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.”*
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.]