In what appears to be a drastic turn from its earlier apology, the People’s Association (PA) on Monday rejected communications specialist Sarah Bagharib’s assertion that its error of using her wedding photograph as a prop in its Hari Raya Aidilfitri display at an HDB estate in Tiong Bahru is “racist”.
Posting on Facebook on Monday (14 June), PA referenced her interview with Nanyang Technological University professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, from which she was quoted as saying that the incident has perpetuated a culture of racism.
“These are accusations we reject. While the error was culturally insensitive, it was certainly not racist. It is not right to raise the allegation of racism, without basis, to stoke emotions and sentiments,” said PA.
The organisation claimed that it had explained to Ms Sarah that while it acknowledges that its staff “should have been more culturally sensitive”, it is not right to paint “sweeping conclusions from this incident”.
Doubling down on its point that Ms Sarah’s case was an isolated one, PA said that it finds Ms Sarah’s public call for messages or suggestions that they would like to have relayed to the organisation in their meeting an “odd” one.
“We do not see why our meeting should be appropriated as a platform for her to funnel the views and comments of persons unrelated to the incident,” said PA, adding that it is of the view that Ms Sarah’s purpose in agreeing to meet its representatives “has gone far beyond the Radin Mas incident”.
PA said that it will not be following through with the meeting as there is “no point” in doing so, in light of the above.
“We agree it is important for our staff and volunteers to be sensitive to and knowledgeable about the cultures of all our ethnic groups. We are now looking at establishing a resource panel to guide and advise our staff on cultural matters. We will also step up training efforts to enhance staff and volunteers’ understanding and appreciation of our different cultures,” it added.
PA also claimed that Ms Sarah’s 1 June email had falsely alleged that it was “hasty in sharing the name of the vendor” in order to “distance and deflect blame” from itself.
“The vendor had identified himself directly to Ms Sarah on 28 May, and apologised. This was before PA issued our statement on 29 May,” it said.
“It is regrettable that Ms Sarah did not clarify this point during her Instagram Live interview with Mr Walid J. Abdullah on 7 June. Instead she persisted in conveying the impression that PA had deflected blame from itself,” PA added.
Ms Sarah previously said that the PA’s public apology has shed light on “glaring gaps” that reflect a “very superficial understanding of the gravity of the issue”.
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.
While Ms Sarah said that she acknowledges and appreciates PA’s public apology, she also urged PA to offer “greater transparency about the lapses”.
“You mentioned that this incident goes “against the policies which have been put in place” — what are these policies and how have they failed and resulted in the infringement of my IP rights and offending the Malay/Muslim community?” She questioned, addressing the PA in an Instagram post on Tuesday (1 June).
Ms Sarah also noted that PA’s “hastiness in sharing the name of the vendor behind the display reads like an attempt to distance and deflect blame” from its own role in approving the concept.
“As you have claimed some responsibility, it would be good to know what exactly that entails and what the next steps will be once you have internalised and reflected on the error,” she said.
Ms Sarah also said that it is “unfortunate that a government body that was established to “build and bridge communities in achieving one people, one Singapore” is required to still “guide and help (their) staff … to be more culturally-attuned and sensitive” 61 years after inception”.
“Ethnic minorities in Singapore are equal stakeholders in the work that you do. What will you do to ensure that our interests are represented and respected through your mission?” She questioned.
“Is it possible that the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity within your leadership team – group directors, directors and deputy directors – has trickled down to the rest of the organisation and perhaps, resulted in the lapses that caused this incident? If this is the case, how will you ensure that this is rectified?” Ms Sarah added.
Touching on why she decided to pen a response to PA’s apology, Ms Sarah said that while correcting instances that demonstrate a “superficial understanding” of her culture as an ethnic minority in Singapore is an exhausting task, she wishes to nonetheless “help bridge that gap where possible through real and respectful conversations”.
“As a mum, first and foremost, this is my step to help create a better world, a better Singapore for my daughter to live in. I hope she’ll never, ever have to go through something similar.
“As a Singaporean, I’d like to help hold our leaders *tangibly* accountable as it’ll show that there is an interest in learning and unlearning, and sincere appetite for correcting mistakes,” she said.
Ms Sarah note that she has emailed her concerns to PA and is “looking forward to hearing back and starting what I hope can be a meaningful conversation”.
PA’s public apology met with backlash from netizens
Ms Sarah’s case was first brought to public attention when she expressed her dismay regarding the incident in Instagram post on 28 May.
She stated 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.
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.