EVEN as non-Muslim Malaysians are pushing back against being told to cover up their exposed legs when entering government buildings, several Muslim groups and a top cleric say that putting on what they deem as proper attire is necessary to show respect for Muslims.
Their comments come amid alarm among non-Muslims and some Muslims in the country after several incidents in the last few weeks of women - and one man - told to cover their legs by security personnel guarding public buildings.
The cases involved a woman trying to enter a Road Transport Department building in Selangor, a woman who tried to enter a Penang court, two women who were about to enter the Selangor state government building, and a man wearing shorts who wanted to collect his lost baggage at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
And yesterday, online media reported another incident involving a Chinese female lawyer who was barred from the Department of Land and Mines office in Kuala Lumpur for wearing a skirt.
In all the cases, the various top officials have apologised and said there is no such thing as "sarong policy", although in each case involving the women, a sarong was readily available to help the women cover up on the spot.
To be sure, signs that advise on dress codes have been put up at most federal government buildings for years to remind visitors to be modestly dressed. But there was hardly any enforcement before.
Several right-wing Muslim groups have now spoken up in support of the ruling.
Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) president Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman said Malaysians must be able to differentiate between personal and public space.
"We are not forcing anyone, but a person living in a society must learn how to respect his neighbours. Don't be too provocative. We must understand our social values. If we go to places like the Road Transport Department, we must have ethics. These are public spaces, not personal."
Another group, Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia, said a person must be "ethical" in their clothing.
"If you do not have rules, then anyone can say they have the right to wear anything," said its spokesman Abdul Hakim Othman. "Even a woman has the right to be naked - while it may be acceptable in Western countries, it is not in Malaysia because we are a Muslim country."
Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria, a known arch conservative, told The Malay Mail Online that non-Muslims should dress more appropriately in public places out of respect for Muslims, especially as the country is an "Islamic role-model country".
"They should show respect for Muslims and dress more appropriately. They cannot be showing their thighs. It is not wrong for them to dress how they like, but they must be considerate," said the Mufti, who is the appointed chief cleric in the state.
The cover-up view, however, is not universally accepted by Muslim Malaysians.
Sisters In Islam, a liberal Muslim group, said conservative groups are instilling fear among local Muslims that Islam is currently under threat.
The group said while the Malaysian Federal Constitution said Islam is the religion of the federation, it also protects the rights of other religions to be practised in the country.
"If we continue down this path, Malaysia will soon face a far worse brain drain than what we are already experiencing and there will be a bigger split between Muslims and non-Muslims," it said in a statement to The Straits Times.
Former diplomat Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin said the recent incidents indicated a pervasive conservatism among many Malay Muslims and reflected their lack of respect for other races and cultures.
"This shows the intolerant attitude of these holier-than-thou Muslims and their willingness to impose their so-called Islamic values on fellow Malaysians of other faiths," said Madam Noor Farida, who is also spokesman of G25, a group of prominent Malays calling for rational discourse on Islam.