Malaysian politics and Bata slippers

It has been a crazy few weeks in Malaysian politics. All sorts of things have happened that I never thought would happen. Honestly, fact is stranger than fiction. If it were a book, it would be worthy of a Shakespearean play. People would not believe that the events were from real life.

As a Malaysian living overseas, I can understand why non-Malaysians may be puzzled by what’s going on in Malaysia. Malaysia held elections on the 9th of May, and for the first time in its 60 year history, there is a change of government in Malaysia. There is a new old prime minister in Malaysia. He is Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, old because at 92 years old (turning 93 on the 10th of July), he is the world’s oldest elected leader of a country. And ‘old’ also because he was the former prime minister of Malaysia, from 1981 – 2003, serving under a different party.

It has been a crazy time in Malaysian politics.

What has this all got to do with shoes? Tun Mahathir was photographed recently wearing a pair of Bata slippers. The photo went viral. The Bata Company then posted on social media calling these slippers the hottest accessory this Ramadan (Muslim month), making the Malaysian prime minister an unlikely fashion icon.

The prime minister of Malaysia wears this US$3 pair of Bata slippers.

These Bata slippers retail for RM11.99 (about US$3).  I call them ‘Ah Pek’ style slippers, or ‘grandfather slippers’ because to me, it is a style common among old men in Malaysia. To me, Bata is a brand associated with school shoes. I can almost guarantee that anyone who has ever been to school in Malaysia will have worn a pair of white Bata school shoes.

As a child, I thought that Bata was a Malaysian brand, because ‘bata’ means ‘stone’ or ‘brick’ in Malay. Bata is a very old shoe brand, but it is not a Malaysian brand. The Bat’a Shoe Company was started in 1894 by 3 siblings – Tomáš, Anna and Antonín Bat’a, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). The Bat’a siblings were the eighth generation of a family of shoemakers and cobblers. Today, the Bata company is based in Switzerland.

Shih Yen, and just about every Malaysian school student, wears a pair of white Bata school shoes.

It is currently the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is a time of worship, reflection and self-restraint where Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. The photo of the prime minister of Malaysia wearing a simple and inexpensive pair of slippers shows a man who is frugal and humble. Additionally, the pair of slippers that Tun Mahathir was wearing had an insole design from 4 years ago, so his slippers are not new either. It goes down well with the people, as it is in stark contrast to the excesses of the old government. Ramadan will end in mid-June when the new moon will usher in the month of Syawal, and Muslims celebrate Aidilfitri.

Some have called this time a new dawn for Malaysia. I agree. I am optimistic for the future of Malaysia. And I can’t remember the last time that I was so happy and proud to be Malaysian.


School shoes

Late January and early February is back-to-school time in Australia and New Zealand, and the start of a new school year. So, this month I thought I would write about school shoes.

I was educated in Malaysia where all schools have a school uniform, and government schools all have the same uniform across the country. For all my school years in Malaysia, I had to wear short all-white socks with all-white canvas shoes, which were hard to keep clean. After 11 years of being forced to wear white shoes and white socks every school day, I now refuse to wear shoes or socks that are completely white.


Shih Yen in primary school, forced to wear white shoes and socks – the fate of all Malaysian school students.

This got me thinking about school shoes in other countries. The only other country where I have been a student is in New Zealand, where different schools each have their own uniform. In New Zealand, I had to wear black shoes to school. I’m guessing most schools that have a uniform will make their students wear black shoes. And there’s nothing wrong with black shoes. It’s basic, it looks smart, and it’s so much easier to keep clean than white. A few schools have brown shoes, and I think if I had to wear brown shoes everyday, I would be depressed. Brown is such a blah, nothing kind of colour.

This brings me to Southland Girls’ High School in Invercargill, a small city in the south of New Zealand. Southland Girls’ is a school with a long history, first founded in 1879. A school uniform was introduced in 1913. I find their school uniform to be very unique because red shoes are part of their uniform. Red shoes were introduced by the principal after World War II, and became uniform by 1954.

The Southland Girls' High School summer uniform with red leather shoes.

The Southland Girls’ High School summer uniform with red leather shoes.

I think red is a funky and cool colour for shoes, but I wonder if I would feel the same way if I had to wear red shoes every day. Would I feel like Dorothy from the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ wearing magic ruby slippers? Or would I feel like a clown, like Ronald McDonald in red shoes? And would it put me off wearing red shoes forever after I have left school?

The Southland Girls' High School winter uniform with red leather shoes.

The Southland Girls’ High School winter uniform with red leather shoes.

Japanese loose socks (ルーズソックス)

Last month I wrote about how I tied my shoelaces in different ways at school as a minor act of rebellion against strict school rules. I am of course not the first, nor will I be the last, to do something like that.

