We Malaysians have the right to be naked and to wear short skirts

Do we have the right to wear what we want?

Take the recent incident at Sabah. On May 30, 2015, ten foreign tourists stripped naked for photography on top of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah. This nudity act was scandalous for two reasons. First, their act was deemed sacrilegious because Mount Kinabalu is deeply revered and sacred to Sabahan natives. Second, their nudity act was said to have angered the gods of the sacred mountain, and as a consequence, an earthquake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, was sent by the gods. The earthquake claimed 18 lives, including six children, all of whom were at Mount Kinabalu at that time.

Ten foreigners atop Mount Kinabalu, getting ready to strip naked. Their activities were believed to have caused the wraths from god in the form of an earthquake a few days later (photo from ).

Dress code violation #1: Ten foreigners atop Mount Kinabalu, getting ready to strip naked. Their activities were believed to have caused the wrath from the gods of the sacred mountain. The wrath came in the form of an earthquake a few days later, claiming 18 lives (photo from loyarburok.com).

Whether you believe this earthquake was caused by supernatural beings or by the movements of Earth’s tectonic plates is irrelevant. It is the perceived violation and offence that these tourists had brought upon the natives of Sabah that is important. But yet, from the perspective of the ten nudists, they may think that it is their right to wear what they want (or in this case, not wear anything) and that the natives of Sabah should not impose their moral values, which the tourists have no believe in, upon them. So, who is right?

Consider a second recent incident involving Suzanna Tan and the Road Transport Department (RTD). On June 8, 2015, Suzanna was refused service at an RTD office because she had violated the department’s dress code by wearing a skirt that did not extend below her knees, so she was made to wear a sarong before she could be served. Embarrassed and humiliated, she vented her frustrations on Facebook, and her post went viral. Suzanna’s incident drew the attention from various people including that from Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, a member of the Muslim moderates G25 group. Datuk Noor Farida deplored RTD’s dress code (as well as that in other government agencies), saying this is an example of “the infiltration of religious conservatism into public administration”.

Suzanna Tan had to wear a sarong to cover her legs before she could be served at the RTD (Road Transport Department) office (photo from ).

Dress code violation #2: Suzanna Tan had to wear a sarong to cover her legs before she could be served at the RTD (Road Transport Department) office (photo from themalaymailonline.com).

The religion in question is of course Islam. The dress code at all government agencies are heavily biased towards that dictated by Islam. So, should Suzanna, being a non-Muslim, follow RTD’s dress code? Like the case for the nudists at Mount Kinabalu, does Suzanna have a right to dress how she likes?

Whether we realize it or not, we all have conformed to some form of dress code. What we wear is dictated by social norms, culture, and for those who are religious, religion.

But at the same time, we have the right to dress in whatever way we want. We have the right to be naked on the top of any mountain, sacred or not, or appear even in a bikini at the RTD’s office. No one can refuse to recognize us simply on the basis that we dress differently from that expected.

Consider, for instance, the male natives of Papua New Guinea (PNG). One traditional wear of the men there is koteka or penis sheath which they wear over their genitals. To them, wearing the koteka is part of their identity and culture. It would take a very brave person to tell them otherwise.

A PNG man, wearing a koteka, would probably be deemed offensive if he walked up Mount Kinabalu or entered an RTD office, but to him, he is acting perfectly normal according to his culture. He has all the rights to wear his koteka wherever he goes even if his attire is regarded inappropriate to others. Who are we to tell people of another culture that their culture is wrong or incompatible?

So, what we have here is a conflict of moral values, where the values of one group of people are being imposed on others. The natives of Sabah are imposing their moral values on others, dictating how people should behave on the sacred mountain. And in the case of RTD (as well as other government agencies), the moral values of Islam are imposed on others such that they dictate how and what people should wear.

How then do we resolve conflict of moral values? Although we each have the right to dress how we want, this does not mean we have to express this right all the time. We need to consider very carefully if expressing our right to dress would unnecessarily cause conflict with other groups of people who do not share our moral values.

So, yes, the ten nudists on top of Mount Kinabalu have the right to be naked, but they should have considered if stripping naked just for the sake of having the ultimate group selfie is more important than the sentiments of the local natives. Just as people would not strip in a mosque, temple, or church, these ten tourists should not have been naked on a mountain considered sacred by Sabahans.

Many people, including these Sabahan natives, identify themselves through their religion, so for anyone to disrepute that would exacerbate group conflicts. Complying with the dress code (by not being naked, for instance) on Mount Kinabalu is not about comprising your rights or moral values, but it is about recognizing differences exist and yet showing respect to these differences.

But the Islamic-based dress code imposed by RTD is a different case. Are RTD offices somehow sacred grounds to Muslims? If not, why Islamic-based dress code? Why not base a dress code on, say, traditional Chinese wear? Or better still, for the sake of national unity, RTD can rotate on a per monthly basis dress codes based on Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sabahan, then Sarawakian culture? That would certainly be innovative, perhaps even fun.

