A different kind of sarong party girl

Tue, Mar 09, 2010, The Sunday Times

by Lee Wei Ling

Recently, there was an exchange in Parliament between NTUC secretary- general Lim Swee Say and Member of Parliament Irene Ng – on undergarments of all things.

I found the entire episode rather comical, especially Ms Ng’s comment that ‘women choose their clothes, including their undergarments, to look good for themselves, not only for the men’.

I choose clothes for their comfort and relatively low price. I do care a little how I look, but only insofar as my patients do not find my attire offensive.

Recently, I have resumed accompanying my father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, on his travels abroad, after a gap of 15 years. On these occasions, I try to meet conventional codes of dress, what foreign dignitaries would expect of a member of the Minister Mentor’s delegation.

My sister-in-law Ho Ching and some of my friends, believing I need help, decided to assume the duties that once belonged to my mother: Dress the reluctant dresser.

So reluctantly, I have been fitted out with blouses, skirts or long pants, sandals and handbags for overseas trips, so as to satisfy what foreign dignitaries might expect of a member of the Minister Mentor’s delegation. Some among my friends, knowing my propensity to give away fancy things, have given me gifts of clothing with the firm instruction that they are for my personal use and not to be given away as presents.

I have not wholly solved the problem of formal shoes – also known as court shoes or pumps. As anyone who runs or does step aerobics for durations exceeding an hour a day will know, toe nails can turn blue and drop off as a result of such exercise, so wearing any footwear covering the toes is rather painful. My solution is to wear a pair of somewhat dressy sandals, leaving my toes exposed.

My philosophy of clothing is that there is a necessity to cover up certain areas of the body, which social conventions have decreed would be indecent to expose. Beyond that, I choose colours that are easy to mix and match like black, white and brown – as well as my favourite colour, blue.

Until my father pointed out to me recently that cotton batik skirts are not considered formal, I was unaware of that fact. My preference for cotton batik skirts is based on their comfort (cotton is cool) and convenience (batik prints hide creases).

I particularly like the wraparound batik skirts because I usually wear exercise shorts. A sarong skirt can be wrapped around relatively thin running shorts quickly and I don’t even need a private area to do so. On the occasions when I need to ‘change’ from gym wear into work wear, all I need to do is tie the skirt over my shorts, and I am ‘decent’. As one friend noted wryly, ‘even Superman needs a telephone booth to change’.

As for a blouse, a black or blue short-sleeved T-shirt is, I think, acceptable for seeing patients. None of my patients or their parents has ever complained about or commented on my attire. They don’t appear surprised that a senior consultant with the title of professor dresses as informally as I do. What matters to them is whether I am sincerely concerned about their welfare and try my best to solve their problems – not just medical but also social, work-related or educational.

Once upon a time, I was a little girl who dressed only in shorts and T-shirts except for Chinese New Year. Perhaps because dressing up appeared a special privilege, I looked forward to it.

I still have a portrait of myself wearing a dress, with a ribbon – of the same colour as my dress – in my hair, and earrings. The photograph has special sentimental value for it was taken by my maternal grandfather, a multi-talented man who was a very good amateur photographer, with his own dark room at his home to process his films and photographs.

Somewhere between Primary 1 and Primary 6, I decided that party dresses were uncomfortable and unnecessary. Aside from my school uniform, I would dress most of the time in shorts and T-shirts.

I have maintained that attitude towards clothing into my adulthood. Comfort and cost are my main consideration – not looking good, whether to myself or for others.

I am with Mahatma Gandhi on this score. When asked once if he felt under-dressed when he met the King of England and Emperor of India, he replied: ‘The King was wearing enough clothes for both of us.’

Part of the reason I share this sentiment is that I detest the consumerism so rife in our society. I see many of my patients, especially the older adolescent and young women, dressed in clothes that must cost them at least half their monthly salaries. I also see wealthy women dressed in fabulous concoctions that must cost the equivalent of many months of a bus driver’s salary.

I try to remind myself that it is their right to spend their money as they wish. My personal values are mine, and I have no right to impose them on others or judge others by my own yardstick.

Still, I would discourage my readers and friends from placing too high an emphasis on their attire, whether it be undergarments or over-garments. Like other material possessions, expensive clothes are ‘red dust’, giving their wearers only a transient illusion of physical beauty.

Physical beauty will eventually fade. To place too great an emphasis on it will one day cause psychological distress.

By renouncing as many items of ‘red dust’ as possible, we would be less tied down emotionally by material luxuries and we would become better and more charitable people.