A huge fashion trend in the 1990s originated from Japanese schoolgirls challenging strict school uniform policies. This was the loose socks trend that was massive in Japan in the mid to late 1990s. The trend even caught on outside of Japan, first in other Asian countries and then to countries further afield. Akira Tokita, president of the sockmaker company Browndoll is credited with starting the loose socks phenomenon. At the height of the fad, Akira’s company sold 600 000 pairs of loose socks in 1996 alone. That’s a lot of socks when you consider that this was a trend mainly worn by teenage girls.

Loose socks, as the name suggests, are baggy, slouchy socks. The socks are bigger and wider than normal socks in the ankle and calf area to achieve the slouchy look. When worn by a girl with big calves, these socks give the illusion of thinner legs.

The trend started with Japanese high school girls rebelling against school uniform rules. These schoolgirls started shortening the hem of their school skirts and wearing loose socks with their shortened skirts. Wearing loose socks with short skirts made the girls look taller with longer, thinner legs. Some schools reacted by banning loose socks altogether. Schoolgirls would get around this ban by wearing normal school socks and having their skirt at an appropriate length while at school. But once school was over and they were out of school grounds, these girls would put on loose socks over their normal socks and roll up the waistband of their school skirt to shorten it.

While this trend was started by Japanese highschool girls, it was soon copied by middle school girls seeking to emulate their older schoolmates. It even spread to older young women who had left school. This look (loose socks with a short, pleated skirt) is one that is strongly associated with Japanese schoolgirls. Comic book characters in Japanese manga are commonly depicted wearing this look.

Shih Yen recreates a Japanese schoolgirl look from the 1990s, with loose socks, Mary Jane shoes, short, pleated skirt and a Hello Kitty handbag

The most common colour for loose socks are white, and because of their origins as school socks, they also come in black or navy blue. Loose socks are worn below the knee paired with school shoes like a Mary Jane style.

The loose socks style even spawned something called super loose socks. These were socks that were so big, loose and heavy that they needed a special glue just to keep them up around the calf area.

Just like with all fads and crazes, the loose socks trend has had its day and had disappeared by the early 2000s.

Different ways to tie your shoelaces and minor acts of rebellion

I had my primary and secondary education in Malaysia. The goal of the Malaysian education system seemed to be to make every student the same – both in the way they look and the way they think. I attended 7 different schools in 3 different cities across East and West Malaysia, so I feel well qualified to write about Malaysian schools. I attended one school that even printed a rule book that stated clearly all the school rules.

All Malaysian government schools have a school uniform which is the same across the country. Even one of the kindergartens I attended had a uniform. School rules were restrictive and didn’t seem to serve any purpose apart from making us all look the same. There were school rules that dictated hair colour, hair length, skirt length, even fingernail length (and yes, they check!). No hair clips, makeup, jewellery or nail polish (not even clear polish) was allowed. There were rules that stated what colour rubber bands you can use to tie up your hair, even rules on the colour of the lenses in your glasses. On top of that, every student has to wear a name tag because there are too many students for the teachers to remember our names. What has all this got to do with shoes, shoelaces or socks? Bear with me, I will get to the point.

Of course there were rules on the colour of school shoes and socks. Both shoes and socks had to be all-white; not even a stripe of colour or a coloured logo was allowed. I don’t know who decided Malaysian students should wear white canvas shoes and socks. They are so hard to keep clean. While the school rules can dictate the colour of my shoelaces (white of course!), none of the schools I attended had rules specifying how I should tie my shoelaces. So, the way I tied my shoelaces was the only way I had to show my individuality at school.

I will now share these different ways to tie shoelaces. You do not need to stick with the usual way of tying laces with criss cross Xs. Back in June, I wrote about LA Gear sneakers, which were the first to introduce me to tying shoes with two pairs of shoelaces. Since it was LA Gear sneakers that first inspired me, I have used my LA Gear shoes here, but all these ways of tying shoelaces can be used with any sneaker or shoe that requires laces. These styles have all been road tested (or should I say walk tested) by me.

These are my LA Gear sneakers with shoelaces as they came in the box.

The picture above is how the shoelaces looked when I took them out of the box. But Xs are so boring! You could try shoelaces tied parallel.

Try parallel shoelaces

Or in a zig zag pattern. The zig zag pattern works best with a pair of short shoelaces.

Or maybe zig zags

If you have two pairs of shoelaces, here’s what you can do:

To achieve a chess/checker board design, start with one pair of shoelaces tied parallel. Then, weave a second pair of shoelace through the first pair to get the desired pattern.

This weaved pattern was my favourite way of tying shoelaces as a teen. Even though I could only use white shoelaces at school, I love the chess board design.

This style works best with 2 pairs of short shoelaces

This shoelace design is one I associate the most with the 1980s LA Gear style of tying shoes with 2 pairs of laces

A zig zag pattern with 2 pairs of shoelaces