Muslim headscarf row flares again in Singapore schools

  Agence France Presse
January 3, 2003

THE row over Muslim girls in Singapore wearing an Islamic headscarf to school has flared again with an 11-year-old told to leave her class, putting further stress on race relations in the city-state.

In a standard designed to promote racial harmony, Singapore does not allow Muslim girls to wear the headscarf, or tudung, at school, although they can wear it outside the premises.

Nur Asikeen Azhar, who wore a tudung to Eunos primary school this week, has been told she must comply with the common uniform standard, the Straits Times reported Friday, Jan 3.

Last year four girls were barred from classes in similar circumstances which were widely publicised in the strictly regulated city.

Nur's father, Azhar Ali, said his daughter would continue to wear the tudung to school every day until the minister of education approved her admission.

However, a change of policy seemed unlikely with Education Minister Teo Chee Hean saying it was not the time to create differences in schools.

"I'm a little disappointed that there are individuals or groups who prefer to accentuate the differences in society and cause divisions rather than to play a constructive role to strengthen cohesion," he told reporters.

"We should not at this point in time be creating new differences, accentuating them, creating new differences, divisions in our schools and our societies where they have not existed before."

Although public schools in Singapore do not allow uniforms to be modified according to religious practices, Sikhs are an exception as members have been allowed to wear turbans to schools since British colonial times.

Nur's mother, Kintan Beyo, said she instructed her daughter to wear the tudung as she has reached puberty.

Singapore has a majority ethnic Chinese population but has a large number of Malays most of whom follow Islam, as well as Indians. The rest are Eurasians and other minorities.

Race and religious ties are under pressure in Singapore with the detention of 31 Muslims suspected of being members of the terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and blamed for the Bali bombings.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong called this week for stronger bonds among the Chinese, Muslim and Indian communities.

Speaking at the opening of a mosque, Goh said Singaporeans must strengthen the foundations of its racial and religious harmony and "build up understanding, confidence and trust between the different communities."