Should the head of government wear expensive shirts to meet his people?
By Awang Sulung
Malaysian prime minister Ismail Sabri loves Burberry shirts, but his fellow Malaysians are not as enamoured with his baju. A photo shared on the PM’s Facebook page a few days ago showed him in a short-sleeved, buttoned-down, red/pink/white shirt—worn untucked—with a textual print that the British label describes as a “slogan”. As it appears to me: the phrase “UNIVERSAL PASSPORT” in two lines run from the shoulder to the hip, on both sides of the placket. That and the shirt itself are not controversial or offensive, or unflattering, but it did get people talking, including opposition members of parliament. The shirt Mr Sabri chose—in Italian silk organza, no less—costs S$2,190 or RM6,900, according to Burberry/MY. That amount, as the media reported, is “3.3 times median Malaysian salary”. With staggering inflation and rising cost of almost everything, it is understandable why people are so geram. This is this year’s quinoa-gate!
Burberry’s appeal to politicians is not new. I remember that back in the early 2000, Thailand’s then prime minister, the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra (now in exile), loved Burberry shirts too, and was often seen in the light blue version of their house check before he was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. He even wore matching sunglasses with those shirts when he was out to meet the electorate. The Thais did not make a fuss of Mr Shinawatra’s sartorial choice, probably because his chemise was not thought to cost a bomb. Those check shirts were, after all, often seen for sale outside Burberry stores, from Patpong to Chatuchak. I do not remember how much that shirt cost back then, but Mr Shinawatra would not have bought a knock-off. Despite his wealth, out there among his constituents, he did look acceptably loong (uncle) and very much chun chan raeng ngan (working class)—one of them.
Perhaps the disapproval of Ismail Sabri’s shirt was not merely about the hefty price that went with it. What he donned was not quite walk-about wear. And, while he looked pakcik (uncle!) enough, he was not one of them; he appeared like one who would fork out more than six thousand ringgit for a shirt, which, I suspect, is rather far costlier than the rakyat-approved baju batiks that even younger politicians, such as the minister of health Khairy Jamaluddin, wears, and with considerable frequency, and, possibly, pride. And, for someone who reportedly prefers his colleagues to use mostly bahasa Malaysia, even abroad, Mr Sabri’s wearing of a shirt with blaring English words is, at the very least, hypocritical. This was not the first sighting of Mr Sabri in a shirt from Burberry. Last month in Tokyo, he wore an even bolder piece when he met with our PM Lee Hsien Loong. That shirt, with a symmetrical “abstract print” that looked like a silhouette of a Maori tekoteko (those carved human-like figures with tongues stuck out) and such, would have set Mr Sabri back by S$1,790. Possibly haram as it was small change?
I wonder, too, if there was ageism involved in the negative views that pervaded social media. Ismail Sabri is 62, and, while he is eight years younger than Mr Lee, is not considered to be of a vintage that should trifle with this thing called fesyen. Mr Sabri did not pick the less current, less ‘statement’ pieces, such as Burberry’s Simpson (or Somerton) shirt, with its familiar, non-threatening checks in “archive beige”. If he did, his choice of clothes would probably not be noticed. And if his pakaiyan is not registered, the empathy so many wishes to see could, perhaps, be discerned. Rather, Mr Sabri took a risk with fashion, and his followers were uncomfortable. As the New York Time’s Vanessa Friedman said to V magazine back in 2017, in a comment about politics and fashion, many people “think fashion is superficial and any association with it automatically denigrates the thing it is being associated with.” Politics! Some Malaysian Netizens even took issue with their PM choosing a “colonial” brand over one that is local. If only they have their own CYC in Kuala Lumpur.
Photo: Nik Nazmi/Twitter