Malaysia Airlines is considering ditching its iconic sarong kebaya uniform that female flight attendants at the Kulua Lumpur-based airline have worn since 1986. The kebaya could be replaced by a more ‘modest’ uniform, including a tudong – a type of headscarf similar to an Islamic hijab.
The embattled national flag carrier has sent out a survey to its frequent flyers asking their opinion on whether the long-serving sarong kebaya should be retired as part of an effort to respect Malaysian ‘values’.
Malaysia is a cosmopolitan, diverse and multi-faith country, but Islam is the official religion. In recent years, the conservative Muslim Parti Islam Se-Malaysia political party has made won increased support and currently holds the most seats in Malaysia’s parliament.
In some regions that the PAS party controls, cinemas have been banned, and there have been calls to ‘punish’ homosexuality with caning, according to a Reuters report.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is ethnic Malay and Muslim, has promised to uphold Islam as the official religion but has also vowed to safeguard the rights and liberties of all.
The Malaysian Airlines survey asks whether customers are “in favour of us putting a more modest twist to the iconic kebaya”. The survey also asks customers whether they would support cabin crew having the right to wear a hijab while serving passengers on both domestic and international flights.
The sarong kebaya worn by Malaysian Airlines flight attendants was designed by the School of Fashion at Mara Institute of Technology more than 37 years ago. The material features a kelarai pattern (a type of bamboo weave) with examples of Malaysian flora.
Last year, a leading women’s rights and gender quality organisation in Singapore criticised the sarong kebaya that female flight attendants at Singapore Airlines have worn since the 1970s.
The campaign groups said the uniform had “distinctly fetishistic, Orientalist undertones” and claimed the Pierre Balmain-designed uniform represented the airline industry’s history of “sexist practices that objectify women”.
Malaysian Airlines has previously made headlines for sacking female cabin crew who it considered as being overweight. The airline implemented a weight management programme in October 2015 in order to “maintain its image as a premium airline”.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.