Singapore headscarves ban angers Muslims

  February 14, 2002
Financial Times, London

By John Burton in Singapore

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Race in Singapore: Veiled threats

SINGAPORE coming under criticism from its Muslim neighbours and the local opposition for its alleged insensitivity to Islam because of its ban on young girls wearing headscarves in national schools.

The issue threatens to fray further relations between the city-state's ethnic Chinese majority and ethnic Malay Islamic minority following the recent arrest of 13 Muslim Singaporeans who were allegedly planning to stage terrorist attacks against US military and commercial interests.

In a rare act of civil disobedience in tightly-controlled Singapore, the parents of four small Malay girls attending state primary schools have challenged the longtime ban by bringing them to classes dressed in tudungs - the Malay word for the traditional Muslim headscarves.

Two of the girls have been suspended, another one has been withdrawn to study at home, and a fourth girl is likely to be suspended today (Feb 14).

The parents say the tudong ban restricts the right of Muslims to practise their religion. "My daughter's education is as important as my faith, my religion," said Mohammad Nasser, a flight steward with state-owned Singapore Airlines and father of the one of the girls.

The government views the matter differently. It believes state schools should be used to promote racial harmony in multi- ethnic Singapore. The wearing of tudongs would break its policy of standard school uniforms, which are meant to emphasis similiarities, not differences.

"If we allow one community to express that (religious) identity, then other communities will also ask for it and we will heighten the differences," said Yaacob Ibrahim, a Malay MP who is shortly to become minister for community development.

But critics say exceptions are already being made. Christian students wear crucifixes, while Sikh boys can wear turbans under a decree dating from Singapore's days as a British colony.

Some give credit to the government for giving publicity to the issue. "Before, this would have been swept under the carpet because it would have been regarded as too sensitive," said one Singaporean. The opposition Singapore Democratic party, however, has accused the government of turning the tudong "matter into a problem where none existed before".

"Racial harmoney cannot be preserved by coercing citizens to conform to a certain dress code," it said. "In fact, such a myopic and insensitive ruling will only lead to greater resentment among those being coerced, resulting in a more polarised society." Officials from the Muslim nations of Malaysia, Brunei and Bangladesh have also criticised the decision, which has resulted in a sharp rebuke from Singapore that they should not meddle in its affairs.

Goh Chok Tong, the prime minister, has suggested that Muslim "extremists" have stirred up the tudong issue in an effort to radicalise the Malay minority.

The government has criticised Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, a local Muslim activist who has advised the protesting parents, as being unrepresentative of the mainstream Malay community.

The state's highest Islamic body, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, has backed the government's stance. Officials say they are promoting Islam by paying for the building of mosques and subsidising Islamic schools. But critics note limits are placed on the number allowed to attend religious classes, while the state funding of Muslim organisations means greater government control over them.

The tudong debate has underscored the belief among some Malays that they are second-class citizens in spite of the fact that Islam, which is practised by 15 per cent of the population, is the second-largest religion in Singapore after Buddhism.

Malays lag behind ethnic Chinese and Indians in terms of income and higher education, while there are complaints that Muslim men are excluded from sensitive military roles.

Chandra Muzaffar, a former Malaysian politician and civil rights activist, warns that Singapore could alienate Muslims, just as France and Turkey have done, by banning schoolgirls from wearing the headscarf.

He said the tudong decision would widen the chasm between a largely non-Muslim Chinese political leadership and a crucial religious minority whose relationship with the state has always been somewhat uneasy.

"It will strengthen that erroneous perception within a section of the population that the Singapore government is unjust and unfair to the Malays and the Muslims," she said.

By refusing to compromise now, Singapore may be storing up trouble down the road in a Muslim-dominated region that is becoming more turbulent.