#Opinion Of The Day

Sarong-clad bankers? Cool!

The Sunday newspapers are not just about the "news". On a day whose vibe encourages a relaxed curiosity in readers, stories should ideally evoke an "ooh, interesting" moment as you come across something you might not have thought of before. That is why I am here to talk about clothes. And colonialism.

But what, you may ask, does fashion have to do with empire?


You know that feeling when you commute to work in your office shirt and trousers, crushed between fellow travellers on the train? And when walking outside the full heat of the equatorial sun beats mercilessly against your face? Or when you go to that formal event which absolutely requires you to wear a three-piece suit, never mind how hot and stuffy you feel? We would have melted away long ago if not for the miracle that is air-conditioning.

Here lies the crux of the issue: Our professional and formal clothes make sense in climates where sweat does not form within 60 seconds of leaving the house.

Yes, Singapore is a hot country, and we will perspire regardless of what we wear. But long sleeves and business trousers far from help.

Women admittedly have it better where this is concerned, with sleeveless tops accepted as classy enough for non-casual situations.

But this is an issue that goes beyond gender.

It is commonly accepted here that much of what looks "proper" comes from what we would call "the West". Though political decolonisation happened long ago, many artefacts from those years remain - from the laws we live under, to the buildings that cluster around the Singapore River, to the very fact that you are reading this column in English. And, of course, much of it is good. I benefit, thanks to many things the British implemented here all those years ago.

Still, clothes that stick to my skin are not one of them. One could argue that dressing up shows an effort to look good and professional. But what is so problematic is that "good and professional" often means long-sleeved Oxford shirts and dark business trousers. If you are Chinese, why should it not be formal hanfu instead?

Our sartorial norms still primarily come from the West, and much is woefully inadequate for the oppressive heat that scorches us every day of the year.

And yes, it is also true that many societies that were not colonised still don Western clothes in formal situations.

But that comes from the power that American and European (Western, in other words) culture has on much of the world.


That is not to say non-Westerners do not innovate with their fashion. Plenty, in the effort to reassert a national identity, have done just that. The Indian Nehru jacket, the colourful West African dashiki and the Chinese Mao suit are examples.

National leaders, as symbols of their countries, also make deliberate fashion choices.

Whatever you think of Mr Narendra Modi's politics, his Indian kurta-churidar combinations are a core part of his public persona. The man, keen to promote his country's identity, definitely understands the visual impact of rejecting Western formal clothes.

The Philippines has the barong Tagalog, the semi-sheer formal shirt that male presidents past and present have donned.

When travelling to Myanmar, you will see men and women wearing the longyi. Its most famous bearer is probably de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, though you find businessmen and politicians wearing it, too.

Interestingly, the longyi is relatively recent to the country. It was popularised during British colonial rule, showing the twists and turns history takes.

And in sub-tropical Bermuda, formal wear involves a suit jacket with Bermuda shorts. It may look bizarre to those unfamiliar with it. But it works for the climate.

Why can't we do something similar?

I support our local fashion labels, but many of those who design formal wear still take inspiration from the West. The closest we have is the batik shirt, occasionally seen during national events and visits to our neighbours. We also have the baju Melayu, though most non-Malays do not wear it.

So let us borrow from the South-east Asian sartorial tradition and make something uniquely Singaporean - something we can proudly wear to our jobs, weddings, and the courts (I have not forgotten you, lawyer friends with your robes). Of course, some might point to increasingly relaxed dress codes in many offices the world over, saying this deflates my argument. If Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg can wear his hoodies and jeans to work while generating millions of dollars, why continue this battle?

But my fight will be over only when I see sarong-clad bankers milling around Raffles Place during lunch.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going back to some of those blog shops I chanced upon while researching this piece. Some of those T-shirts look fiiine.

•#opinionoftheday is a column by younger writers in the newsroom on issues that matter to them and their peers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Sarong-clad bankers? Cool!'. Print Edition | Subscribe