Praba Ganesan

Praba Ganesan is chief executive at KUASA, a democracy outreach organisation. It's time to be involved. You can contact him at praba.ganesan@mykuasa.org or follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan.

NOVEMBER 16 — It’s been that kind of week. MPs Gobind SinghNazri Aziz and Nurul Izzah Anwar agreeing with each other completely over an issue. 

This is regarding upmarket hotels barring front-desk staff from wearing headscarves.

A slew of organisations with varying motives have joined the shaming, to enhance their pro-tolerance credentials.

For Nurul Izzah, it is an affront to how she appears in public, though her asking for these hotels’ licences to be revoked is an overkill.

The usually liberal Nazri appears affected by election-fever, while it is unsurprising for the staunchly secular Gobind to pick up populist points.

However, the issue is not straightforward — though this column welcomes the corollary debates this development brings to the centre.

On headscarves, the needs of individuals must be addressed objectively in lieu of group, community, corporate and government needs. So that societies can celebrate the individual without compromising the collective.

The PKR vice-president may consider a licence revocation sends the right message, but does it?

If forced into this situation, hotels must let go thousands of staff members on the account of one matter. What about the men and women, and their families deprived of income?

Which is why government cannot react purely on populism, but must balance interests. A knee-jerk inclined government, is rarely well received by the private sector.

Consider too the realities of the country’s underclass, when confronted by a shrinking job market — due to technological advancements, cheaper alternatives offshore and weak trickle-down economics — they would rather keep their jobs. If elected representatives can’t carve up new jobs in the new economy because they are flat out of ideas, the least they can do is to not crush the jobs which remain.

Sensationalism does not stand well when examined.  For neither Nurul Izzah, Gobind nor Nazri are in serious threat of being both unemployed and destitute, even if they find themselves comfortably unemployed when the next election concludes.

Still, it is tricky speaking about religiously-sourced disputes, in a partisan society with an election just over the horizon. It’s lose, lose and more lose for naysayers.

The ayes will pander to everything including tree spirits in the months to come, as panderers can win parliamentary seats. This column is careful not to comment on faith, but it does explore the potential and present effects of religion in public policy. Malaysians must be allowed to discuss public Malaysian issues, or risk letting democracy, whichever much is agreed by all to exist, to dissipate.

Human rights is paramount, but the details of what is proposed in the backdrop of cause and effect is what responsible policy makers consider, without the attendant emotions, prejudice and yes, populism.

The hotel lobby

Those affected by the present practice are a minority within these international hotels.

From the pool of employees in international chains in Malaysia — housekeeping, banquet, accounting, procurement, parking and room service among others — front-desk staff members form only a fraction of the workforce.

Of those in the front-desk roster, factor those who are Muslims and want to wear the tudung, then we are speaking about a sliver. 

The principle argument is not watered down by numerical considerations but weighing it does provide a sense of proportion.

Hotels are historical trendsetters of customer care. They aim not to determine customers’ preferences, instead they seek to interpret, and therefore anticipate and serve them. Hoteliers are hosts in the most impure sense, they do it for profit.

They reflect their clientele for that very selfish reason, and in a laissez-faire economy it is cautionary not to tell customers what they should want, expect and accept in their hotel experience.

Thirdly, hotel chains spend an offensive amount to shape their image, the look and feel. In an industry where customers pay exponentially more for the same room based on perceived value, it is unfair to tell the organisation they are vain, if they won’t countenance cultural demands in their dress-codes. 

The whole industry is shallow by design. Their claim the front-desk is the start of the unique experience for which customers pay for sounds incredulous but is valid in the fantasy world of luxury living.

A hotel stay is a culmination of multiple offerings from the organisation, the obvious and the subtle.

Not to mention the cascading effect to all their operations worldwide if there is a precedent.

Then, finally, practical considerations.

Front-desk is where check-ins and key-drops occur. 

