Dressing up ‘properly’ for convocation

Mustafa K. Anuar

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia courts backlash for barring female graduates as well as guests from wearing the traditional attire of the Chinese and Indians, that is, cheongsam and saree respectively, for its upcoming 50th convocation ceremony. – UKM pic, November 1, 2022.

DRESSING up for a university convocation ceremony used to be something you looked forward to – until you recently were told how to “dress properly”.

In an earlier posting on its official website, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) barred female graduands as well as guests from wearing the traditional attire of the Chinese and Indians, that is, cheongsam and saree respectively, for its upcoming 50th convocation ceremony. 

These dresses were considered inappropriate for the formal occasion, which is – on the flip side – like telling the Malay graduands not to wear their traditional baju kurung or baju kebaya. 

Female graduands and guests were instead permitted to wear a baju kurung, a loose kebaya or a long sleeve blouse or shirt with a dark long skirt or gown. This prompted critics to ask, why only allow for Malay traditional dresses and not others?

Male graduands were only allowed to wear a lounge suit, a complete baju melayu or long sleeve shirt with a tie and dark pants. It seems like a western attire is ironically considered culture-neutral and kosher for the occasion.

It is not too difficult to understand why there was public uproar, particularly among social media users, over what was seen as the university’s insensitivity towards the cultural traditions of minority communities.

Sensing the public outrage, UKM swiftly revised the dress code advisory to allow graduands and guests to wear national attire. This, however, has left us, especially the graduands, wondering what “national attire” really means.  

It stated that the male guests are allowed to wear a lounge suit, formal long-sleeved shirt and trousers or national attire.

Female guests and graduands are also allowed to similarly wear a lounge suit or a long-sleeved top paired either with formal trousers or a long skirt.

The revised guideline notwithstanding, this incident still begs the question as to why non-Malays were prevented from wearing their traditional attire in the first place.

This advisory not only suggests UKM’s cultural insensitivity, but also a curious attempt to curb the freedom to express one’s cultural identity in an institution that is supposed to provide the much-needed democratic space.

An institution of higher learning worth its salt should be able to embrace and celebrate the diversity and richness that our multiethnic and multicultural society has to offer, which go beyond the traditions of the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

In other words, it necessitates a university that has an inclusivist outlook to not take kindly to entry refusal just because certain graduands and guests wore, say, their respective traditional attire that represent the Orang Asal, the Thais, the Punjabis and the Portuguese. 

Besides, a university should not work towards being a bad example for its students who might then be persuaded to think, rather erroneously, that the rich traditions as well as concerns of the minorities should be marginalised or dictated by the majority.

In the populist parlance, the minorities are supposedly part of the Keluarga Malaysia, which we are often reminded of via the billboards that are erected along the highways and at road junctions.

It would be more disturbing if the cultural restrictions imposed on the non-Malays was influenced by the toxic politics of race and religion played by some politicians in national politics, particularly when the nation is inching closer to the polls.

The wider society would be all the richer if universities are always mindful of their pivotal role in liberating minds. – November 1, 2022.

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