Two weekends ago, influencer Sheena Phua landed in trouble after an Instagram story of hers went viral. The reason? The post showed two Sikh men sporting white turbans at an F1 concert, and the accompanying text was, “Dang! Two huge obstructions decided to pop out of nowhere.”
She later clarified that the word “obstructions” was intended to refer only to the height of the two men who were both taller than her, and so had been taken out of context.
But the increasingly heated online criticism of Sheena led a group of young Sikhs to an unconventional response: they invited her to an informal tour of a gurdwara (a place of assembly and worship for Sikhs) so that she could learn more about their traditions.
In a Facebook post detailing Sheena’s meeting with them, the Young Sikh Association (YSA) said, “By her own admission, she shared that she didn’t know much about the Sikh community.”
“Now that we know her better, would it still be fair to say that she should have known better when she initially put up her post that some found offensive? We all have our own experiences that inform what and how much we know about others in our community.”
“Also, don’t we all hope that when we make a mistake and cause unintended offence or hurt, that others will show us empathy, be understanding and forgiving?”
“Better yet, when we make mistakes don’t we all hope that we can expect people will act on their convictions and reach out to us in friendship, as opposed to reacting based on emotions and pointing fingers to blame.”
Sarabjeet Singh, 34, president of YSA, told The Straits Times his group’s gesture took some thinking through.
“Some responses to Sheena’s original post felt like a case of cyberbullying. (Although) there were some among us who were also a little uncomfortable with her initial post, we recognised it as an opportunity for us to reach out and engage,” he said.
“We still feel that we did not want an apology. Would an apology alone have done anything to improve awareness and understanding?”
Sheena, 29, has apologised for the controversial remarks she made.
She told ST: “I did some reflection and agreed with (some) people that although the video was not outrightly racist, it was insensitive and had caused a lot of distress to the Sikh community… I decided to take up the YSA’s offer to learn more.”
The YSA was formed in 2003 by a group of young Sikh Singaporeans to empower young Sikhs and enhance mutual understanding among people of different ethnic groups.
While at the gurdwara, Sheena was given an introduction to the Sikh religion and culture, and had questions like how Sikhs greet each other answered.
She also participated in sewa, or an act of service, by trying her hand at making chapati in the community kitchen.
She was also showed the Guru Granth Sahib, the principal scripture of Sikhism.
Sheena told ST she has a close friend who is Sikh but that she has never discussed religion and culture with her, saying: “I never really truly delved deeper into understanding the religious practices (of others). For many youths, the issues we discuss revolve around mundane issues like fashion, gossip and travel.”
She said that she hopes she will get more opportunities to interact with minority groups because “they have definitely contributed to (Singapore’s) growth as a society.”
Sarabjeet, a civil servant, said he was glad Sheena took up YSA’s offer, hoping that “all of us have walked away as better people”.
He said: “She demonstrated humility, kindness, curiosity and sincerity, and that is more important to us.”
Facebook user Audi Khalid also applauded the effort, adding: “Build bridges, not condemn. Vilify, and give them a reason to detest your side of the fence.”
There’s some food for thought in a time where cancel culture is so prevalent.
Text: Clement Yong / The Straits Times / September 2019
Additional reporting: Sophie Hong