Hotels don’t care who checks-in — or with whom — and what hour. However, customers may be discomforted if they feel the religiously-attired officer at the desk may — in their minds —   disapprove their lifestyle choices. Apparent moral reservations present are not conducive for hotel operations.    

The cover is not straightforward

If dress-codes must match personal beliefs, many things unfold.

Allowing the tudung does not limit the type of headscarf and also whether the general uniform can fit with the type of cover for the head. It leads to a series of further demands to meet religious observation in terms of dress.

For along Islamic dress requirements, there are strong differences of opinions. It’s about degrees.

Indonesia’s Acheh province penalises many women with headscarves because moral police interpret the rest of their attire reveals too much. Which levels of personal modesty, as viewed by the individual employee, should the hotel tolerate?

Even in the early years of Keadilan, President Wan Azizah Wan Ismail had to use gloves because it troubled their erstwhile partner PAS that a jailed man’s wife was shaking hands with men freely at events.

Conceding to cultural demands is a slippery slope, and uncontained zeal may force hotels into a rabbit hole of sating an unending demand list.

Untouched zones

All the arguments to force hotels to change, may be applied to airlines, more appropriately our airlines — MAS, AirAsia, Firefly and Berjaya.

Revoke their licences?

The same arguments are regarded as premature when extended to this industry, even though it has thousands asked to yield their headscarves to roam the skies.

And even for Malaysia Airlines’ female ground staff presently, where the tudung is permissible, their body-fitting kebaya would upset puritans, nevertheless.

How much appeasement is enough, and why the cherry picking of one industry and overlook others?

Exceptions to rules

The West is opposed to discrimination on the basis of what people are and their beliefs, in general.

There are exceptions, though.

In the US, if the employer exhibits a clear and objective reason to discriminate as to match the nature of the lawful business, they can do so. It is referred to as Bona Fide Occupational Qualification(BFOQ).

Hooters can hire only well-endowed women because that’s key to their product offering, and Hobbit cafes can limit servers to below five feet in height — the shorter the better — because that’s what their silly customers demand of aliens, in this case Middle Earth residents.

It is not isolated. The Canadian version is BFOR (Bona Fide Occupational Requirement) and Britain’s GOQ (Genuine Occupational Qualifications).

Of course, employers can’t avail of these exceptions willy-nilly to hide a more insidious intention to discriminate job applicants as the courts watch over to disallow bogus claims.

The major observation here is that anti-discrimination does not mean forcing values on everyone as an extension of fair-play.

False apostles

Those who choose to lean on human rights as their fulcrum, must both defend the right to wear and equally the right to refuse.

If they rely on human rights only because it fits their religious values in the instance of defending those who want to wear headscarves, but ignore the converse because it opposes their religious convictions, they are intellectually disingenuous.

They are not promoting human rights as much as cultural pre-eminence.

Human dignity is in personal choices, not in limiting those choices on religious grounds.

Human rights champions who insist that front-desks can have tudung wearing personnel, should also defend women who refuse to put on headscarves when their university mandates it. And at other agencies or workspaces which require women to cover up on religious grounds.

Otherwise just like fake news, they are fake human rights activists.

Reality bites

Tourism is our fourth income earner as a country, and every currency slide increases tourism’s share of the economy.

Malaysia’s stability relies on tourists.

So rest assured, the fact hotels are central to the industry is not lost on those who keep track of the bottom-line.

If hotels remain unconvinced by laws passed to change dress-codes, management will find a way around. Seconding a front-desk staff to another section is common enough and can be argued in court all day. 

Our government is happy to have as many laws as the people want in order to make themselves sleep better at night, as long as government only needs to enforce those which support its rule and also the economy.

This column is most interested in the quality of public discourse over the matter. However, the quality suffers by too many keen to score cheap points and popularity, and not enough offering it pragmatic introspection.

A democracy is about the manner in how decisions are made, not about ready agreements brought by social expediency and political opportunism.

Disappointingly, the easy route is widening into a highway.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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