Illegal clothes

June 29, 2011 § 10 Comments

In the midst of a seemingly incoherent yet systematic crackdown by the Malaysian police force on politicians, activists, and citizens found to be associated with Bersih’s upcoming July 9 rally for “free and fair elections”, I couldn’t help but focus on the more mundane or trivial aspects of it – the policing of clothing. In Malaysia’s cultural climate, the policing of clothing is a collective national interest – as any woman will be able to tell you. But today’s announcement by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein really drove home the point of the policing of clothing:

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said today T-shirts with messages in support of Bersih have been outlawed because they were related to an illegal assembly.

“The Bersih T-shirt is related to an illegal assembly, then whatever they are wearing is illegal,” he told reporters.

Malaysia has a constitution that apparently grants us freedom of speech and expression [Article 10] that should, technically, grant each citizen the right to wear what she or he pleases.  Yet, this freedom can be revoked at any point because, as Art Harun reminds us,

Article 150, Clause 6 of the Federal Constitution allows the Parliament to pass any law and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to promulgate any ordinance during state of emergencies and those laws and ordinances will be valid even if they are repugnant or inconsistent with any of the provisions of the Federal Constitution.

At any point, then, something could be deemed illegal – and a piece of clothing associated with the something-illegal will become illegal clothing. This isn’t new; I suspect that clothing has been banned, outlawed, and deemed illegal in various ways for as long as clothes have been in existence. Gang-affiliated clothing. Clothing affiliated with political parties or movements. The burqa. Yes, women’s clothing, in particular, has always been suspect and subject to policing.  Clothes are the easiest points of reference in the policing and surveillance of the field of ‘visuality’, which as Nicholas Mirzoeff explains in his superb essay ‘The Right to Look’,  is the authority that lays “exclusive claim to be able to look.”*

The fabric of a flawed democracy in knots

What confounds me about this context is once again the arbitrariness of the authority of visuality that deems something illegal. That the Home Minister could come down hard on an article of clothing, as opposed to his past wishy-washy response to the display of cow heads, for example, is something that has kept Malaysian twitterers going for some days now. The spectacle of dead animal heads was seen by the Home Minister as a legitimate form of expression, as one of rightful dissent. An article of clothing, however, its outlawed. Ultimately, the law is used and will be used. But how the law is justified and implemented depends on an entirely arbitrary set of circumstances. This is how it has always been done in Malaysia. I am tired of this nation’s circular logic that presents confusion as a gift to its citizens. A state of the perpetually-mystified. It is not the blind leading the blind so much as it is the over-seeing authority leading the rarely-seeing. Visuality in the eyes of the few.

I am trying to wrap my head around thoughts but these thoughts are fleeting and elusive because I’ve been relegated to the not-think section of my mind for a week now, finishing a copywriting assignment that demands the brain be stopped while the body churns out words. The things you do for money, as they say. But this thought about clothes and the outlawing of clothes makes me think about the ‘The fabric of democracy’ essay on South/South and ‘Ignorance and the Moral Fabric of the American State’ on zunguzungu. What does it make me think? I am not sure.* I just know that I can’t quite make sense of what this means yet for the fabric of the “flawed democracy” of Malaysia.

[* Thanks to @southsouth for the link to the Mirzoeff essay. I read it yesterday and it's so dense and rich with ideas that I'll have to return to it and reread it in order to do it justice.]

[** What is the point of a blog post of uncertainties? I am not sure. But I wanted to try something on this blog - to write regularly and think out loud without fear or shame of my writing / thoughts "not being ready". Not-ready has been the bane of my life. But I've somehow fallen away from the initial goal of blogging and have allowed this blog to sort of flounder. Not that it should matter to anyone but myself. But since it does matter to me it should somehow be rectified.]

[Image from Dancing Canvas on deviant ART.]

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§ 10 Responses to Illegal clothes

  • John Ling says:

    What is interesting (and has rarely been commented on) is the subtext of the Bersih rally. The official colour of the event is yellow. Which, incidentally, is the colour of Malay royalty.

    This is no coincidence.

    The organisers and supporters of Bersih are attempting a non-violent coup. By issuing a not-too-subtle communique to the King and encouraging him to throw his weight behind their cause.

    But will he?

    I’ll reserve my thoughts on that.

    • Subashini says:

      I disagree. I mean, there are many ways to explore the subtext of the Bersih rally, of course, as well as the use of the colour yellow, but I think to conclude that it’s an attempt at a non-violent coup is somewhat irresponsible, no? A rally for free and fair elections in Malaysia is likely to come off across as anti-government for the simple reason that the Election Commission has shown itself partial to the federal government, and the federal government has remain unchanged in its ruling coalition since 1957. This rally is necessarily against BN hegemony, but I am frankly astounded that it can be read as Bersih attempting to stage a coup.

