Public attire has become a hotly debated issue in Malaysia in the last two weeks after several women were forced to cover themselves with a sarong or towel after being told to cover up if they wanted to enter government buildings.
While the spread of Islamic conservatism is widely noted in Malaysia, what is worrying to some non-Muslims is how they have apparently been subjected to the cover-up rule in government buildings.
Questions are also being asked if there is a new "sarong policy" in place.
Deputy Chief Minister of Penang P. Ramasamy tweeted on June 10 that there was a "sarong policy" that was a "deliberate and systematic attempt to impose Islamic dress code on non-Muslims". The tweet has since been deleted.
Consider these cases.
On June 8, a middle-aged woman, Madam Suzanne G.L. Tan, was denied entry into a Road Transport Department (RTD) office in Selangor for wearing a skirt just above her knees. She was allowed to enter only afater she put on a sarong that was provided. The security guard said she was following orders.
"I do not know if I should laugh or cry," Madam Tan said in her Facebook post that went viral.
On June 16, a young woman was forced to wear a towel to cover her shorts to gain entry into the Sungai Buloh public hospital in Selangor.
The security guards said they were following instructions from the Health Ministry.
On June 22, reporter C. Premananthini and Selangor resident Tan Lee Fong were barred from entering the Selangor State Secretariat building for wearing skirts deemed too short.
The State Secretariat building is the heart of the Selangor government, which is run by federal opposition parties including the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party. The two women were made to wear sarongs.
And earlier on May 7, businessman Steven Ng claimed he was denied entry to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport's lost and found baggage office for wearing knee-length pink shorts and sandals.
Mr Ng had to put on long black trousers and shoes provided before he could claim his luggage.
In all the cases, the various top officials apologised and said there is no "sarong policy".
Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said: "We should not impose unnecessary guidelines on a dress code for the public."
To be sure, signs that say "dress codes for visitors" can be found at most federal government buildings to remind visitors to be modestly dressed. But there was hardly any enforcement before.
The president of civil service employees union Cuepacs, Datuk Azih Muda, said the guards were following the rules, and that the public should not sensationalise the issue. He said the aim of the dress code is to help people dress modestly.
A worry for non-Muslims is whether Malaysia's rising Islamic conservatism could lead to more sarong incidents.
Responding to the hospital incident, former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad said last Thursday that Malaysia was "sliding backwards" and becoming more like Saudi Arabia.
The Sisters In Islam group said: "Religious conservatism in Malaysia is crossing the line as now Malaysians face restrictions on their freedom of movement because of dress codes."
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