I think every Malaysian, and some foreigners living in Malaysia; have a story or two to tell about our experience with the civil service.
To be fair, not all of my dealings are frustrating; but the days when I get excellent, speedy service at any government department are rare and when I do, I always make sure I thank the personnel profusely.
I believe that our daily encounters do have an impact on society, or at the very least, make one person feel good and appreciated.
I must admit that I do mentally prepare myself before walking into any government department for service. Yoga breathing helps, and a good book to while the time away is necessary.
This preparation should also now include what to wear, with the recent viral photos of Suzanna G. L. Tan, who was “forced” to cover her just-half-an-inch-above-the-knee skirt with a sarong at the Road Transport Department (JPJ) in Wangsa Maju recently.
Now, let’s just be clear that there are posters of “appropriate dress code” at many governmental institutions; from visits to ministerial buildings to academic institutions and of course, public service offices. The argument by the public that these “dress codes” are not clarified is invalid.
The bigger discourse, however, is whether it is necessary for these dress codes to even be in place.
How would the way a person dresses impact public service?
Let us be clear that there should be common sense about what we wear for our everyday activities. I am sure no one would wear just a sarong berkemban style to renew their licenses or transfer the names on the deeds for their cars at public service offices.
I digress, there do exist some people who think it is expressive to strip naked atop Mount Kinabalu. Thus, perhaps informing people of “dress codes” is necessary.
Maybe common sense is not so common anymore.
But in the case of Tan, she was decently and appropriately dressed. There was no need to humiliate her by enforcing her to cover her knees with a sarong. What should be the priority of the JPJ instead, is to improve its systems as to what requires the public to come in, and what can be done online for greater convenience.
How can they ensure there is less bureaucracy and more efficiency? In short, prioritise the service, not moral police or implement dress codes!
Since the photos went viral, I have been following the public’s comments with interest. A good point made by a caller on radio was that we are confusing formality with morality.
Personally, I believe that Malaysians in general are a rational lot. When we visit places of worship, we do the necessary research to ensure that we are appropriately dressed. We ask when we are unsure of anything, and often times we would receive compassion and apathy.
I myself had recently made the mistake of wearing running gear to a Gurdwara, as the purpose of my visit was to join a band of Malaysians for a walk to raise funds for the needy.
Instead of being turned away due to the length of my running skirt, I was received with open arms by fellow Malaysians there, invited to share their food and shelter in merry company.
My not-so-appropriate dressing was met only with a negative comment on Facebook from someone who was not present at the event. Yet the people around me that day knew that my intentions were not malicious and that I was there to support them.
Public service departments are not places of worship. These offices are there to regulate systems in place and we visit them only out of necessity to renew documentation. We as the public should not be made to feel like we are errand children about to be chastised for any slight wrongdoing.
Yet we must also not be little Napoleons ourselves and humiliate or act rudely towards the public. Both sides should practise compassion and understanding.
Generally, Malaysians must also stop judging each other harshly.
We must relinquish our need to control everything and everyone. Having dress codes is just another way of subjugating people to follow a uniformed way of thinking. We are subconsciously eroding individualism and the empowerment of individuals to just express themselves. Surely bare skin could not cause earthquake tremors; but the brash rudeness of the act caused a lot of emotional upset.
Our focus should be on cultivating understanding of customs and cultures amongst us, and not to impose our beliefs on others.
The length of women’s skirts should not cause any disturbance or tremors; nor should we be forced to dress in a certain way to please the ego of men.
It’s time we gave priority to more important issues, and let the sarong be a piece of cloth to be celebrated as a piece of Malay heritage rather than an instrument of humiliation and moral policing.
- The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.