Sad saga of the songkok

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The official use of the songkok has always been embroiled in controversy, be it the requirement for state assemblymen’s swearing in or non-Malay students attending a university convocation. The songkok really has nothing to do with religion or ethnic identity, says our special correspondent.

The poor songkok is once again the centre of controversy.

The type of clothes people wear in different continents and different countries has always been decided by geography in keeping with the demands of climate – loose clothes made of cotton material in the hot and humid tropics, and woollen clothes, a necktie to keep the cold and wind off one’s chest and a hat or a cap to protect one’s head from the cold. Beduins cover themselves from top to toe to protect themselves from the burning sun and the lashing sand during a desert storm. If one’s mentality is “style mahu, mati tiadapa”, there is nothing to prevent him from dressing and walking about as if he is in London. Dress is everyone’s freedom of choice.

Religion demands devotion to God – to fulfil God’s every wish. Abraham Lincoln’s response to the general who told him he hoped God would be on their side during the Civil War best illustrates this concept. “General,” he said, “that’s not my worry. I hope we are on God’s side.” The other important demand of religion is righteousness – ensuring that we always do what is right. Prayer, food, rites of passage etc. are rituals. It is a sad fact of life that devotion to God and righteousness are debunked because one’s spirituality cannot be displayed in public for all to see whereas religiosity – dress, prayer ash on the forehead, a cross round the neck, a skullcap and the type of food one eats or avoids can be proudly advertised.

With regard to the songkok, its official use has always been embroiled in controversy, be it the requirement for state assemblymen’s swearing in or non-Malay students attending a university convocation. The songkok really has nothing to do with religion or ethnic identity. It is an offshoot of the Congress Party’s white cap from India. The only difference is that the white cap was made of cotton material whereas the songkok is made of velvet, etc. Come to think of it, the fez used in North Africa and some Middle East countries can lay claim to being a truly Islamic invention. By the way, Mustapha Kamal, the Father of modern Turkey, banned both the use of the fez and the veil in his attempt to establish a modern secular state. Any item that goes with essential attire is mere appendage at best and an adornment at worst.

In keeping with human rights, everyone should enjoy the right of choice of dress. The only requirement is that a person’s dress is decent and socially acceptable. Placing religious or cultural demands in the way a person dresses is an unjustifiable encumbrance. The traditional Malay dress for men – baju, sarong plus a songkok is attractive and elegant. A full suit plus a songkok is a marriage of eastern and western dress culture – a real mismatch. Of course, we must accept the right of assemblymen and ministers to dress in this way though some say unkindly they may look like butlers, valets or hotel doormen.

I discussed the issue of the songkok with a Malay colleague with whom I worked at a local university. He dismissed any ethnic, religious or cultural significance, maintaining that it is nothing but a head-wear like any other. He said that what is under the songkok is more important! He commented that so-called champions of race and religion will continue to exploit and manipulate every non-issue to suit their political agenda. He asked how many Malays owned a keris, worst still kiss it as a cultural duty. He claims that more pirates own a keris than ordinary Muslims.

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He added that the staple food of vultures is carrion but to the culture vultures even the poor songkok is delicious fodder. As I was about to take leave, he said that he had never donned a songkok before but now it is a permanent part of his attire. “It serves to cover my bald pate,” he said.

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