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Much ado about a students’ dress code

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It appears that local universities have a perennial problem of not seeing eye to eye with many of their students over what they should wear in formal and informal settings.

Quite often, the universities insist the onus is on the students to strive to look good and proper in the eyes of the public by adhering to a dress code.

This was what recently happened at the University of Malaya, where its student groups urged the university management to withdraw a new dress code that was seen as transgressing on the students’ freedom.

A dress code suggests a preference for uniformity over creative and individual expressions in a learning environment.

The university directive stipulates that students are to follow three sets of dress guidelines – for formal events, sportswear and daily wear.

Under formal attire, the circular shows students wearing traditional baju Melayu and baju kurung (ethnic Malay attire), as well as three-piece suits for men and women.

As for sports and recreational wear, students are shown wearing tracksuits and jerseys. No shorts are depicted, meaning they are not allowed.

Finally, for daily academic activities, students are seen in formal-casual attire such as polo shirts and khaki pants.

Two students’ groups – the University of Malaya Association of New Youth and Suara Siswa – rightly opposed the guidelines because they were considered as unreasonable and have the effect of treating students like children, which has often been the case over the years in local academia.

On the other hand, an Islamic group called Neo-Siswa Universiti Malaya supported the directive because it agreed that students should “always dress appropriately on campus”. This is a moot point for many students when it comes to dressing ‘appropriately’.

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As intimated above, university students should have the freedom to express themselves intellectually, as well as through what they wear. Such freedom contributes to the exciting diversity that a university worth its salt should cherish and value.

For some observers, this onslaught on freedom to wear reflects the larger social context where conservatism has crept into many facets of life in the last few years.

To be sure, there are other local universities that have also imposed their strict dress codes on their students. The former takes [the lack of] academic freedom to a new level.

Incidentally, in an environment where the internationalisation of higher education has become a mantra for many local universities, inclusivity and diversity should become all the more important.

Foreign students bring in diverse cultural practices and ideas that should be regarded as an asset to the universities concerned.

Straitjacketing students in this manner is counterproductive, if not mind-boggling.

Students should be entrusted to make an intelligent and informed decision about what to wear appropriately for certain occasions.

Surely, you would not expect them to wear for a formal function something that you would for a costume party. That would be undermining their intelligence.

Graduation ceremonies, which are supposedly the most exciting moments for students, can and have become a hot issue when certain universities insist on their respective dress codes. Students should not be compelled to wear a prescribed selection of clothes and sombre colours as if they are going to a sorrowful event.

Convocations are official events, but they do not have to be all dull and dreary. They are an occasion where diverse costumes can add to the joy and excitement of the moment.

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Apart from baju Melayu, cheongsams, saris and native costumes should be welcomed, especially in public universities funded by taxpayers, as these attires reflect the diversity of life outside campus.

Besides, as rightly pointed out by Suara Siswa president Abqari Annuar, a person’s attire worn under normal circumstances does not necessarily reflect his or her intelligence.

There is a chance that some of those who now manage local universities were once students who sported beards, long hair and pierced nostrils, wore T-shirts and jeans, and sang the blues.

There are more important and pressing issues, such as academic standards and the provision and maintenance of educational facilities, that the universities ought to focus on instead.

A dress code should remind us that there can be a significant difference between form and substance. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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