No 'sarong policy', Malaysian minister says in response to furore over dress code

PETALING JAYA - Malaysia's Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai has said there is no such thing as a "sarong policy" in response to an incident where a woman wearing a skirt was asked to put on a sarong by the Road Transport Department (JPJ) before they would attend to her.

Ms Suzanna G.L. Tan posted on Facebook on Tuesday that she had gone to a JPJ branch office to transfer ownership of a car and was asked to wear a sarong, The Star newspaper reported. She was wearing a skirt that ended a few inches above her knees.

"I do not know if I should laugh or cry," she said in her Facebook post. The incident took place at the Wangsa Maju JPJ office in Gombak, Selangor.

The case caused a furore in the country where lawmakers on both sides of the political divide and advocate groups criticised the actions of the JPJ officer.

"We should not impose unnecessary guidelines on dress code for the public," the transport minister said on his official Facebook page on Tuesday.

Mr Liow said he had ordered an investigation and asked for action to be taken. "There is an immediate need to review existing guidelines," he added.

The Star also quoted Wanita Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) chief Heng Seai Kie as calling JPJ "a little Napoleon" for imposing rules according to its "own whims". She urged the authorities to punish the officer who gave Ms Tan the sarong to wear.

"With our multi-ethnic communities, it is important for Malaysians to nurture harmony among the races and national unity via the spirit of mutual respect and inclusiveness," she added.

The Joint Action Group For Gender Equality (JAG) also said refusing to provide service and forcing Ms Tan to wear a sarong was unwarranted and unprofessional.

"Such mistreatment is reflective of the growing conservatism in Malaysia which seeks to police the dressing and behaviour of ordinary Malaysians.

"While it is acceptable to have a dress code for religious houses such as mosques or temples, the government on the other hand has no business adopting such stringent dress codes," JAG said in a statement endorsed by eight women's groups, which included Sisters In Islam, Association of Women Lawyers and Women's Aid Organisation.

JAG called on the government to end "this unnecessary moral policing" by removing stringent dress codes - especially those that are tied to narrow and arbitrary definitions of modesty.

In response to the furore, the JPJ apologised to Ms Tan and admitted that its officer went too far by forcing a decently dressed woman to don a sarong, the report said.

"JPJ would like to firmly state there is no regulation that says visitors must be provided with a sarong. Clearly, this was an inconvenience to the visitor."

The department said its offices are subject to a dress code much like other government ministries and departments.

Ms Tan told The Star that she did not expect her Facebook post would turn viral.

"I'm overwhelmed and totally surprised," she said, laughing nervously when contacted by phone.