Dennis Ignatius: No end to the madness

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If it’s not dress codes, then it’s the language issue.

Here we go again. Another Malaysian blocked from entering a government department because of apparently “inappropriate” attire. Our nation is facing so many challenges. The cost of living is rising; life is becoming harder for thousands of people. The value of our currency is falling; national debt is rising. We are losing out on foreign investments. Our industries are struggling to recover from pandemic-related economic dislocations. Everywhere you go there are “system rosak” signs. Heck, we can’t even keep our capital from being regularly inundated. And what are we obsessing about? The length of a woman’s skirt!

It’s not that people are dressing indecently or running around topless; it’s just that the religious establishment has decided that all Malaysians – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – must conform to their idea of what is appropriate. To them, shorts, sleeveless tops, knee-length dresses and even open-toed sandals are somehow indecent and sinful.

And they are using their stranglehold on government departments to bully us into compliance. If you want to access government services – services which you are entitled to, which you pay for out of your taxes – you must conform to their standards of behaviour. This is what the dress code issue is really all about.

But who are they to tell us how we should dress, what we should drink or how we should behave? Why should free citizens in a constitutional democracy yield to a bunch of unelected mullahs and their ideas of what constitutes good behaviour? It is an issue that goes to the very heart of our constitutional rights and freedoms.

It is no secret that the whole dress code issue is part of a wider agenda to turn Malaysia – the Malaysians that belongs equally to all of us – into a radical Islamic state which marginalises non-Muslims, weakens their constitutional rights and treats them as second-class citizens. PAS president Hadi Awang, for example, is demanding that non-Muslims should be shut out of senior government positions while others are insisting that Sharia law be imposed on all Malaysians irrespective of their religious affiliation. To yield on the issue of dress codes, therefore, is simply to hasten the day of our own servitude.

But don’t blame the guards for enforcing dress codes; blame the politicians for allowing a culture of bigotry and intolerance to fester. They can easily put an end to all this nonsense about dress codes but they don’t. Instead, they talk about the need for respecting others, for being mindful of religious sensitivities. Yes, we need to be respectful of others but isn’t respect and tolerance a two-way street? Is unilaterally imposing religion-specific dress codes in a multiracial society conducive to harmony? I can understand dress codes for entering places of worship, but forbidding the wearing a knee-length skirt to a government department?

So, kudos to Beruas MP Ngeh Koo Ham for speaking up. If only there were more such voices calling out bigotry and intolerance every time it rears its ugly head, perhaps it might give the mullahs pause. Silence only encourages the extremists.

But isn’t it disconcerting that we continue to spend so much time on such issues? Other countries have long ago resolved their legacy issues and moved on to greater and better things, but we keep rehashing the same old issues over and over again.

And if it’s not dress codes, then it’s the language issue. Suddenly, language has become a substitute for substance in foreign affairs. Our foreign minister boasted about having written a letter to his US counterpart in Malay. Our prime minister took things to a new level of absurdity when he proudly announced that he had spoken to US President Joseph Biden in Malay during a recent visit to Washington.

Do you ever hear Vietnamese or Thai or even Indonesian leaders making an issue of their language or their leaders boasting about how they spoke in their own language at international events? If they want to use it, they use it; they don’t brag about it or try to make it sound like it’s a giant step forward for their nation.

And they certainly don’t organise huge welcome home rallies after a rather mundane visit to Washington. None of the other ASEAN leaders, for example, felt a need to shamelessly preen their feathers with a stage-managed airport reception as Ismail Sabri did. It’s childish lah.

Now they are all going gaga about making Malay the lingua franca of the region. There’s even a suggestion of sending Bahasa Melayu teachers abroad to globalize the language. And this from a country with a failing education system and tons of other pressing issues to attend to. Is there no end to this madness? – Dennis Ignatius