Singapore - The tudung affair

  SBS Television
Broadcast: March 27, 2002

Civil disobedience is almost unheard of in Singapore. So when four 6-year- old girls challenged the city state`s laws on dress, by wearing Muslim headscarves to school, it sent shock waves up and down the Malay peninsula. In rigidly controlled Singapore this is an act of rebellion that seriously undermines government attempts to establish a homogeneous national identity. The consequences are potentially explosive. The seemingly inconsequential issue of what one wears to school is placing serious strains on the relationship with neighbouring Malaysia. David O`Shea reports.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

NURUL Nasihah is too young to really understand what's going on. She knows she was starting primary school and she knows it came to an abrupt end. Now, her classroom is home and her parents, her teachers. On the first day of the school year, Nurul was one of four 6-year-old girls who defied the law and came to school in their Muslim headscarves.

NASSER NASIHAH: My daughter's education is as important as my faith, my religion. Education you cannot separate from faith.

It might not seem like a radical thing to do, but this was the most potent act of civil disobedience that Singapore has seen in years. On their third day at school, in full view of the media, all four girls were suspended.

Bordered by two enormous Muslim nations, Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore is a prosperous modern city state with well-run institutions and an excellent education system. Its population is majority Chinese, with large Indian and European communities and about 15 percent ethnic Malay, a sizeable Muslim minority. In 1964, race riots between Chinese and ethnic Malays led to Singapore's separation from Malaya and, since independence, ethnic and religious tension has been contained through strict laws and social engineering. Religious symbols like the headscarf, or tudung, have been forbidden in schools for many years.

HAWAZI DAIPI, MINISTRY OF EDUCATION: The schools represent a precious common space, where all young Singaporeans wear school uniforms, as a daily reminder of the need to stand together as citizens, regardless of race, religion and social status.

The standard government line is that allowing the girls to wear their tudung would threaten Singapore's racial harmony.

HAWAZI DAIPI: Allowing exceptions to this rule would fragment our community...our society, because it would fragment the common space that we have in school and invite competing demands from other communities to assert their own identities.

Nurul's father, Nasser, cannot accept that his simple demand would jeopardise Singapore's racial balance. For him, it's a question of modesty.

NASSER NASIHAH: The problem is that, when they grow up, you don't discipline them from small, and you do not practise what they've been taught in terms of religion, and they grow up - most of them, I'm not saying all of them, I'm saying maybe a high percentage of them actually - they become wayward, they start intermingling with boys without any barrier and then somewhere down the road, you can see them at the bus stop smoking, all this kind of thing. I'm just disciplining her while she's still small so that I can have the assurance that when she grew up - when she grows up, she can become a modest person.

Fauizah was another of the four suspended girls. She has a younger brother who goes to kindergarten and an older brother at primary school. Now, she stays at home and watches her friends go without her.

REPORTER: Do you miss your friends from school?


BROTHER: They are all waiting for their school bus to come.

For the first three days, she walked to school with her older brother, Mohammad, but now he goes alone.

MOHAMMAD: When I am getting ready, she will make a sour face.

REPORTER: She will? Why?

MOHAMMAD: Huh? She can't go to school with her friends.

FATHER TO FAUIZAH: Especially in the first few days when she was suspended. Yeah. I am still looking for you the kind of school that will give you a chance to study and - with your tudung on. I will still try, OK?

FARID ALATAS, SOCIOLOGIST NATIONAL UNIVERSITY (NUS): The thing we have to remember is that, as far as Islam is concerned, there is no requirement for children of such a young age to don the headscarf and the whole question of whether the hair needs to be covered, for even post-pubescent girls, is also up for discussion but, assuming it is, it certainly does not apply to young girls and I don't think it's fair for parents to make that choice for - it's not fair for the children for parents to make that choice on their behalf.

Zulfikli bin Ali never had a problem with his daughter attending primary school without a headscarf. But when she reached puberty, three years ago, he felt he had no choice but to quietly withdraw her if she couldn't wear her tudung.

REPORTER: You don't see your old friends now? Do they feel sorry for you or...?

SHEILA: Yeah, 'cause I was very friendly and they all, my whole class miss me and my teachers, yeah.

ZULFIKLI BIN ALI: She had good friends. They were...from primary school they were together and then they went on to secondary school. They were just like very close with each other and suddenly all this just disappeared and now her friends have finished their education, their secondary education and she's still doing her O-levels this year. You know, of course, there's some kind of, like, disappointment that things cannot happen the way we wish them to be.

SHEILA: I remember telling my friends I had to leave and everyone started crying and all that and my principal, she called my mum and asked her to let me attend school without a tudung and my mum said, "No, we can't."

REPORTER: Did you ever, did you ever think to yourself, "Well, let's just forget the tudung and continue?"


16-year-old Sheila and her 14-year-old sister Sarah now attend classes at an adult education night school. Their classmates are mostly high-school drop-outs. It's an unsatisfactory compromise for a father who places a lot of emphasis on his daughters' education.

ZULFIKLI BIN ALI: I want her to be the best she possibly can. You know, I want the opportunities given to her like everybody else. If she wants to be a doctor, I want her to be given the opportunity to be developed as a doctor, a good doctor, I might add. You know, so I just want her to be normal and I don't want her to be feel like being singled out because, "You're a practising Muslim, you are not deserving to be a Singaporean." All other opportunities are being closed. I think this is not, not fair.

Zulkifli was born Peter Wong. His Chinese parents converted the family to Islam when he was eight years old. A highly regarded telecommunications engineer, Zulkifli has three daughters and two sons.

