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Reuters: Schoolgirls in headscarves hit raw Singapore nerve
By John O'Callaghan

6/2/2002 12:49 am Wed malaysia/1012903450nSIN176133.ASP

ANALYSIS-Schoolgirls in headscarves hit raw Singapore nerve

05 Feb 2002 10:04

By John O'Callaghan

SINGAPORE, Feb 5 (Reuters) - A piece of cloth, either colourful or plain but always modest, is threatening Singapore's vision of ethnic peace through conformity and unity.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the city state but two girls ejected from primary school for wearing Muslim headscarves have become symbols and pawns in an ideological stand-off that strikes at the very heart of Singapore's nationhood.

Those who lived through the late 1950s and early 1960s cannot forget the Chinese-Malay political battles, the communist guerrilla emergency, street protests and violent race riots on the road to full independence from Malaysia in 1965.

Singapore is now a beacon of capitalist stability in a region burdened by political and economic upheaval. But the events of September 11 and the detention of 13 suspected Muslim militants at home make the appearance of harmony ever more critical.

Has the government shot itself in the foot by taking a tough line against two little girls when it could have scored points with the Muslim community at a sensitive time?

"Part of it is that policy of trying to maintain multi-ethnic harmony...and at the same time having a kind of uniformity," said Dr Suriani Suratman of the Department of Malay Studies at the National University of Singapore.

"If you do give in on this one, there will be others who also push for all kinds of other things."


The Chinese-dominated People's Action Party has ruled with a pragmatic and paternalistic hand since the young republic's first internal self-government in May 1959.

Conscious of history and the massive Muslim presence of Malaysia and Indonesia on its tiny doorstep, the government seeks to strike a balance between the Chinese majority and the Malay and Indian communities by being fanatically even-handed.

The headscarf and other non-standard clothing is not allowed in class, the Ministry of Education says, because the school uniform "is an important means of building unity among students without distinction of race, religion and social status".

Critics counter by pointing to the turbans Sikh boys wear to school under a decree from Singapore's days as a British colony and the crucifixes dangling from the necks of Christian students.

For devout Malay Muslims, the "tudung" is obligatory once girls reach puberty but some parents have them wear it earlier.

The two Muslim girls were suspended on Monday for flouting a deadline to comply with the national school dress code by going to class in standard-issue pinafores and their own headscarves.

The parents of Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farwizah Mohamad Kassim now face the dilemma of keeping their daughters in the public education system at the expense of their religious beliefs.

"What can I do?" Nurul's father Mohamad Nasser said. "The government is not giving me any leeway."

A third girl, Khairah Faroukh, began wearing a headscarf two weeks into the school year and has been warned to meet the dress code by February 11 or face suspension. Another Muslim family has pulled their daughter from school to educate her at home.


Other countries have struggled with the issue of religion in schools and its overall place in secular society.

France, anxious about Islamic fundamentalism in its former colony Algeria, banned "ostentatious religious symbols" from schools in the mid-1990s without referring to headscarves. In protest, many young Muslim women suddenly took to wearing them.

Some students expelled from school for wearing headscarves successfully sued the French government and were re-instated but there has been no national decision on the issue.

In Germany, a headscarf-wearing Muslim teacher last year lost a court challenge to a state ban on religious symbols in schools.

But in Britain, the London police force has accepted the headscarf as a uniform option for Muslim officers.

Apart from the suspects detained over alleged bomb plots and a few fractious voices, Singapore's 450,000-strong Malay Muslim community is largely moderate -- a point government officials and religious leaders have been at pains to stress.

The headscarf issue is unlikely to be a flashpoint but adds to grievances about the exclusion of Muslim men from sensitive military posts and economic disparity between Malays and Chinese.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has vowed the government would protect all minorities in the event of a crisis and unveiled new grassroots groups to promote dialogue among communities.

"We cannot afford a repeat of the panic and irrational fear that led to segregation of the races after the two riots of 1964," Goh said at the end of January.


Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of jailed former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, joined the fray on Monday by calling on Singapore to relent on the tudung ban in schools.

"We believe the choice of wearing certain attire by Muslims would not lead to social disintegration," she said.

A Malaysian deputy minister who made a similar plea last week was sharply rebuked for meddling in Singapore's affairs.

But Suriani of the National University of Singapore noted that Muslim opinion on headscarves was not universal.

"One of the problems of the tudung issue is to assume it's what the community wants," she said. "They (the government) are also feeling that there are different kind of Muslims and I think they are counting on those -- they've used this word moderate."

Internet chat rooms have been ablaze with debate, with some writers accusing the government of Chinese chauvinism and others saying the parents should send their daughters to Muslim schools.

One contributor, identifying herself as a Malay Muslim who wears a headscarf to work, said she could neither fully support or condemn the decision by Nurul and Siti's parents.

"My own daughter goes to school without her headscarf and that doesn't mean that my daughter is not a true Muslim," she wrote on Yahoo's Singapore portal, before adding that the tudung in itself was no guarantee of upstanding morals. Thursday/NewsBreak/20020131181340/Article/


DAP urges Singapore to rescind school tudung ban

by Zubaidah Abu Bakar

The DAP today urged the Singapore Government to review its ruling of not allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear tudung in school.

