Tuesday 30 June 2015

Malaysia’s dress code uproar 'stems from intolerance'

Prominent Malaysians call on government to intervene, stop moral policing
The Straits Times, 29 Jun 2015

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's recent incidents of strict enforcement of dress codes at government buildings is due to the rise of intolerant attitudes among certain "holier-than-thou" Muslims imposing their Islamic values on Malaysians of other faiths, said former high-ranking civil servants and lawyers.

Speaking to The Malaysian Insider, they called on the government to intervene and stop what they see as a trend of moral policing, following an uproar over the incidents.

They were referring to a string of cases this year involving women and men deemed to be indecently dressed and denied entry into some government buildings.

Human rights activist and lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan said government departments were not places of worship where austere dress codes would be imposed.

"They have to realise that these government offices are public premises to serve the public and not (places) to tell them how to dress," she told the news portal.

"They have gone overboard in seeking to enforce a dress code.

"Who gave them the right?"

On June 8, a middle-aged woman, Madam Suzanne G.L. Tan, was denied entry into a Road Transport Department office in Selangor for wearing a skirt that fell just above her knees.

She was allowed to enter only after putting on a sarong provided by a security guard, who said she was following orders.

In another incident on June 16, a young woman was forced to wear a towel to cover her shorts before entering the Sungai Buloh public hospital in Selangor.

On May 7, businessman Wilson Ng claimed he was denied entry to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport's lost-and-found baggage office for wearing knee-length pink shorts and sandals.

Former diplomat Noor Farida Ariffin of G25 - a group of prominent Malays - said the incidents reflected a growing religious conservatism on the part of many Malay Muslims.

"It shows the intolerant attitude of these holier-than-thou Muslims and their willingness to impose their Islamic values on fellow Malaysians of other faiths.

"It also shows their lack of respect for other races and other cultures."

Meanwhile, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, the former secretary-general of the Ministry of Transport, summed up the issue as a case of "little Napoleons trying to be more pious than the Pope".

"It's not like they were in their bikini or underpants, so what's the issue, why are they so affected by the sight of knees?" said the chairman of the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute's Centre for Public Policy Studies.

He said he had not encountered such issues during his time in government service, when freedom of choice was emphasised.

Ms Noor Farida called on the government to direct its agencies to stop issuing dress codes, given there was no legal basis for them.

The debate on the issue came even as Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria on Saturday called on non-Muslims to dress more "appropriately" in public places as a show of "respect" to Muslims.

This, he said, was because non-Muslims had to be mindful of Muslims who will sin upon seeing people who did not cover their "aurat", referring to the parts of the body required to be clothed in Islam.

"It is not wrong for them to dress how they like, but they must be considerate because when we bump into them at public places and see this, it is considered 'haram' (forbidden) for us (Muslims)," he told the Malay Mail Online.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Chinese Association vice-president Chew Mei Fun yesterday said Malaysians should not be compelled to adhere to standards set by "ultra-conservatives".

Ms Chew said the incidents threatened to open new rifts in inter-ethnic and religious relations in Malaysia as the rights of the victims have been violated, The Star reported.

"The grievance is due to long-term accumulation of a lack of understanding between different ethnic groups," she said in a speech at an inter-racial and inter-religious seminar.

She pointed out that although the authorities involved had issued apologies, the incidents have tarnished the reputation of the public service.

"People's feelings have already been hurt and the public has drawn its own (impression) of the incident," she said.

As a remedy, she called on more public dialogues to strengthen inter-ethnic understanding and national unity.

Mahathir slams zeal to impose dress code
The former prime minister’s comments come amid a social media uproar in Malaysia over a guard who ordered an ethnic Chinese woman to put on a sarong over her skirt before entering a government building.
Channel NewsAsia, 26 Jun 2015

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia is “sliding backwards and acting like Saudi Arabia” in its zeal to impose a dress code on non-Muslim women, the country’s former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad said on Thursday (Jun 25).

“Soon, not only shorts will be an issue. If a woman leaves a house without a burqa, it will be considered wrong,” Malaysian media quoted him as saying. "We are acting like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia. That's their culture. When we try to turn it into our culture, it becomes a problem."

