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When attire falls short of official expectations

In a diverse society, a particular measuring rod may not necessarily be applicable to all

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The act of turning away members of the public who seek help from government agencies in an emergency for reasons of attire is disconcerting, to say the least.

The latest incident involved a man who reportedly wanted to file a police report at a nearby police station soon after his car was broken into, and his cash and wife’s passport in it were stolen.

He was turned away by a sentry simply because the shorts he was wearing for an informal family dinner before the unfortunate incident was deemed “improper”.

It was harrowing enough to be robbed. To be told that you could only lodge a report after going back home to put on long pants is bewildering.

That is why it’s reassuring when Penang police chief Khaw Kok Chin clarified in no uncertain terms that the top priority of the police is to receive reports from complainants and not whether their attire is appropriate while filing the report.

Indeed, the urgency of such matters can hardly be overemphasised. Yet there had been, in the past, a few cases of civil servants who felt you would need to “dress properly” before seeking assistance or being attended to.

For instance, last February, a medical officer reportedly refused to attend to the needs of a patient because her dress was regarded as “improper” to be allowed into the hospital concerned.

Most people who are inflicted by ailments would not have “proper dressing” on their minds when they rush to the hospital. Not that they would walk about scantily clad or, worse, naked.

READ MORE:  Man in shorts made to wear sarong before entering municipal council office

This brings us to another point. Should a doctor turn someone away just because her dress was severely torn and exposed certain parts of her body arising from a bad road accident? In that physical and mental state, she could hardly walk, let alone drive home to be dressed “properly”.

Besides, no one is ever “prepared” for an emergency.

A possible scenario would involve fire victims who probably wore only night gowns or pyjamas before the fire occurred. Surely, firefighters would not have to think twice before deciding to rescue them.

Such moral policing is inappropriate in government agencies that are tasked to serve the public, especially in emergency cases.

Discretion is obviously needed in applying a dress code, particularly during emergencies. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Having said that, the overzealousness of certain personnel in strictly imposing the so-called dress code will have to be seen in its wider context. Such zeal does not emerge in a vacuum.

The practice of certain states in the peninsula in imposing, say, fines on both men and women who are regarded as “dressing improperly” may have prompted certain civil servants to emulate it. To them, that is the standard to advocate and uphold.

Incidentally, in a diverse society, a particular measuring rod may not necessarily be applicable to all.

Be that as it may, hopefully the dress code will be moderated so that it does not adversely affect good public service.

If the dress code in government agencies is regarded as important, then their efficiency is equally crucial. – 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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Mustafa K Anuar
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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