Making ‘songkok’ compulsory to all: Penang should never pander to unthinking attire requirements

IN ANY official ceremonies of whether at the state or federal level, there might be requirement to wear formal attire whether for those directly involved or participating as guests.

Such a practice has been more or less accepted over the years in the interest of the nation as a whole.

Some would even argue that wearing a songkok for men or wearing baju kurung for women are Malay in nature and not having religious connotations.

However, to impose the ruling of songkok or baju kurung on those not directly involved in the official events is something else.

For those who don’t see this as an imposition, then it is not an issue. If the directive is not made clear to the members of the media and the public, then it becomes an issue.

I am not sure whether the requirement of songkok is something that officially endorsed by the state government in the form of an official gazette.

When I was the member of the state government, I found it not a problem to wear the songkok – the official attire of the first dress – during the ceremonies officiated by the governor of the state.

In the opening of the state assembly, we had to wear the official attire of the first dress with the songkok. It was not an issue for me, although the imposition reeked of a cultural requirement.

Little Napoleons

Even the present Penang chief minister Chow Kon Yeow seems mildly disturbed by the songkok requirement for not the participants but also guests including members of the media, well-wishers and the public.

Guests who were caught unaware of the new songkok requirement had no better option than to swarm the Mydin hypermarket in Penang Road to get their supply of songkok

In the actual invitation letter that was sent to the public, the songkok requirement was not highlighted but stated in non-conspicuous manner that might not have caught the attention of the guests.

In the past when I was with the state government, this was not issue with the members of the media and the invited public.

Maybe there was no such requirement. But now I am not sure whether such a requirement was imposed this year and whether it was endorsed by the Penang state executive council earlier before the state elections.

Anyway, Chow – in all fairness – has asked the Penang state secretary for a full report on the matter.

In the interest of attire uniformity, I can understand and agree that state officials including members of the legislative assembly have to wear a standard uniform including the songkok.

It might not have legal standing but officials in the past had no problem complying. It was never challenged – not that such a requirement could not be challenged – but whether it was worth the challenge in the first place.

But imposing such a requirement on members of the media and invited guests is something difficult to comprehend. Why impose such requirement in the form of bureaucratic directive on others than the officials directly involved in the official ceremony?

I have a strange feeling that some junior bureaucrats might have taken on themselves without consultation with their superiors to come out with the attire directive.

Agree to disagree

But unfortunately – like it or not – the Penang state bears the responsibility to clear the matter to the public. It certainly looks bad on the state to impose such a last-minute requirement on the day of the event itself.

It doesn’t give a good image to the Penang state that boasts being democratic, pluralistic and consultative.

In the age of democracy and openness, the public don’t accept the fact that the Penang state government would pander to those narrow and sectarian interests.

I agree that even if there is need for attire requirements including the songkok, such compliance should not be be imposed on members of the public, relatives of officials and even the media entourage. – Aug 18, 2023


Prof Ramasamy Palanisamy is the former DAP state assemblyman for Perai. He is also the former deputy chief minister of Penang.

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

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