Speaking at a press conference, Dr Mahathir said women should be allowed to enter a government building “as long as they aren’t naked”. Dress codes in these buildings should only apply to its employees and not to visitors – especially those who are not Muslim, he added.

Dr Mahathir’s comments came in the wake of a social media uproar over a security guard who ordered an ethnic Chinese woman to put on a sarong over her knee-length skirt before entering a Road Transport Department (RTD) office.

In a separate incident, another woman wearing shorts was told to cover her legs before being allowed into the Sungai Buloh hospital, while another two women were barred from entering the Selangor government headquarters in Shah Alam for wearing skirts that ended above their knees.

A report on the Malaysian Insider said that Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai has clarified there is no “sarong policy” at the RTD. Both the RTD and the hospital have also issued public apologies to the women.

Still, Cuepacs, an umbrella group of 140 civil service unions, announced on Thursday that it was giving out letters of appreciation to colleagues who had been enforcing the dress code in government departments, the report said.

Muslim groups back move to cover up
They say putting on proper attire is needed to show respect for Muslims
By Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, Malaysia Correspondent in Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 30 Jun 2015

EVEN as non-Muslim Malaysians are pushing back against being told to cover up their exposed legs when entering government buildings, several Muslim groups and a top cleric say that putting on what they deem as proper attire is necessary to show respect for Muslims.

Their comments come amid alarm among non-Muslims and some Muslims in the country after several incidents in the last few weeks of women - and one man - told to cover their legs by security personnel guarding public buildings.

The cases involved a woman trying to enter a Road Transport Department building in Selangor, a woman who tried to enter a Penang court, two women who were about to enter the Selangor state government building, and a man wearing shorts who wanted to collect his lost baggage at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

And yesterday, online media reported another incident involving a Chinese female lawyer who was barred from the Department of Land and Mines office in Kuala Lumpur for wearing a skirt.

In all the cases, the various top officials have apologised and said there is no such thing as "sarong policy", although in each case involving the women, a sarong was readily available to help the women cover up on the spot.

To be sure, signs that advise on dress codes have been put up at most federal government buildings for years to remind visitors to be modestly dressed. But there was hardly any enforcement before.

Several right-wing Muslim groups have now spoken up in support of the ruling.

Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) president Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman said Malaysians must be able to differentiate between personal and public space.

"We are not forcing anyone, but a person living in a society must learn how to respect his neighbours. Don't be too provocative. We must understand our social values. If we go to places like the Road Transport Department, we must have ethics. These are public spaces, not personal."

Another group, Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia, said a person must be "ethical" in their clothing.

"If you do not have rules, then anyone can say they have the right to wear anything," said its spokesman Abdul Hakim Othman. "Even a woman has the right to be naked - while it may be acceptable in Western countries, it is not in Malaysia because we are a Muslim country."

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria, a known arch conservative, told The Malay Mail Online that non-Muslims should dress more appropriately in public places out of respect for Muslims, especially as the country is an "Islamic role-model country".

"They should show respect for Muslims and dress more appropriately. They cannot be showing their thighs. It is not wrong for them to dress how they like, but they must be considerate," said the Mufti, who is the appointed chief cleric in the state.

The cover-up view, however, is not universally accepted by Muslim Malaysians.

Sisters In Islam, a liberal Muslim group, said conservative groups are instilling fear among local Muslims that Islam is currently under threat.

The group said while the Malaysian Federal Constitution said Islam is the religion of the federation, it also protects the rights of other religions to be practised in the country.

"If we continue down this path, Malaysia will soon face a far worse brain drain than what we are already experiencing and there will be a bigger split between Muslims and non-Muslims," it said in a statement to The Straits Times.

Former diplomat Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin said the recent incidents indicated a pervasive conservatism among many Malay Muslims and reflected their lack of respect for other races and cultures.

"This shows the intolerant attitude of these holier-than-thou Muslims and their willingness to impose their so-called Islamic values on fellow Malaysians of other faiths," said Madam Noor Farida, who is also spokesman of G25, a group of prominent Malays calling for rational discourse on Islam.

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