President Maithripala Sirisena has a penchant for getting worked up over things most of us take for granted. This time, it was a tie. Having spotted a Divisional Secretary wearing a tie at a Pirith ceremony in Polonnaruwa, he was moved to ask if a tie was necessary for the occasion (‘mama ehuwa Pirith nisa tie eka oneda kiyala’).
He was told that a circular issued by a former president required public servants to be in Western attire at official functions. Not to be outdone, President Sirisena followed up with this rather ambiguous statement. I quote:
“Ape enduma sakas kara ganna one rate parisarika, deshagunika sanskruthika thathwayan ekkayi….sudusu athyawashya welawata ape rajya niladharin tie coat demmata prashnayak nehe….namuth kalagunika deshagunika thibena parisarika pasubima selakillata gena tie coat endath nethath waradak nehe…apita gelapena sudusu de bhawitha karamu.”
Translated, what he said was – we should wear clothes according to the country’s climatic and cultural criteria…. there is nothing wrong with state officials wearing tie and coat when it is absolutely necessary…. but, after taking into consideration the existing climatic and environmental background, there is nothing wrong with either wearing or not wearing tie and coat…. we should use what is suitable for us.”
This is typical political double talk. It does not tell anyone clearly what they should or should not wear. Western attire (tie and suit) may be worn ‘when absolutely necessary.’ On the other hand, what exactly is suitable for us, and what is more suitable when considering climatic and environmental conditions (usually hot and dusty all over Sri Lanka) isn’t quite clear. Polonnaruwa could be warmer than Colombo but then, the capital isn’t Greenwich.
This writer isn’t a regular tie user. He may wear one once every year on average. In a hot climate, ties are uncomfortable. This is evident at most weddings, where people other than state officials tie the knot. But the other alternative, the high-necked, long sleeved shalwar-type upper garment of Indian origin, isn’t any more comfortable. This can be tested by walking under direct sunlight at noon wearing either outfit.
The President has given examples of countries where public officials favour indigenous attire – namely India and Myanmar. That is where we really get to the point, which is culture. As every politician knows, culture is a vote-getting weapon leaving climate and environment in the dust. By rejecting the tie and promoting ‘suitable attire,’ we are hitting the cultural nail right on the head.
Each country has its own peculiar culture. If Indian politicians reject Western attire for formal occasions, it is their business. What is Indian is good for us when a politician finds something Indian to be politically-correct. Much of the time, things Indian aren’t seen that way. In Myanmar, it is the xenophobic former junta which promoted indigenous attire as a means of keeping the masses under control. In China, which has equally strong reasons for promoting tradition, no Chinese leader appears in public in indigenous dress. They know which way the world is going.
The Arabs and Africans have two approaches – they are equally-comfortable in both traditional address and Western suit. Actually, if you take climatic factors seriously, both Middle Easterners and Africans have a case for wearing their traditional, long-flowing robes in public, because they are very comfortable in hot climates compared to any other. The same may be said for traditional dresses from the far East. But one has trouble recalling any modern Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean or Japanese leader rejecting Western attire for official appearances. Ho Chi Ming and Mao Tse Tung went for a compromise because they were vehemently anti-Western. The Russians are not Westerners, but leaders from Lenin to Putin have never officially worn traditional attire.
Scratch most of our leaders and the latent anti-Western hysteria shows up. For some, the tie is a snake in disguise. But it is no longer thought of as Western. As a result of colonialism (which is history) and ensuing globalisation, millions of people all over the world wear ties for work or business as a matter of course. It is silly to think of a man wearing a tie as ‘Westernised.’ When a national leader sees a bureaucrat wearing a tie for a religious ceremony as cause enough to issue a public statement, the trouble lies not with the tie but with our national leaders.