By Peter Soh
“You don’t even need a name card, Peter. Your face is your name card – everyone knows you are a teacher,” my good friend, Siew Sin, whom I got to know during my exchange programme in Taiwan, said during one of our casual chats.
Besides embracing my profession with all my heart, I shamelessly admit that I also place a great deal of importance in my looks as a teacher.
I routinely spend 15–30 minutes every evening to assemble my outfit for the next day’s class and I particularly look forward to selecting my clothes every Thursday because it is batik day.
In 2008, the Malaysian government enforced a rule that civil servants put on this colourful fabric every Thursday to promote the much forgotten Malaysian batik, although the idea of wearing batik to workplace was mooted in 2004 by the late Datin Paduka Seri Endon Mahmood, who herself was a well-known antique batik and nyonya kebaya collector.
My previous and current workplaces (in private colleges) do not enforce this rule to the staff, but this does not stop me from embracing the culture of putting on this colourful and vibrant piece of fabric to work every Thursday.
In fact, I was, and am still the odd figure among my colleagues and friends who choose to dress up in such a conservative manner.
However, little do they know that my fondness towards in batik comes with a history – it is due to my teachers.
Growing up in a state which is well-known for its Peranakan community, Malacca, many of my friends and teachers are the Peranakan.
Having to spend a minimum of seven hours at school meant I learned to grow intellectually and fell in love with batik.
It was never a strange thing to see my teachers in batik sarong even if it was not a Thursday. It was a norm for my teachers to wear their colourful batik for work because they live a life of the older generations of the Peranakan where sarong kebaya was a usual attire in everyday life.
And it was a feast of colours at school every Thursday, Teacher’s Day or the celebration of one’s retirement.
I could see a variety of colours, designs and styles worn by my teachers, ranging from complete traditional garment to one-piece batik cheongsam to some modern batik. Not only was it an awesome fashion statement, but it also accentuated an aura of modesty and humbleness of a teacher.
According to our local famous writer, Dr Lee Su Kim, who is also a Peranakan, sarong kebaya is exceedingly modest as it covers the wearer’s body and my schooling days gave me a chance to witness and learn about the beauty of this fabric – versatile to wear but modest at the same time.
My teachers used to ask me what I would like to become one day and I would always tell them that I want to become a teacher so that I have more valid reasons to wear batik.
My teachers would then laugh it off.
Today, I successfully join the ride as a teacher and I enjoy finding nice batik materials for my batik shirts.
I dedicate one Sunday every month to hunt for beautifully designed batik pieces in department stores or some alleys in Penang or Malacca whenever I am home.
To all my teachers in Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Gajah Berang in the years of 2002 to 2008, thank you for your guidance and patience in teaching me – and I mean both your knowledge and fashion sense!
Peter Soh is a campus leader for Teach For Malaysia and is looking for high potential candidates to join the Fellowship in ending education inequity in Malaysia. If you’re interested to be a part of the team, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or log on to teachformalaysia.org/home/