Legal aspects of appropriate dressing in tertiary institutions

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Discussion about what undergraduates wear to school raises interesting questions about freedom, law and even public order

Can a person in Singapore dress as he or she likes? More specifically, should a university student be allowed to wear whatever he or she wants to school?

A recent opinion piece ignited debate over whether stricter measures should be taken with regard to dressing appropriately.

The opinion criticised university students for attending classes in "slippers, shorts and T-shirts" and suggested implementing a dress code to show "the world that we are a disciplined society".

In response, commenters stated that doing so merely reinforces "the impression that Singapore is a nanny state", where "every decision to scale back the freedoms accorded to students... risks setting back efforts to promote a spirit of healthy risk-taking".

The discussion raises several interesting questions:

What are the laws regarding dressing in Singapore? To what extent should we be concerned with dressing appropriately? How should a person's freedom to dress be balanced against society's need for public order?

Is there a "right to dress" in Singapore? Not exactly.

But Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution does provide that Singapore citizens have the right to expression.

Most would agree that a person can choose to express himself or herself through clothes.

That said, the same Article imposes limits on this freedom - Parliament may impose legal restrictions it considers necessary "in the interests of... public order".

One such restriction stems from the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which prohibits men from "exposing his person" in public with the intent to insult any female.

What "exposing his person" means is not defined, but it is probably clear what this law tries to prevent.

In such instances, restricting a person's right to express himself through his clothing - or the lack thereof - makes sense. Interestingly, there is also a law that makes it illegal to appear nude in a private place if he or she is exposed to public view.

In 2009, a man was fined for sitting naked while having his meal in his flat in clear view of his neighbours.

Considering these examples, it raises the question of how far the individual's right should be limited by the needs of public order.

In most tertiary institutions, dress codes are not strictly enforced. Whether this should continue to be the case depends on the following question: Is it in the interests of public order to ensure that students are better dressed?

This question may seem absurd now, but it is important to understand that societal values and norms are in a constant state of flux.

A change in social values may see society placing moral premiums on dressing appropriately in schools. In turn, this results in the creation of rules and regulations that reflect the same.

Today's guideline becomes tomorrow's regulation. Today's absurdity becomes tomorrow's reality.

Balancing the needs of society with the rights of the individual is no mean feat. Lawmakers face the unenviable task of having to measure the public's sense of appropriateness and consider whether it is in the circumstances more important than the individual's rights.

This leads to varying results.

In Canada, running naked in a public place or being topless in public is not considered indecent.

In England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service has published guidelines on handling naturists - people who adopt nudity as part of their lifestyle.

The common thread running through these examples is an underlying sense of appropriateness, differentiated only by a matter of degree. Should university students be made to adhere to a certain dress code?

The answer seems to depend on the dictates of society.

Whether the existing laws under the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act relating to dressing is wide enough to capture university decorum very much depends on societal values, which may ultimately become law.

At the moment however, there does not seem to be an outcry of improper dressing within the meaning of the Act in relation to how students dress in universities, despite there being some disagreement.

The writer is partner, litigation and arbitration, at Withers KhattarWong.