The suspension of two Muslim schoolgirls from their schools earlier this month in Singapore has brought into the limelight the republic’s little-known Muslim community. Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farziwah, both aged seven and in their first year of school, were suspended after failing to meet the authority’s deadline to remove the headscarves they wore with their school uniforms. A third student, Khairah Faroukh, is most likely of the three to be suspended after the February 11 deadline to remove her headscarf. The parents of another girl, Siti Amir, remain defiant and have decided to give her private tuition at home.
Not surprisingly, Singapore’s Muslim groups protested quietly, keeping in mind that the regime had just hopped onto the “anti-terrorism” bandwagon by moving against Muslims. However, the decision to disallow the Islamic headscarf (thetudung, as it is popularly known in Malay) sparked protests from neighbouring Malaysia, with government leaders, Islamic groups and even non-Muslim-based political parties showing rare unity in condemnation of Singapore’s intolerance.
Singapore has cited ‘racial unity’ as one of the reasons for not allowing the girls to go to school in hijab. Muslims regard such an excuse as flimsy, as there is no ban on Muslim women wearing hijab in workplaces and colleges. What is worrying is that ‘racial unity’ being used as an argument could well be the first step to extending the ban to areas that until now have tolerated Muslim dress. This fear grips many Singaporean Muslims, who feel that they are the only ones being made to bear the brunt of the regime’s drive to promote ‘cultural uniformity’.
The headscarf standoff, therefore, is not just a ‘religious’ issue, but also symbolises the Muslims’ increasingly vocal demand for their rights as Muslims to be respected, in accordance with Singapore’s constitution, which allows “all to profess and practise their religion and to propagate it”. Muslims have long felt that the regime’s tactics are being tested against their Malay-Islamic culture by a systematic process of ‘uniforming’ the Singaporean citizenry.
As a matter of fact, there is concern about more than the right to practise the Islamic obligation - which is the parents’ excuse not to remove the headscarves – but also their insistence on allowing their daughters to wear the tudung is actually made in the belief that they have the constitutional right to practise Islam and bring up their children within Malay-Islamic culture. After all, the hijab is compulsory only for a girl who has reached the age of puberty.
Muslims in Singapore, who are almost all Malay and were the island’s inhabitants before the British arrived, constitute 15 percent of the total population of 3 million. Their silent protest against the headscarf ban is not unlike their silent disapproval of a systematic marginalisation of their culture and existence since the republic became independent from Malaysia in 1965. In a state that cannot tolerate even the mildest criticism of official policies, it is no wonder that the actions of the parents of the four schoolgirls have surprised many. The surprise is provoked not by the ban on hijab, but by the rare courage the Muslim parents have displayed.
The headscarf row is the latest in a series of displays of ‘rare courage’ by Muslims, energised by intense anti-Islam propaganda in the tightly-controlled official media and by the recent crackdown on so-called Muslim ‘militants’ who are jailed without court procedures. Earlier the Singapore government had over-reacted in trying to silence Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, spokesman of a loose Muslim grouping, fateha, for criticising Muslim government officials about their silence at the continued official demonisation of Muslims. All that Zulfikar had suggested was that Usama Bin Ladin is a better Muslim than many of the government-appointed Muslim leaders, yet it sent the regime into a frenzy of national security warnings.
Still others believe that there is a more sinister reason for the Singaporean government to over-react to the headscarf issue. The regime had expected that unrest from the headscarf row would spread to its next-door Muslim neighbour, Malaysia, thereby generating protests and ‘offensive’ remarks. Immediately after this expectation materialised, the Singaporean regime warned Malaysia not to interfere in its internal affairs. In the past, Singapore has ignored its neighbour’s criticisms, which can cover everything from perceived discrimination against fellow Malay-Muslims in the republic to the republic’s blatant disregard for Muslim sensitivities in having ties with Israel.
This time round the opportunity to warn its neighbour not to meddle in its affairs could not have come at a better time for Singapore. With the US military now firmly established on its soil, strengthened by the arrival of more naval facilities, the Singaporean government has been sending strong signals to its Muslim neighbours (see US’s political and military build-up in South East Asia, February 1-15, 2002).
Singapore’s political power is wielded by the Chinese, who constitute 80 percent of this highly industrialised port city. The island, marked by high-rise skyscrapers and state-of-the-art infrastructure, was separated from Malaysia after the latter’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul-Rahman, gave in to pressures from the ethnic Chinese: a costly decision for Malaysia and Muslims in the region, as recent events have demonstrated.
The Chinese-dominated regime has in the past behaved antagonistically towards Malaysia. Recently its courage to make unfriendly remarks has been fed by the post-September 11 ‘war against terror’. The city-state has strong military ties with both the US and Israel. It has signed a pact with Israel to develop and launch a spy satellite, developed by the US, to watch its predominantly Muslim neighbours in the Asia Pacific region. Analysts say that the satellite will provide its military with vital information about army camps, naval bases, air force bases, oil refineries and other installations in Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Singapore has also made no secret of its aversion to Islamic activism among its neighbours. A few months ago Lee Kuan Yew, its chief architect and senior minister, warned that any rise of an Islamic government in the region would pose a security risk. Last year, after acquiring a fleet of new fighter planes and military equipment, Singapore even challenged others to attack it if they dared.
Many have described the republic as South East Asia’s version of Israel, with good reason. It is the only country in the Asia Pacific region to have military ties with Tel Aviv, and even has a road named Zion Street.
The headscarf row, therefore, is the regime’s attempt to test the waters. Muslim reactions can, after all, be used to gauge how best to move ahead in the island’s long-term plan to secure ‘survival’ in an ‘ocean’ of ‘Muslim fundamentalism’.