      The King’s statement was released yesterday and in it I can sense a subtle message of caution directed at agitators from within the government who are attempting to hijack the Bersih rally as a means to put forth ludicrous ideas about the advent of Communists, Christian evangelists, and the like. But maybe that’s a generous reading prompted by my wishful thinking. I’m not sure.

      • John Ling says:

        Thank you for your thoughts, Subashini. I understand where you’re coming from.

        However, the reality is this: the organisers of Bersih are now signalling their intention to call off the rally if they gain an audience with the King. This shows that the rally itself is of lesser importance than its actual goal: to reach out to the King and get his support in this political tussle.

        I have covered enough political rallies around the world to understand unstated agendas, and in this case, it’s as clear as day.

        What you have to understand is this: short of a coup, violent or non-violent, Barisan National will never allow free and fair elections. The result of the Sarawakian polls, which were widely rigged to give Barisan a two-thirds majority, is clear evidence of this.

        The Bersih organisers understand this very well, hence their intention to get the King involved, hoping he can act as a bulwark against Barisan.

      • Subashini says:

        I see. Thanks for explaining where you’re coming from. I understand better what you meant in your previous comment.

        Now that the ‘verdict’, as such, is out, what do you make of it?

  • John Ling says:

    What’s happened here is a clear case of astroturfing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astroturfing). Essentially, a political agenda disguised as a grassroots rally. Very similar to the Tea Party Movement in America.

    You can see it in the way the stance of Bersih has evolved over time. At first, organisers claimed that it was purely an NGO event unrelated to Pakatan. An event designed to do two things: highlight the flawed electoral system and push for positive change.

    However, two things were notably absent from their original manifesto: the use of royal yellow and the fact they were seeking to communicate directly with the King.

    This was done for of two reasons: one, to avoid alienating non-Malay participants who *might* be uncomfortable with petitioning a king who is the symbol of Malay sovereignty. And two, to avoid angering Malay nationalists, particularly within UMNO, who would perceive this as a coup.

    By the time they actually met the King, any such guises of being an NGO-driven movement had been dropped. The organisers of Bersih were clearly and obviously speaking on behalf of Pakatan.

    The King’s powers are largely ceremonial, though, and he, like the other monarchs, are hamstrung by the fact that his wealth and privilege are directly administered by Barisan. He has to be careful about how he plays things, lest he backs the wrong horse and suffers blowback.

    This is why the agreement was reached for Bersih to hold its rally in a stadium. This way, the King saves face, Bersih saves face, and most of all, Barisan’s authority is not directly challenged.

    Pakatan, of course, has won a symbolic victory in all this. It has shown its Malay supporters that the King is at least amiable to political discussions, and it has also roped in significant numbers of non-Malays into supporting dialogue with what has traditionally been a Malay-only symbol.

    It’s a clever enough ruse, and one that solidifies the possibility in voters’ minds that UMNO is not the only bigwig in town that can attain royal favour. The only thing regrettable is the lack of honesty on Pakatan’s part, but that’s politics for you.

    • Subashini says:

      Thanks for this. Will check it out soon. Was away from home during the weekend, and the LB site has been terribly, terribly slow for me for the last few days on my Screamyx.

  • John Ling says:

    That’s all right. You can blame it squarely on Barisan’s cyber-warfare. They have deliberately flooded the site with excess traffic to bring it to a halt. You would expect no less from them. ;)

  • South/South says:

    ‘The Bersih T-shirt is related to an illegal assembly, then whatever they are wearing is illegal.’ That is really an astounding comment, in a sort of emperor-demands-you-wear-no-clothes way. I’ve been trying to follow Bersih (I’ve only been doing a marginally decent job of it) and it’s true that the photos from the mobilizations have a markedly cohesive appearance because of the uniform t-shirt colors. The synecdoche this official made between ‘illegal assembly-illegal shirts’ points to a barely-covered anxiety about this unity (however contingent it may be, it still *appears* unified and organized).

    • Subashini says:

      That’s an interesting point.

      Closer to the date the organisers suggested that people attending the rally may want to opt not to wear yellow t-shirts, so as to evade being stopped/arrested before they even made it there, or alternatively, to wear regular clothes over the yellow t-shirts and then whip out the yellow later. This arrest-the-yellow-wearers-on-sight thing was ludicrous since it could only go so far; sooner or later people were going to simply stop wearing the colour (without rescinding their support for Bersih) in order to be able to attend the rally.

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