“Shorts and slippers aren’t sloppy,” says self-professed “slipper-wearing environmentalist” Ho Xiang Tian. Is that a hurray?
By Raiment Young
Yesterday, in a long-form commentary for CNA, the 25-year-old environmentalist Ho Xiang Tian (何翔天) wrote, “most people complain about Singapore’s erratic weather—it’s hot and humid, or storming (sic) and wet—but no one ever seems to complain about the dress code that amplifies discomfort in Singapore’s weather.” How fascinating it is that an environmental advocate would “talk about how we dress in sunny Singapore”. Mr Ho is the co-founder of LepakInSG, a three-person initiative that offers “a one-stop calendar listing environmental events and activities in Singapore”, as stated in its blog page. By his own admission in the CNA piece, he’s a “slipper-wearing environmentalist”, just as, I suppose, Gandhi was a dhoti-wearing anti-colonial nationalist. Mr Ho’s slippers are, presumably, the mark of identification with the problems of our impoverished Earth, just as the Mahatma’s loincloth was worn to identify with the poor. At rallies, Mr Ho introduces himself—with considerable delight—as “the person who wears slippers and shorts everywhere I go”.
In placing slippers first in that order, it seems to me that Mr Ho is aligning himself with the chin chai (casual, not fastidious, or as one pleases) attitude that is associated with the open footwear. On his Instagram, which he says he doesn’t use, the intro reads, “I wear slippers everywhere”. In doing so, it is possible that he, who only uses Telegram, is giving his LepakInSG movement concordant grassroots leaning. Lepak, as many of us know, is basically loafing around in Malay, and mostly associated with youths. But a more acceptable definition would be to ‘hang out’ or even ‘chill out’, but clearly not doing anything. Singlish.net considers it “a form of enjoyment that is carefree and stress-free”. Foreigners who think we are overworked and mentally pressured might be surprised that, as Mr Ho and his friends posit, we do lepak in SG. The word appears in the Oxford English Dictionary too, where it also means “loiter aimlessly or idly; relax”. LepakInSG, therefore, projects an easy and informal image of the causes it champions. You can do something for the environment by being and looking laid-back.
In his CNA commentary that reads as charmingly as a secondary school composition, Mr Ho positions himself as an outsider. He looks at the office worker from where he can observe inclement weather: outdoor. He observes that “long-sleeved shirts, pants, shoes, suits and heels are mainstays in the CBD, fitting the narrative of Singapore as a serious and slick financial centre of the world.” (LepakInSg, therefore, the antithesis of that?) Office wear—even a fading category of clothing—to him is serious and associated with the business of making and managing money. He continues quite grimly, “this fragile narrative, however, is challenged when a roaring thunderstorm or an unbearable heat wave happens, revealing disgruntled office workers who have gotten soaked in a sudden downpour during their lunch break. Or soaked from sweat just heading to and from a meeting.” I was lost in the comic absurdity and tragedy of that observation. It was even more amusing to think that Mr Ho might have imagined that the staff of the many banks in Raffles Place go to work in shorts and slippers.
Ho Xiang Tian refers to how professionals and office workers in the CBD like to conform to a “dress code” (he repeated it six times!). That they are attired to a set of rules ascribed to circumstances, occasions, and purpose is rather risible when so many travellers to our island (in the halcyon days of travel) note that we often look “super casual” or, as first-time Chinese visitors would say, “超休闲” (chaoxiuxian). This dress code is so unsuited to the vagaries of our equatorial weather that Mr Ho is unable to develop a social, sartorial, and sympathetic relationship with it. “I can’t relate,” he continues to convince readers, “as I go about almost everywhere in slippers and shorts. My renown for that is second only to my reputation as an environmental advocate.” Some of you may chuckle, but Mr Ho clearly takes his image seriously, and is exacting about his skin-baring footwear and bottoms. Casual, as it appears, is crucial.
But Mr Ho does not distinguish between anyhow casual and smart casual. Shorts and slippers aren’t sloppy, indeed. The garment and the footwear themselves are not sloppy; often, the wearers are. Casual is so much the opposite of dressed-up that clothes can be spared from ironing, just as slippers can be freed from cleaning. Nor does he point out the difference between the shorts and slippers for a trip to the neighbourhood bubble tea stall, for an afternoon at the Rail Corridor, or for taking a date to “a great street” Orchard Road. But he isn’t alone. Many, like him, do not acknowledge that shorts and slippers can be neatly unstudied and personably unpretentious, just as they can be comfortable, easy-to-wear, and not draw attention to themselves.
