Short-sightedness of the fashion police

If you’re a typical Malay, you’d probably feel offended if visitors to your home wear shorts, especially ones that are, well, short shorts.

You might pull a face, say something nasty, or even ask such visitors to leave.

Nowadays anyone can and does wear shorts. I do. It’s comfortable, and there’s absolutely no chance that my old exposed knees will drive anybody’s desires wild.

While I was growing up in what seems like eons ago, chronologically as well as culturally, policemen wore shorts, albeit baggy khaki ones primly cleaned and ironed. Given the length of their shorts and the length of their socks (both very long!) the only exposed parts of their legs were the knees.

Cops then were known colloquially as mata-mata, or eyes, as in those which are watching you. Nowadays, they might have been referred to as lutut-lutut (or knees) instead, given how said body parts have become such a central player in our daily Keluarga Malaysia debates.

Today we have of course ditched this quaint western style of dressing, one where the white tuans and their memsahibs wore starched and crisp shorts. We have taken to another western dressing style, of either trousers or track bottoms, or alternatively, the other western style of robes and hijabs.

I’m obviously getting around to the current controversy regarding a Chinese lady being turned away from making a police report for wearing shorts, which she claimed were below knee level. She had to find substitute clothing before she was allowed to enter the police station.

We’ve heard about this kind of incident before, whether at police stations or schools or government departments where somebody somewhere, usually a security guard or somebody with a similar task, takes it upon himself or herself to enforce such “rules”.

These incidents used to be met with nothing in terms of a reaction to whatever noise was generated by them. Lately, though, the powers-that-be, from the head of the civil service to the head of the police, have pushed back with their own argument about civility and decency and decorum.

It’s getting bad, but not quite as bad yet: we haven’t heard of anybody needing medical treatment being turned away from government hospitals or clinics. But perhaps it’s just a matter of time?

On one hand, this looks like a ludicrous matter, the continuing spectacle of race and religion being fought in the sphere of public service. But on the other hand, this is a real matter that impacts people, and which one day may end in injustice or even tragedy, if it has not already.

Here’s one, hopefully sane, way of looking at this matter.

It’s perfectly understood and accepted that being indecently dressed in public is unacceptable to our society, and to many other societies too.

It’s also understood that standards of decency do vary depending on ethnicity and faith. That you don’t wear shorts into a mosque is accepted by all except for those who are too stupid to know or to care about this.

And if it does happen, it’ll be most likely due to the said stupidity or disrespect of one or a few idiots, and not a total attack on one faith by another. The world doesn’t end, and our faith shouldn’t crash either to such a challenge – if it’s a challenge at all, and certainly if our faith is in any way strong at all.

We have enough laws and regulations on what constitutes public decency. We know that being dressed in a certain way is likely to get us arrested under these laws and codes.

Would anybody object to such a person, dressed in a way that would get him or her arrested on some kind of indecency charges, being denied access to public service, such as a government department?

Well, if they deserve to be in a lock-up for the way they dress, they also deserve to be turned away from a school or police station.

If such a person comes to a police station for whatever reason, the policeman there should be arresting that person for indecency rather than merely turning her away.

However, a Malaysian being dressed like a typical Malaysian and not infringing any laws on decency should never be denied his or her citizenship rights by public servants. If they don’t want to deal with somebody who’s legally considered decently dressed, then they really should consider another job.

In other words, if it’s OK for the person to be in public dressed in a particular way, then it should be OK for said person to avail himself (or more likely, herself) to public service without any hassles or judgment.

You may tell such a person not to come to your house dressed that way, but you can’t say that at work.

I think it’s important that public servants be able to tell the difference between their own culture or norms (or biases and prejudices) against their duty to serve the public. This duty, or amanah, which is supposed to be the driving force behind our actions, is something many of today’s people seem to have forgotten.

If you’re a public servant fulfilling your amanah in serving the public the best way you know how, wouldn’t there be merit, or pahala, from God for this? And if you continue to serve the public even if you’re unhappy with some of their cultural manifestations (wearing shorts, whether showing thighs or not), wouldn’t there be extra pahala?

Put another way, what if there had been injustice caused by this bigoted view? Should we be sitting happily at home thinking about the rewards of being a hero of race and religion, or should we be worried about judgment on us not fulfilling our amanah?

This level of placing individual, or even collective, preferences over our sworn duty is wrong. What is OK, or not OK, in our own homes, or even private businesses or circles of friends, cannot override what are clearly and legally laid down as rules that we’ve sworn to uphold and deliver.

Society didn’t fall down in the days when cops wore shorts. And society today isn’t necessarily better because they no longer do.


The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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