CityNews Article Archive:
Uniforms might be bad for students, but they’re good for something

April 12, 2013

While I was studying at Middle School we used to have wear what you want days, usually at the end of term or Christmas holidays. There were a handful of kids, some of them were my friends, who didn’t, or couldn’t exploit this opportunity to show the other kids how cool, or how well-off, or how weird they actually were outside of the blue, grey, and white postures of uniform mediocrity. These few kids came to school every wear what you want day in their uniform – the same uniform they wore if ever we played out together in the evenings – informing anyone in a sheepish, downcast sort of way that they had forgotten what day it was. One kid who I knew very well it seemed owned not much more clothes than his subsidised school uniform. He lived alone with his mother in a council flat, and she didn’t work; they were broke and had just about enough money for fish-fingers and 20 Berkley a day. It didn’t take a great leap of intuition to realise that he, and most likely the other forgetful kids, never actually forgot this important day. I remember his ashamed expression as other kids danced around in their OP, Lacoste, or Nike t-shirts (this was Yorkshire, not Milan), and I remember feeling certain that he was lying. At least other kids didn’t bully the uniformed kids for their poverty. 

Thai university students, to my knowledge, are the only students in the world who at the apex in their educational life still have to wear uniforms – in some US military universities uniforms are also mandatory. Soldiers however are ordered to follow rules, while university students should be breaking them, or at least criticizing them, or expanding on them.

University uniforms in Thailand for many reasons have been and still are a point of contention, mostly within the sphere of the Thai liberal left who espouses individualism and freedom of expression. They say uniforms at that age are not necessary, and are actually symbolic of an oppressive state that perhaps fears losing control over its subjects. A uniform keeps kids in line. The traditionalist right counter-argues that because of class differences, education costs, bullying, and matters of concentration, a continual wear what you want day would cause undue envy, penury, ill-feeling towards classmates, thereby splintering the body that is the school, or university community. Uniforms are not oppressive; they merely level the playing field.

Critics say that a level playing field circumscribes a student’s development. Universities, after all, are beyond the socialisation process, they are where students become critical thinkers, or radical. It’s where they can go off the charts with impunity. Perhaps a uniform might hold their free-thinking critical processes back as uniforms are intrinsically restrictive. They always embody some kind of prohibition, and this will stunt their academic or mental growth.

Pro-uniform conservatives in Thailand disagree, and say that a uniform helps the kids to concentrate, to focus on studying, and not be tempted into certain practices – sex, drugs, rock n’ roll for instance. Uniforms equal better grades they say. Contrary to research conducted in the UK in 2011 that tells us uniforms, even for Middle School kids, don’t help students achieve better grades.

Sexuality seems to be a problem in Thai universities. You shouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t even think about it, and you certainly shouldn’t get yourself pregnant (often kept a secret when it happens). I’m sure you remember the infamous ONET morality questions. Sex seems to be some kind of incessant, omnipresent outlaw that constantly needs driving out of town. The kids, or dek as they are deemed to be, are treated like dek, when in fact they are, like it or not, at least physically grown-up, and have been ready to submit themselves to carnal requisites for some time. In an effort to oppress these incessant sexual urges a uniform becomes a kind of full-body chastity belt for the student child. Well, perhaps that was the hope. 

We might also ask, if these students are expected to post-pone libido and remain dek, does it also mean that mentally they will also remain dek, which is surely not ideal at the apex of academia.

Regardless of restrictions on sex most kids (Thai teens get pregnant younger than most teens) have already regurgitated carnal knowledge when they start university, even if it is morally unacceptable. The boys, and girls, are evidently thinking about fucking, not football, contrary to the unrealistic expectations of old-skoolers in the Ministry of Education. The rationale of the authorities is that to curb human nature they must make the students look like extras from Little House on the Prairie, and make them sing songs about frogs and princesses at the local dusty stadium. It’s cute, but it evidently doesn’t work. 

But should there be any limits on how we dress at university, or school?

This is appropriate, says Thammasart University

This is not appropriate

The Thai university uniform is synonymous with the erotic, or licentious behavior. It’s not only worn in Bangkok Go-Go bars, but was voted the sexiest uniform in the world by Japanese bi-lingual websites sites Rocket News 24 and Livedoor, and also seems very popular with YouTube soft porn aficionados from all over the world. The Thai uniform has become a symbol of eroticism. It’s anything but a signifier of chastity, inside and outside Thailand. How could this have happened given the good authority’s tenets on sexuality?

During my few years teaching at a Thai university I taught girls whose skirts were so short they brought in books to cover their crotches when they sat at their desks –it was amusing to me that more often than not they did not bring the class reading material. English verb conjugation might have been low on their list of priorities as they looked for a mate along their catwalk of academia. Some girls blouses were so tight it looked (I couldn’t help but look, in spite of my grave professionalism) to me that at any moment they might just burst open and buttons would bounce around the classroom whereby i would have to fetch them and return to the owner with my tail wagging. The girls were, because of peer pressure, or because they were trying to attract a man, doing what they thought was right. Surely that was their right? They were trying to look attractive. They were taking care of business, capitalising on something that was their own: their body. Were they old enough to arrest men with their padded bras and occasional panty shot? I think yes. Is commodifing a body ideal? No, but you can understand the pressure to do it. Did it hamper their studies? Probably, but that’s life. Life hampers studies sometimes. It also hampered my teaching. It’s hampering me now…That is life as a sexual being, and it’s kind of uninterruptable. Desexualisation didn’t work. It actually backfired, given that the uniform became an erotic prop.

Because of this back-fire certain Thai authorities are clamping down (yearly) on too-sexy dress. The uniform should be dowdy, and not explicit they say. Examples of good uniform etiquette are available on university websites. Parinya Thewanaruemitkul, Thammasat University’s deputy rector for student affairs, called for the government to help “tackle the issue” of girls wearing these tight fitting costumes. It seems much of the criticism of the sexy uniform issues from the ruby lips of middle aged Thai women. We might ask if there is an element of envy – a much understated vice when it comes to matters concerning age and propriety. A friend of mine teaching at a local university tells me many of these ‘aunties’, as he calls them, actaully grade their students on uniform politeness (this is maybe the only time a uniform can improve grades).

After reading a recent Facebook post by a well-known Thai critic, censuring a Thammasat University Official stating what polite dress is, she asks, “Is this 2013 or 1913?”

The military, police, or lollipop ladies, wear uniforms because they have designated tasks to perform, like killing people or directing traffic, and their clothing lets us know what they do, otherwise they’d just be psychopaths or strange people in the street. I had a friend who was a habitual glue sniffer who directed traffic at the local main crossroads, but it didn’t go down too well with the community…Maybe sometimes uniforms are required.

While I felt bad for my friend who was never able to wear what he wanted at school, or at home, society is to blame for creating these conditions. I don’t believe a uniform made his life that much better. Social equality would though. Kids should always, in my opinion, be able to wear what they want. We are never too young for a sense of autonomy, even if you wear what the adverts tell you to wear, you at least make choices. It’s true that some kids might feel bad due to their not being able to keep-up with fashions, but ideally speaking it’s this virus of consumerism we need to protect our children against. And if your daughter thinks that her breasts are her only way of achieving something in life, then ask yourself why that is? Throwing uniforms at students is ignoring the bigger problems. You could ask, if we embrace individuality and freedom should we allow students to come to class naked, or wearing nothing but a Hello Kitty willy-warmer? But I’ve run out of space.

Enjoy your New Year!


James Austin Farrell