In Parliament or taxis, it’s time we make Malaysian batik chic again

My late dad was a taxi driver. His ‘uniform’ was a long-sleeved batik shirt.

Now, this was Kuala Lumpur in the 80s and 90s. It was during an era where Opel Gemini black and yellow cabs started disappearing from the roads and were being replaced by Nissan Sunnys in the same colour.

Dad used to get his batik shirts from the one and only Globe Silk Store. It was the go-to shopping paradise for many families.

My father always believed taxi drivers were the “ambassadors” of the country. After all, his regulars were embassy staff and their guests. Some of them would hire him to show them Kuala Lumpur – and he kept getting quite a number of such requests simply because he used to narrate the stories behind the iconic landmarks.

Among his ‘KL tour’ included Tugu Negara, Muzium Negara and the Perdana Botanical Gardens, then commonly referred to as the Lake Gardens.

In 2007, the government adopted a new ruling that required taxi drivers to don white shirts and dark-coloured pants. It took some time for us to get used to seeing dad looking like a “lawyer” instead of seeing him in his usual batik.

Having served in the army before driving a cab, he was extremely particular about looking neat and sharp.

I understood that the ruling then was to ensure some form of uniformity. You see, at that time, not every taxi driver wore a batik or something presentable. Some simply slapped on T-shirts and torn jeans and topped off the ensemble with a pair of slippers as they drove passengers around. It wasn’t a pretty sight, especially for first-timers to the country.

But to phase out batik among taxi drivers wasn’t the brightest of ideas – for me at least.

Batik would be my first choice when it comes to formal functions. However, it must be cotton, like the type my dad wore, not those silk ones.

There had been numerous attempts to make batik chic over the past two decades. Civil servants were told to wear batik every Thursday; certain government agencies also allowed their staff to ditch the suit and tie for the more “cooling” batik. I applaud those moves.

Tourism, Culture and Arts Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri, on Thursday, suggested that MPs wear batik to Parliament every Thursday. She expressed hope that Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Azhar Azizan Harun would seriously consider her suggestion.

Such a suggestion, however, is not new.

Permatang Pauh MP Nurul Izzah Anwar had, in 2019, proposed that male MPs be allowed to wear batik shirts in the Dewan Rakyat. Her suggestion was supported by politicians from both sides of the divide.

Nurul Izzah added that such a move would help promote the batik industry. Nancy said the same on Thursday.

Once again, the batik conversation is back on.

Yet, from the days of dad wearing the batik till today, many generally still cannot differentiate between Malaysian and Indonesian batik.

The three main distinctions between the two are the process, motifs and colours, and price.

Indonesian batik usually uses brown, gold and black, while Malaysian batik, with its floral and plant motifs, uses plenty of bright colours.

As for the price, Malaysian batik is known to be more expensive.

But that shouldn’t derail the efforts to promote Malaysian batik. Perhaps the batik scene can further evolve. It is, after all, the perfect formal attire and casual garb.

It’s a shame that a ranking official of a government-linked company, had earlier this year, rubbished his staff for wearing batik, saying they were not going to a nightclub, and should wear suits and ties instead.

Just before the pandemic hit Malaysia, there was this batik craze, with more youngsters donning short-sleeved batik shirts. While they were mostly Indonesian batik, it showed that the youths appreciated the art form and perhaps needed just a bit of education to ensure that they fell in love with the local version instead.

The Indonesian batik is beautiful in its own way, and so too, is the Malaysian design. But enough of harping about getting MPs to wear batik. Let’s get the tourism ‘frontliners’ – taxi drivers, bus drivers, e-hailing drivers and tour guides – to wear batik once the industry resumes in full force. And then, we need to encourage more Malaysians to appreciate and wear the batik regularly.

My late dad, a cabbie, wore batik. His son, a journalist, loves wearing batik. And I’ll make sure his grandson, who will turn five next month, will appreciate and wear the batik.

Batik is indeed, for all.