This writing is in response to MCA’s Ng Chok Sin’s knee-jerk opinion published yesterday in the Malay Mail, titled “Shariah complaint dress codes for private sector?”. I normally would not address someone so directly, but his statement demanded a response.

His writing glaringly failed to examine the conditions of the industry he is commenting on and instead relied on cheap rhetoric. What he has conveniently side-stepped is the context that prompted Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Mujahid Rawa to propose formulating a dress code for Muslim women in the private sector. Context, among reactionaries, it would seem, is lacking.

Firstly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that Muslim women face a degree of discrimination in the workforce. In recent years, there are reports of Muslim women facing hiring discrimination or were pressured to not wearing the hijab in the workforce. There are three notable cases:

  1. In 2013, several retail stores in KLCC rejected a Muslim woman, Mira Kamil because they “do not hire women who cover up their hair”.
  2. In 2017, it was revealed that hotel employers disallowed the hijab in the workplace due to international SOPs.
  3. Malaysia Airlines does not allow Muslim women staff, specifically flight attendants to wear the hijab.This has been a subject of debate on both Barisan and Pakatan coalitions over the years.

The common factor among these cases is that these bans are placed in the tourism and service industry; industries where the expectation is customer satisfaction and perception-building for said brands and companies. In all these three instances mentioned above, organisations like Sisters in Islam (SIS), DAP’s Tony Pua and Yeo Bee Yin have come out defending Muslim women’s rights to wear the hijab at the workplace.

They have spoken out against discrimination and recognised that one’s productivity and contribution had nothing to do with their faith or dressing.Isn’t this the driving force of “Malaysia Baru”? Now that Pakatan is the federal government, they have it in their political will to finally set an example of a society that does not discriminate against gender, faith, or ethnicity.

Knee-jerk commentary like Chok Sin’s does bring to the question: is MCA against allowing the autonomy of women to choose to dress in the workplace? Or is he defending status quo established by private sector forces that dictate what Muslim women should not wear?

This is ironic, as he is MCA’s Religious Harmony Bureau deputy chairperson. His diatribe against Mujahid’s proposal seems to be more in defence for capitalists than they are for actual Malaysian citizens implicated by this issue. This statement makeshis stance explicit: “The private sector is called “private” for a reason. It is the part of the national economy where enterprise, innovations and profits are prioritised, and is not under direct state control and should be free of religious meddling.”

His rhetoric entirely misrepresents Mujahid’s proposal as extreme, intends to paint the Malay-Muslim population as unreasonable for this intervention, and underlines his lack of understanding of the context that set this entire issue up.

Understanding the discrimination in employment

In 2013, University Malaya economists Hwok-Aun Lee and Muhammad Abdul Khalid published a study that investigated racial discrimination in hiring graduates in Malaysia. The study indicated that race was a strong factor in hiring, with Chinese graduates receiving more callbacks that Malay graduates, despite similar or better qualifications. The study cautioned a few conclusions:

  1. Projection of existing race relations and political climate onto fresh graduates.
  2. Bumiputera affirmative action policies coloured perception of hiring Malay graduates, as their employment “needs” were perceived to have been met by the government, Malay companies, and civil service.
  3. Negative perception of the quality of local graduates, especially from public universities.
  4. Cultural compatibility in companies.
  5. Graduates that lack skills, notably language proficiency that meets the companies’ needs.

These findings, while telling, requires more study – something the authors repeatedly stress. Race relations and its effect on industries is a complex matter. But it has tangible effects, as witnessed over the years with Muslim women facing discrimination, either at the hiring stages or after they are hired with dressing conditions.

From a corporate perspective, it is simpler and cost-effective to deal with a monocultural office. Similar cultural and ideological backgrounds would lead to less conflict, which allows employees to focus on productivity. This, of course, is a line of logic that benefits corporations, as productive employees spend more time earning for the company.

It costs a company money to pay for an employee who has faith-needs. When they take extra time out of the working day and an extra hour out of the week to perform religious obligations.Or when it costs more to set up separate catering at company events. There is also an obstacle in industries that demand the flexibility of breaking these cultural and religious boundaries, such as entertaining clients. There is, no doubt, corporate logic in establishing certain norms and standards which possibly discriminate against others who do not meet the basics of these company cultures.

These standards materialise during the hiring stage when the stereotype and political baggage of an entire race is unfairly placed onto the prospective candidate, as shown in the UM study.

There is a school of thought where innovation comes from diversity; that can be achieved if (1)there is a mingling of different backgrounds, and (2) an employee is secure to thrive in their environment. This is not to say that monocultures cannot thrive, but to emphasise that diversity can also be a driving force for innovation in how a company adapts in an evolving and globalising market. When different backgrounds and experiences can contribute different ways of thinking about solutions. And as a multicultural nation, Malaysia is at an advantage of capitalising on this.

That said, the subtle ‘discriminatory’ cultural practices of corporations dangerously reflect a lack of accepting and engaging with diversity. If Malaysia’s cultural makeup is anything to take example from, diversity takes a lot of work. It is a Herculean challenge to foster and maintain equality and respect among our neighbours across various political, racial, and religious lines. And if we can demand that from ourselves, the government and political culture – shouldn’t we be able to hold corporations to the same standard?

Why the private sector needs a Shariah-compliant dress code

Mujahid Rawa’s announcement that the federal government is working on a Shariah-compliant dress code guideline comes at the intersection of addressing Muslim women’s needs in the free-market that discriminates against them. When one examines the minister’s statement, it implies a few things:

  1. The private sector does not have a standard dress code for Muslim women. They operate on their own standards which meets the corporate needs but not necessarily those of their employees.
  2. A discussion, study and compromise need to be held with the private sector to establish an acceptable dress code for Muslim women.
  3. If an acceptable dress code can be established, agreed, and honoured between involved parties, it would perhaps allow better employment opportunities for Muslim women.

Dress codes are not a foreign concept in a workplace. It helps employees navigate the line between presentation and professionalism expected by their profession. If the private sector is reluctant to take up the job of setting guidelines, then this is where government steps in. After all, what is one of the government’s role if not a facilitator between society and market forces?

It should be made clear that the guidelines are not about enforcing. In the Mujahid’s own words, “I can’t say it is (legally) binding because the guideline is subject to conditions imposed by the private sector, but at least we have a guideline.”

Of course, there are legitimate fears that these guidelines will be used to discriminate against other Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab. It is imperative to establish here that a Shariah-compliant dress code guideline does not and should not restrict the right of other Muslim women choosing not to wear the hijab. Mujahid’s proposal should not be mistaken as similar to conservative politicians such as those from PAS who want to compel their faiths onto others with little to no compromise.

Pakatan had made it clear, even before they became a federal government that there is a commitment on their part against any form of discrimination, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or faith. This also extends to allowing women the freedom to decide for themselves if they want to wear the hijab or not.

Last year, then-lawyer and now DAP Lim Kit Siang’s political secretary Syahredzan Johan, wrote that the government should establish anti-discrimination laws that punish discrimination and encourage and promote equality. This was in response to the hotel-hijab debacle.

Several countries, such as the UK have laws such as the Equality Act that protects citizens against discrimination across different characteristics such as race, religion, gender and sexuality. It isn’t perfect, as cultural, political, and subtle norms still dictate over these institutions, but it is a good starting point. Now that they are in power, it is high time that the Pakatan government makes good on their commitment to equality. But it also requires cooperation from our side to not be alarmists, and to study the situation with nuance – as opposed to responding with emotional outbursts in order to win political points and relevancy.

This article has been published in The Malay Mail.