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There was a directive from the Education Ministry, in a letter dated Jan 14, which reportedly allowed black shoes and socks as part of students’ uniform from 2019 to 2021. PIC BY FAIZ ANUAR

JUST say “black shoes” and heads will turn — an indication of just how (un)popular the issue has been for the last 20 months or so.

It has somewhat lost its appeal, but last week, schools were allegedly told to “find out how many students wear black, white shoes”, to quote one headline. Apparently, there was a directive from the Education Ministry, in a letter dated Jan 14, which reportedly allowed black shoes and socks as part of students’ uniform from 2019 to 2021.

The said directive was to determine the status of implementation through an online survey form to be completed by the coming week. This can be a significant exercise, not so much because of the “colour” issue, but its implications on how “education” could be skewed one way or another, causing even further confusion. Thus, it is important to reflect on it.

For starters, it is a non-issue going back to my schooling days more than 50 years ago. ‎White shoes were a given and were central to student life then. No questions asked.

Indeed, it was a matter of pride for one to “qualify” wearing white shoes. Two brand names come to mind: Bata, or more specifically Badminton Master (then the nation’s pride), and Fung Keong, a generic brand.

How pervasive the white shoes were can be deduced from anecdotal observation of how many pairs one had.

Some owned as many as three pairs. One for casual wear (usually the older set), another (latest pair) for special events like festivities or official visits. The third pair (neither old nor new) was usually for schooling. When it was time for the oldest pair to be replaced (this usually coincided with the Hari Raya Aidilfitri season), a new pair would be bought.

Black shoes (especially leather) were almost exclusive to some families and were regarded as too lavish for school use. So the white rules! It was only by default that the black version was considered, that is, when the white pair was not “available” for some reason or other.

The word “qualify” in the earlier paragraph is to underpin the discipline one must have and observe before white shoes can fit in as part of a student’s uniform, without which it is burdensome to upkeep. ‎Over time, white shoes will invariably turn “black” (read: dirty and unsightly). Therein lies the contrast between the two, from the education viewpoint.

In other words, the care for black shoes warrants no such discipline and dedication to keep it in tip-top condition. Hence, it goes against the training that education is supposed to inculcate in all students — one that is fundamental for character-building and behaviour.

It is for the same reason that school garments are also white. They could have been black for the sake of easy upkeep. But that is not the case. One can never imagine an all-black regular school uniform anywhere.

Simply put, white requires that extra diligent care that students ought to command as a habit when attending to details, whereas black is just the opposite, since it can mask all forms of smudge, thus breeding a “carefree” attitude that is repugnant to the notion of education.

To some, this may sound academic in contrast to the issue of cost. While black canvas shoes may be cheaper, but the mere notion that they do not need attending to tells us that white ones will last longer because they are consistently looked after.

Indeed, this explains a lot about the oft-mentioned lamentations inherent in the gross carefree attitude towards maintenance culture and attention to detail.

The bottom line: if we cannot maintain the care of white shoes well, how can we expect to do the same for other more sophisticated items? Say, for example, the maintenance of public amenities? They will be lost to vandalism.

Others may even relate it to the state or location of the schools where black shoes are deemed more desirable. If so, the solution is not to change the shoe colour, rather to focus on what could be done to the school, which is rightly so.

In summary, what seemed simple and straightforward, as in black versus white, may have in-depth ramifications in education. The process of education is rooted in lifelong training, from womb to tomb. Shoes are just the start.

Do not take things for granted, regardless of the survey’s outcome. Quality education‎ must inculcate good values and attitudes. With this, the issue of black shoes can be blacked out once and for all. So let us refocus.

The writer, an NST columnist for more than 20 years, is International Islamic University Malaysia rector

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