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TheAge: Singapore Headscarves Ban Sparks Row
By Mark Baker

6/2/2002 12:56 am Wed

Singapore ban sparks row

Wednesday, 6 February 2002

Singapore's decision to enforce a ban on Muslim children wearing traditional headscarves to government schools as part of a push for greater racial integration has provoked a backlash from political and religious leaders in neighbouring, Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The Education Department on Monday suspended two seven-year-old primary students - Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farwizah - after their parents rejected an ultimatum to remove their "tudung" scarves.

A third girl was withdrawn from school by her parents before the order and a fourth has been given until Monday to comply.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong instructed authorities to enforce the ban at government primary schools after warning that strict adherence to religious dress codes threatened racial harmony in Singapore.

"If we insist that our children dress differently on account of our religion, we must allow other communities to do likewise for their children, based on religious as well as cultural practices. Then our schools will become polarised along racial and religious lines," Mr Goh told a weekend gathering of Muslim leaders.

The parents defied the ban, insisting it was their religious obligation and personal right to maintain the modest dress code, generally applied after puberty, for their young daughters.

"I appeal to all Singaporeans to give my daughter the right, the opportunity for an education as well as to fulfil our religious obligation," Siti's father, Mohamad Kassim, said.

Mohamad Nasser, the father of Nurul, said the government had confronted him with an impossible choice. "What can I do? The government is not giving me any leeway. My daughter's education is as important as my faith," he said.

The ban has been condemned by Malaysian Government and Opposition leaders as a threat to the religious freedoms of Singapore's Malays, about 15 per cent of the population.

"It shows that the government has very little respect for the religious sentiments of the Muslim minority," said prominent Malaysian human rights activist Dr Chandra Muzaffar.

"It will 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."

Opposition leader Wan Azizah - wife of jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim - appealed to the Singapore Government to show "understanding and tolerance" and reverse the ban.

"Just as the attire of Sikhs, nuns and monks do not contribute to social disharmony, we believe the choice of wearing certain attire by Muslims would not lead to social disintegration," said Dr Wan Azizah, who like most Malaysian women wears the tudung.

An attack on the decision last week by Malaysia's Deputy Education Minister, Abdul Aziz Shamsudin, and leaders of the youth wing of the ruling United Malays National Organisation drew a sharp rebuke from the Singapore Government.

"This is an interference in Singapore's internal affairs ... We respect the choices that Malaysia has made and expect in turn that Malaysia will also respect our choices," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

In a further challenge to the sensibilities of Muslims, Prime Minister Goh has also criticised the Islamic community's insistence on "halal" food standards.

The row comes amid fears of rising racial tensions in Singapore after the recent arrest of 13 ethnic Malays, linked to the al Qaeda network, accused of plotting to attack western embassies and other targets.