“Barring cheongsams and sarees from UKM convo racist and unacceptable”

THERE are many ways of imposing cultural hegemony of the majoritarian community over the numerically smaller or not significant communities.

This is nothing unique to Malaysia where there is a preponderancy of the political and cultural hegemony of the Malays over the non-Malays. 

Such an imposition has become conspicuous over the last decades with the rise of UMNO as the defender and champion of the Malays. Public institutions too play a significant part in its imposition.

The retreat of non-Malay political and cultural organisations from the mainstream is also the cause of such an undemocratic imposition.

Therefore, it is nothing to be surprised that Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) came out with a recent ruling on the attire to be adorned during its annual convocation.

In the past, it was not just the public universities but many Government agencies that had come out with rulings on the “proper” attire to be worn during official functions.

Even so, such directives were not given official recognition but were often the result of overzealousness on the part of Government officials.

The latest directive of UKM that was posted on its official web page was an attempt to impose a “proper” dress code on both males and females during the university’s upcoming convocation.

The dress code overemphasised the attire of Malays, especially females, over the traditional attire of non-Malays.

It was one big jump from the earlier unofficial rulings on what constitutes “proper” attire: in the official posting of the university, the official attire that was permitted was the Western dress code – coat and tie – for males and Baju Melayu, and Baju Kurung and Baju Kebaya for females. 

On the other hand, the traditional dress for Chinese females, cheongsams, and sarees for Indian women was barred from the convocation.

“No serious consideration”

Since the dress controversy erupted in the open, the university has removed the web posting on the dress code. This itself indicates the UKM officials never gave serious consideration to the dress code before announcing it on its official website.

This premature removal of the dress code from the website further indicates that the dress code was introduced without much consultation with the Education Ministry and others.

The vice-chancellor (VC) of UKM must take responsibility for the matter, not because the dress code did not receive official sanction but because it was culturally insensitive to the non-Malays.

If the VC himself does not resign then he must identify those responsible for the present mess and take the necessary action.

I think that the posting was removed because the attempt by the university on moral policing was something not acceptable in a country where more than 40% of the population are non-Malays and non-Muslims.

Some overzealous racist and religious extremist officials in the university might have come out with such a dress code.

It was another mischievous attempt to impose cultural and religious hegemony on one race over the others.

While the dress code for women was more towards allowing Malay attire to the total neglect of non-Malay traditional dress, the attire for males was Western-oriented. This is the contradiction or the blind aping of Western dress culture.

While cheongsams and sarees were forbidden, the university found nothing wrong in allowing the western attire of coat and tie for males.

The entire dress code episode not only was a nefarious attempt to impose a hegemonic culture but racist in design.

Of all the agencies, one would hardly expect a public university such as UKM to come out with a dress code that was hegemonic and without any regard for the cultural sensitivities of the non-Malays. – Oct 31, 2022


Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is the state assemblyperson for Perai. He is also Deputy Chief Minister II of Penang.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.


Main photo credit: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

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