Wearing a costume from another ethnic group is meaningful. I hope other undergrads will do so too
By Zhou Xizhuang Michael, President of NUS Students’ Political Association
When I took off my Baju Melayu in 2013, I did not imagine I would not be wearing it again for another eight years.
Back then, I wore the Malay traditional costume to celebrate Racial Harmony Day together with my junior college schoolmates (previously, I had already worn the Indian traditional outfit in secondary school).
Dressing in one another’s traditional costumes is nothing new in Singapore. Most Singaporeans would have worn the traditional costumes of another race on Racial Harmony Day in their school days.
However, during my studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I realise that things get quieter on Racial Harmony Day in July each year.
As it falls during the school holiday period, understandably, we will not get to see many students dressed in their colour traditional costumes and playing traditional games like batu seremban (five stones) and capteh on campus.
Neither do many undergraduates wear one another’s traditional outfits on festivals like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya, and Deepavali, among others.
Therefore, depending on Racial Harmony Day to promote racial harmony and raise cultural awareness is not enough, especially for university students.
In our multiracial and multicultural society, racial harmony binds us together despite our cultural and religious differences.
But to interweave racial harmony into the societal fabric, we need to constantly engage ourselves with cultural activities beyond Racial Harmony Day to fill up and sustain a reservoir of mutual understanding and respect.
One step towards achieving this is encouraging university students to continue wearing traditional costumes of other races.
Doing so invites us to learn about and understand another culture in a more intimate and personal manner; for you get to experience it directly and become part of the cultural presentation itself.
Such an experience would be different from, say, reading about another culture or looking at cultural and historical artefacts in exhibitions.
Thus, weeks before Hari Raya Puasa, I came up with a plan as president of the NUS Students’ Political Association.
On festivals and major occasions, it is common practice for the association to send best wishes and short messages to all those celebrating.
But for this year’s Hari Raya Puasa, I decided that it would be unique and more meaningful for some of us to deliver our well wishes to our Muslim friends in Malay traditional dress.
I was glad that when I floated this idea to my Malay friends, Qayyum and Fithri, who are also members of the association, they were quickly on board.
But first, I needed to get a new set of Baju Melayu ꟷ and a songkok (I didn’t wear it back in 2013).
Together with Qayyum, we managed to get some beautiful fabric along Arab Street. We also visited the Sultan Mosque and the Malay Heritage Centre, located just minutes away.
With Qayyum as my tour guide, I learnt many new things, such as that the black ring below the dome of the Sultan Mosque is decorated by black soy sauce bottles and that the five buttons on the Baju Melayu signify the five pillars of Islam.
Fast forward to May 12 ꟷ Qayyum, Fithri and I did a photoshoot in our beautiful Baju Melayu and Baju Kurung.
Our purple, pink, and yellow outfits stood out amid the white walls and greenery of the NUS Bukit Timah campus.
The quiet campus was livened up by our laughter and joy too, as we helped each other fasten the sampings (a kind of short sarong worn after the Baju Melayu for men) to our bajus and Fithri cracked us up when she reddened her mask with her lipstick.
This is racial harmony in its simple yet most adorable form.
Simple acts such as learning to tie the samping to the Baju Melayu, reading the Malay poem, and taking pictures put smiles on our faces and brought us closer as friends.
Thanks to the Baju Melayu experience and the photoshoot, Hari Raya Puasa became not simply a festival celebrated by the Muslim community; it also enabled me to participate in common experiences with my Muslim friends and celebrate together with them.
Cultural diversity on campus
The university is a suitable place to reignite this practice of wearing traditional costumes and for generating common cultural experiences.
With its diverse student profiles and global outlook, Singapore’s universities provide fertile ground for cultivating cultural appreciation and social consciousness.
Let’s imagine the following for a second.
An Indian female student wearing a Baju Kurung chatting with a Malay male student in Chinese Changshan (长衫), whilst their American female friend, an exchange student, dressed in a splendid Nonya Kebaya, scribbling on a whiteboard in the library.
What a beautiful and colourful sight that would be!
As university students, we often scamper to classes and are preoccupied with assignments and career planning.
Even as we focus on what lies ahead, we should not forget what we have left behind.
Most of us have worn each other’s traditional costumes and engaged in various cultural activities in our younger school days. So, why stop now?
If and when the Covid-19 situation improves and restrictions are eased, you can “jio” your friends for a traditional meal and to a cultural exhibition.
Better still, encourage your friends to wear one another’s traditional costumes when you guys hang out next time or meet for study sessions on campus, within the prevailing limit of group sizes of course.
In the meantime, we can spend our time at home reading up on different cultures and learning more about traditional costumes.
And universities can also play an active part in driving cultural engagements further by creating fun and engaging activities such as “wear-your-traditional-costume day” and appointing “cultural ambassadors” among students to spearhead such initiatives.
Essentially, racial harmony should not be treated and celebrated only as a festival. Instead, it should be manifested in our daily practices and become a mainstay of our social consciousness.
To be sure, wearing traditional costumes will not eradicate racism or change some cultural perceptions overnight.
But it can be a quick and easy way for us to establish initial cultural contacts and, like a thread, knits us to other activities to enhance our cultural awareness.
In turn, the combination of experiences may prove more powerful and effective in instilling racial harmony in our daily lives and value system than we think.
Let us bring the “colours” back to our university lives and our society. That way, our “little red dot” will become a “little colourful dot”.
This article was originally published on TODAYOnline under the "Gen Y Speaks" column.
Zhou Xizhuang Michael is a final-year undergraduate reading Global Studies at the National University of Singapore. He currently serves as the 46th President of the NUS Students’ Political Association and is the founder of The Convergence, a student-run publication under NUSPA.