Mr Ho’s attitude towards dress seems to me a reflection of the attitude of a sizeable group of his generation, including many undergrads who consider shorts and slippers truly the best options for campus life. In a 2017 ST article on the extremely casual attire that students adopt in universities, the consensus was that clothes and footwear were picked for practical reasons—“convenience and comfort”. One student from NUS was quoted saying, “our climate is very hot, and sometimes classrooms can be very far apart, so students dress in more comfortable attire such as shorts and slippers.” Mr Ho’s description of what “disgruntled office workers” go through—seemingly on a regular basis—echoes this thought. Many, he is telling us, are a hot mess in our equatorial heat. All the growing technologies that yield moisture-wicking fabrics (Uniqlo’s Airism, for example, among many) and those that are anti-bacterial and odour-free, quick-dry and wrinkle-resistant; the myriad ways of cutting clothes to maximise air flow; as well as ventilation-possible details such as meshed insets and strategically-placed eyelets have somehow escaped the shorts-and-slippers brigade.
I have no objection to slippers, if they are neat and clean, on which feet that are also neat and clean sit. But the reality is that slippers are given the treatment that commensurate with their lowest ranking among footwear. As they tend to be relatively inexpensive, few treat them as they would Yeezys—or the expensively similar. Ardent adopters tend to have somewhat disconnected relationships with their slippers, which are often seen kept apart from their feet. Just observe in any MRT car. And when wearers are seated in a café too; they have the habit of completely distancing the feet from slippers by bringing the legs up close to the waist, or, in some cases, the knees to the chest. People have the tendency to drag their feet in slippers, making the choice of footwear audible to others. The habit possibly explains why the Chinese call slippers tuoxie (拖鞋) or ‘dragging shoes’. Taking the cue from the Chinese, the Peranakans use the identical phrase kasut seret (rather than the Malay kasut capal, the traditional thonged slippers thought to have originated in India [modern versions are known by the English loanword selipar]). Kasut seret originally refers to the Nonya’s beaded kasut manek, but also points to slippers in the post-colonial years.
The need to drag one’s feet when shod in the kasut manek is understandable. These mule-like slip-ons offered no grip to the feet of the wearer. In addition, women wore their kasut manek with long and narrow sarongs, which made steady strides tricky. But today’s young who are outfitted in shorts and slippers—usually thonged, such as the Havaianas—have significantly less restrictions. Yet, it seems that no matter how light or unrestrictive the wearers’ slippers are, many still drag their feet or shuffle. In this instance, the article worn and action taken are, more often than not, sloppy. Mr Ho asks, “What’s wrong with dressing down when no disrespect is meant?” The optics may not appear disrespectful (even that is uncertain since he admits he receives “several emails from event organisers explicitly stating their dress code, to prevent me from sticking out like a sore thumb”), but we can’t be sure that the sound isn’t. It is possible that Mr Ho, who is also a volunteer guide for the Naked Hermit Crabs (a nature-loving group that offers free guided walks along our threatened shores), simply does not see sloppiness. Or, hear it.
Admittedly, Ho Xiang Tian is no fashion commentator. He makes some rather strange (heat-induced?) observations: “we must be the only tropical country where people wear cardigans all day.” Are cardigans the new national obsession the way slippers are? He also notes that “working from home has also made athleisure the mainstay of Big Tech staff around the world, mainstream office wear”. Athleisure may have made office wear even more casual in certain fields, but it hasn’t mainstreamed what many of us don to work. According to a recent report in Sourcing Journal, denim jeans are expected to make a “strong return” as “consumers re-enter the work world and resume their school and social lives, they’ll undoubtedly be looking for something new that’s still comfortable yet gives them the confidence to greet their colleagues, classmates and friends again.” Rather than attribute our consistent poor turn out to lack of interest or flair, fecklessness, or peer pressure, many people blame it on the weather. As they always do.
Illustrations: Just So