ZULKIFLI BIN ALI: And they know that their sisters are being discriminated against and I always tell them, "When you grow up, when you make big money, you make sure that you take care of your sister, you know, because she doesn't have the opportunities that you have."

ZULFIKAR MOHAMMAD SHARIFF, ISLAMIC ACTIVIST: This issue is not about headscarves. This issue is not about politics. It's not even really about religion. This is about respect. You know, this is about respecting the values of others.

Zulfikar Mohammad Shariff is Singapore's most prominent Islamic activist. He runs a website,, where Singapore's Muslims log on to discuss issues important to them. On the site, Zulfikar has taken up the parents' cause with a passion.

ZULFIKAR MOHAMMAD SHARIFF: One, we are doing it for the children. Two, we are also doing it for the parents. Even though it is compulsory on the girls to put on the headscarf only after puberty, it is compulsory on their parents to teach and train the girls to put on the headscarf before they reach puberty.

Zulfikar has convinced the parents to take their protest one step further, to mount a legal challenge to the government's ban on headscarves at school. This will be the first time in Singapore's history that civilians have taken the government to court.

KARPAL SINGH, LAWYER: Well, I feel strongly that prohibition, you know, is not lawful. As I said earlier, you know, it impinges on freedom of religion and, at the very least, it is discriminatory.

High-profile Malaysian lawyer Karpal Singh has been enlisted to represent the families. Singh, who practices here at the High Court in Kuala Lumpur, is one of Asia's best-known lawyers. He says Singapore cannot use secular education to justify discrimination.

KARPAL SINGH: The Singapore constitution does provide for freedom of religion and outlaws discrimination and these matters have been, for example, tested in England in the case of a Sikh schoolboy, who was in a private school and there was a directive that he could not put on a turban. He would only be admitted if he removed his turban and cut his hair, which he was, you know, prohibited by his religion to do so. And the matter went right up to the House of Lords, and the House of Lords held that that directive was right.

Singaporeans resent Malaysian interference in their internal affairs and it's still unclear whether the Singaporean Government will grant Singh permission to act on the families' behalf.

HAWAZI DAIPI: You can expect that people who are not specifically related to the issues join the fray and express support to the parents, probably for their own interests. And not really for the interests of the four parents or the four children or the Singaporeans in general. In my personal view, I think it is really unwelcome. Every country, every sovereign country, should have its right to manage its own affairs.

But Malaysians feel justified passing judgment on what happens in their former territory. And the tudung controversy is central to the continuing debate over Malay identity.

KARPAL SINGH: You can't run away from the fact that historically, geographically, Singapore and Malaysia are still one. On either side, you know, people have relatives, and what happens in Singapore cannot be ignored by Malaysia, and what happens in Malaysia can't be ignored by Singaporeans either. I think that the lives of Singaporeans and Malaysians are so intertwined.

Karpal Singh is not the only Malaysian with an interest in this case.

MAN: The interracial mixture of Malaysia is almost the same in Singapore and whatever happens in Singapore is very much of concern to us.

It was Zulfikar who talked Karpal Singh into representing the families and now he's briefing these Islamic activists from Malaysia.

ZULFIKAR MOHAMMAD SHARIFF: The fear of losing control is probably one of their biggest fears.


ZULFIKAR MOHAMMAD SHARIFF: Even what they are doing right now is against their own constitution, obviously. Article 15.2 of the constitution says that every individual has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.

FARID ALATAS: I think when the Malaysians get involved, it is generally for the sake of winning points at home, and I think what the Malay Muslim community has to learn in Singapore is that, if they want to raise matters with the government, with the Singapore Government, and they want certain matters to be resolved, they ought to deal with the government in a manner that does not politicise the matter and that does not involve outsiders.

When Zulkifli bin Ali withdrew his daughters from school three years ago, he did so without making a fuss. It's only recently he's become bold enough to directly challenge the government's policy. Now, he's joined the other parents in their legal action against the government.

ZULKIFLI BIN ALI: It is not a religious issue. We are going to court more of demanding our constitutional rights be restored, right? Firstly, we are hopeful that by going to court, that this archaic policy will be repealed. She has missed out on a good education because everybody else in Singapore, Singaporeans, who goes to the education process. You know, if you, if you are smart, you go to the good school and, in good schools, they teach you advanced Maths, or higher Maths they call it, A maths. Well, she doesn't have that. Now, she's out in adult education, where she does have English, maths and science, but it's like the normal maths, not the advanced maths, like what I did in school. You know, she doesn't have the opportunities that I had, you know? That's very sad.

The government points out that most of Singapore's Muslims are happy to compromise and says these families do not represent a mainstream view.

HAWAZI DAIPI: I think they should listen to the advice of the Mufti of Singapore, who said that if there is a question of choice between education, which is very important in Islam, and the need to cover the head with a headscarf, then education should be given priority.

FARID ALATAS: In all of this, there has been very little discussion on the children themselves, what the children have been going through, the children who were suspended from school. These young children, these young kids had just started school this January and kids of their age are very excited about going to Primary 1 for the first time, primary school for the first time, and now they don't have that opportunity and I think that is very sad and I think it's sad that the parents have to put their children in such a situation. The parents to seem to be concerned with their own battle against the government. The government has been concerned with the perception of the other communities, with its inter-ethnic relations - which is all fine. But what I find sad is that, you know, the children are going through difficult times.

Zulkifli's youngest daughter, Kadija, has all of this ahead of her. She's just three years old and her father hopes that, by the time she starts school, she'll be allowed to wear her tudung.