DAP national deputy chairman Karpal Singh said while the Singapore Government has the right to implement domestic policies in the republic, it should not be insensitive to the rights and feelings of its Muslim citizens.

"Afterall, wearing of headscarves by female Muslim students will in no way lead to racial discord," he said. "Sikh pupils in Singapore schools are allowed to wear turbans. Why should there be discrimination against Muslim schoolgirls?"

Joining the chorus of earlier protests from the Umno and Pas Youth movements, Karpal said he believed racial harmony in the republic would be enhanced if the ruling is revoked.

Its implementation he said, would be counter-productive and alienate Muslims not only in Singapore, but also those across the causeway.

"It will also sow the seed of discord among Muslims in the republic, an eventuality the Singapore Government can ill-afford because of the republic's multi-racial and multi-religious set up."

Karpal also pointed out that Article 15(1) of the Singapore Constitution provided that: Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propogate it.

Referring to a Malaysian case the Meor Atiqulrahman bin Ishak & Ors vs Fatimah bte Sihi & Ors case, Karpal said the Seremban High Court had also ruled in 1999 that the headmistress of Sekolah Kebangsaan Serting Hilir in Negri Sembilan had no jurisdiction to prevent Muslim pupils from wearing turbans.

The pupils had justified wearing turbans was the tradition of the Prophet.

"In the United Kingdom, the House of Lords held a Sikh bus conductor, in line with his religion, had the right to wear a turban," he added.

He said another was the Canadian judicial pronouncement which held that a Sikh Mountie have the right to wear a turban as ordained by his religion.

"I would have thought the Singapore Government would have been more mature than descend to implementing a ruling defying logic and common sense. malaysia/1012824061nSIN160956.ASP

UPDATE 2-Singapore suspends Muslim girls in headscarf row

04 Feb 2002 12:01

(Recasts with government response, analyst comments)

By Amy Tan

SINGAPORE, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Singapore's government, weighing the thorny issues of religious freedom and social cohesion, took a hard line against two Muslim girls on Monday, suspending the primary school pupils for wearing headscarves to class.

Clutching the hands of family members, the girls had little idea of the storm surrounding them or the broader ramifications as the city state stresses moderation and unity after the recent detention of 13 suspected Muslim militants.

Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farwizah Mohamad Kassim came to class in headscarves and school uniforms, flouting the Monday deadline to comply with the state policy barring the traditional Malay Muslim "tudung" and other non-standard clothing.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement the girls "have been suspended from school and are not allowed to attend classes unless they are in the prescribed school uniform".

For devout Malay Muslims, the tudung is obligatory once girls hit puberty but some parents have them wear it from a tender age. Nearly all of Singapore's 450,000 Malays are Muslim, making Islam the second-largest religion after Buddhism.


Nurul was suspended by her school almost immediately as her father complained of being painted into a corner.

"What can I do? The government is not giving me any leeway," Mohamad Nasser told reporters. "My daughter's education is as important as my faith, my religion."

Six-year-old Siti spent about two hours in class before her father fetched her on news of the suspension.

Both girls started their first year of school last month.

A third girl, Khairah Faroukh, who began wearing a headscarf two weeks into the school year, has until February 11 to comply with the dress code or face suspension, the ministry said.

"The wearing of the school uniform is an important means of building unity among students without distinction of race, religion and social status," the statement said.

Another Muslim family has taken their tudung-wearing daughter out of school to be educated at home.

Singapore, whose Chinese majority outnumbers the Malay and Indian communities by three to one, experienced violent race riots in 1964 but has largely enjoyed ethnic peace since then.

Muslim leaders have emphasised the moderate nature of their community since the September 11 attacks on the United States, anti-U.S. anger in Muslim behemoth Indonesia and the arrests of the suspects in December for plotting a bombing campaign.


"The government is walking on a tightrope," Bilveer Singh, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, told Reuters.

"They have to keep all the racial groups in balance while giving in to things which do not harm the national whole."

There is no hint the headscarf issue will become explosive but it caps a series of grievances that include the exclusion of Muslim men from sensitive areas of the military and concern over Malays lagging behind the Chinese economically.

Abdul Aziz Shamsudin, Malaysia's deputy education minister, was told to keep his nose out of Singapore's business after he called on the government to reconsider its headscarf stance.

"Their worry is if you allow the minority a small leeway, the majority is going to come banging on your door," Singh said.

"Then you're going to have a problem with your neighbours and all the notions of Singapore being a Chinese state become real."

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the courts were best placed to deal with the tudung issue but voiced hopes Singaporeans would instead focus on the retooling of the recession-hit economy.

Siti's father would not say whether he would resort to court action but added: "I can always make an appeal."

The opposition Singapore Democratic Party said the government could not preserve racial harmony by mandating a dress code.

"In fact, such a myopic and insensitive ruling will only lead to greater resentment among those being coerced, resulting in an even more polarised society," it said in a statement.

(With reporting by Royston Chan)