association’s mission,” said Ms Sarah.
One commenter said that Ms Sarah’s predicament is “what happens when you (organisations such as PA) refuse to have a diverse team or at the very least, consult someone from the culture you are trying to showcase”.
“Wedding clothes are obviously not ethnoreligious festive holiday clothes … It’s like trying to put a western wedding gown and black tuxedo, do a mock up standee, then put it as part of Merry Christmas decorations,” the commenter quipped.
“There’s a clear, huge difference between the baju kurung used for weddings and that used for Hari Raya. Whoever came up with this never do their research well,” said one commenter.
Another replied: “When PA dont hire enough minorities, this is what happens. Each department you’d be lucky to find 1 or 2 minority working for them.”
The same commenter, among others who urged the couple to sue the PA, said that the pair should “engage a lawyer for advice” over possible copyright infringement, as well as for vandalism, ad display, illegal printing and for unauthorised use of private photographs.
In a statement posted on Facebook, PA said that the vendor engaged by the Radin Mas Constituency Office (CO), Warabi Enterprise (Art Studio), was responsible for the concept and design of the decorations.
“Unfortunately, in doing so, they downloaded and used Ms Sarah Bagharib’s photo from an online source and then used it for a cut-out standee. These decorations, including the standee, was then put up by Radin Mas CO,” it said.
PA acknowledged that neither Warabi Enterprise nor Radin Mas CO had obtained any permission to do so, which is “against the policies which have been put in place”.
“We have since spoken to the vendor on the seriousness of this infringement, and will follow up with the appropriate steps,” said the association.
PA said that it will “take responsibility for this error as we have oversight of the matter, the decorations were allowed to be put up”.
“We take such breaches, including copyright violations, seriously. We will put in place stricter internal controls and processes to ensure this does not happen again,” it added.
PA also said that its use of Ms Sarah’s wedding photo to depict Hari Raya “was not appropriate”, and that it will “take steps to guide and help our staff and, as far as possible, external vendors as well, to be more culturally-attuned and sensitive”.
“We have apologized unreservedly to Ms Sarah Bagharib and her family for the distress our mistake has caused. We have given her an explanation of the circumstances which led to the error and have also offered to meet with her to discuss any other concerns which she might have,” said the association.
Commenters on the PA’s apology post and The Straits Times (ST)’ Facebook post on the matter, however, did not easily accept the organisation’s apology and clarification.
Many urged the association to compensate the couple for the distress they endured as a result of the misuse of their wedding photo.
Commenters also criticised PA for appearing to shift the blame to the vendor, given that the standee would not have ended up becoming part of its Hari Raya display if the idea was not approved by PA in the first place.
“Stealing a person’s significant personal memorabilia like their wedding photo and using it without permission as a photo stand-in (also commonly known as ‘carnival cut-outs’) is beyond dehumanizing. If you don’t respect a person, how do you respect their culture?
“That’s not even getting to the senseless part where you use a wedding photo for a religious festival. Does Singapore celebrate Lunar New Year with traditional Chinese wedding 雙囍 words plastered all over Orchard Road? No. Why? Because they’re completely unrelated. So don’t even try to preach racial harmony because right now, this entire episode only reveals how little People’s Association actually knows or cares about minority culture,” said one commenter.
A couple of commenters said that displaying symbols commonly associated with Hari Raya such as ketupat and fairy lights would be sufficient and inoffensive for such displays.
One commenter said that they have seen “many PAs or perhaps their vendors who just take images off google and use them for their flyers without artist permission”.
“Need images, pls snap ur own or invest in getting an illustrator or get free images from a proper image bank,” they said.
One commenter questioned why a project involving such “negligence” and “lack of integrity” had made the cut, given PA’s “fat budget of $796 million” this year alone.
ST reported Ms Sarah as saying that she had emailed Mr Yong, Tanjong Pagar Town Council and PA chief executive director Lim Hock Yu on Friday.
She noted that Mr Lim had responded to her e-mail and apologised. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law, Edwin Tong had also apologised to her separately via a private message.
Mr Tong is the deputy chairman of the PA.
Ms Sarah told ST that on top of the violation of privacy she experienced as a result of the misuse of her wedding photo, she was enraged by the way the image had been “caricatured for entertainment and amusement”.
“They blew it up and cut out our faces, and used it as a way to celebrate Hari Raya, a cultural event which is not even related to the photograph,” she said. “Regardless of whether it was a third-party vendor (who downloaded and used the photo), it is a government agency involved.”
“In the larger scheme of things, what does this reflect? The PA is meant to be a statutory board that seeks to promote social cohesion and harmony in Singapore,” Ms Sarah added.