Malaysia unity only comes when differences between peoples are respected not removed by imposing one's moral values upon others (photo from thestar.com.my).

Malaysian unity only comes when differences between peoples are respected, not removed (photo from thestar.com.my).

If Malaysia is to be progressive, we need to create a common platform upon which all Malaysians from all culture, religions, and beliefs can come and work together to achieve a higher goal that transcends each group’s interests. Yes, we each have rights, but that right needs to be exercised in view of respecting, not removing, the differences between us.



  1. I agree with Christopher’s views. What is so not ‘sopan’ about the skirt Suzanna was wearing at the RTD? Quit imposing your set of values against others. Do your work efficiently instead of ‘moralizing’. And don’t you just loathe how it’s always the ladies that get treated this way? So predictable.

  2. I am not totally agree with your point here. In RTD case / SUK office, the dress code already imposed to public for a long time as the most considerable attire. It not about Islam at all, Islam we have aurat (proper dress code for muslim) and in this case they put the dress code with multi racial / religious consideration. It seems some people love to initiate hatred among people which suppose not to have one in the first place. Even if you entering some place (casinos/ Exhibition etc), you need to obey to dress code even it not related to Islam at all and in this cases no issues arouse as happened to government premises.

    • Thank you for your comments.

      Yes, there are dress codes, for instance, for formal dinners, business functions, or even at work. I doubt my employers will be happy if I came to work dressed in a T-shirt, shorts, and slippers — or worse still, naked. The issue here isn’t about dress codes, but really about imposing your values onto others who do not share yours. You talk about the importance of ‘aurat’ to you, which is fine and your personal matter, but covering ‘aurat’ has become mandatory for everyone, including us, non-Muslims. No doubt that dress codes in public offices are based on Islam; anyone who says otherwise is either deluded or naive. If I am uncomfortable seeing people’s eyes for my religious reasons, for instance, is it ok for me to demand that everyone wear dark glasses? No, you say? But why do you disagree? You are showing my religion disrespect if you do not comply. Do you think Malaysia will be peaceful if each group imposes their values onto others? And just because something has been done in the past, does not mean it is right and should always be done.

      As I mentioned in my article, if having a dress code is so important in public offices, why not base the dress code on the Chinese, Indians, or East Malaysians?

      • In Malaysia 5th National Principle “Kesopanan dan Kesusilaan” we stress on courtesy and morality and this the reason the dresscode being impose and its moral values that imposed to all Malaysian. I wonder why you relate the dresscode to Islam even you are not clear about correct Islamic wear. Yes the current dresscode somehow have Islamic influence because most of Malaysian are muslim. Similar if you living in Arab country, the dress code will be influence by Arabic culture since they are majority. Its not something weird and acceptable throughout the world.

        I regretted that in the end the government body apologies for the action. In the first place, this minor issues not need to be viral since its already in place for long time. Here I can see there will be more similar cases will happened and spread hatred among Malaysian. For me government need to be strong with their stand and not seems weak due to issues which was not suppose to be one.

        I agreed not all things set in the past are correct, but the way the issues arouse was not a proper channel because it created more hatred rather than try to improve the situation.

        Imposed different dresscode on public offices seems good but is it practical.? So everyone need to have set of attire on each race in Malaysia to attend public offices?

        • I think everyone, non-Muslims included, is aware what a correct Islamic wear is. The country has made it very clear to us, whether we like it or not. Well, the government may have apologized but only to the aggrieved individuals, after the issue was raised in the media. The dress code still stands, and no indication it will change. You ask non-Muslims to understand you and yet you attempt little to want to understand non-Muslims. You quote national policies as if policies, once approved at the national level, are correct and immutable to change or review. Yes, Muslims may be the majority in this country, but by only about 60%. What of the 40% “minority” — unimportant?

          You say I am spreading hatred only because I am asking you to step back and reconsider moral values, culture, and opinions different than yours. I am not spreading hatred. If I was, my article would not be about promoting national unity and understanding — the opposite of hatred.

          • I am not saying you spread the hatred, its just the person who viral this minor issues to become the national issues where people tend to blame each other.
            I am not saying 40% wasn’t important, its just we play with number where in democratic principle, the majority will shape the country. For me personally I disagreed with democracy because it not serve the citizen equally and fairly.

  3. No Big Deal, You May Go Naked Anywhere You Like, And Prior To It, Make Yourself Comfortable Nakedly Exhibiting Your Private Part To Your Own Family First.

    • If you and your family are comfortable with your own nakedness, why not? If you are allergic, then don’t. Problem solved.

      If you have read my article more carefully instead of banging away at the keyboard immediately after reading the article title, you would have realized this article isn’t really about being naked or fully clothed, but about pushing your moral values onto others who don’t share yours. Just as you dislike my apparent recommendation that you should go naked too, then you shouldn’t demand that I wear, for instance, a sarong because you are uncomfortable or are turned on at seeing my hairy legs.

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