International Papers

The Singapore Scarf Wars

It’s not as vicious as the dispute between India and Pakistan, but Singapore and Malaysia are sniping at one another. The issue? School uniforms. On Monday, Singapore’s education department barred two 7-year-old Muslim girls from public school because their parents insisted on dressing them in the traditional headscarf known as the tudung. The government maintains that in the interests of social, racial, and religious harmony, school uniforms must be common to students of all faiths and ethnicities. (Ethnic Chinese compose around 75 percent of Singapore’s 3.2 million population, Malays—most of whom are Muslims—make up about 15 percent, and Indians 10 percent.) Since gaining independence in 1965, the secular state has emphasized racial harmony to avoid the ethnic divisions that threaten the unity of neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, “Civil disobedience in any form is extremely rare in Singapore and the parents’ actions have ignited an intense debate about how moves to promote social harmony should be balanced against religious freedoms.” The row has also caused a rift with Malaysia; the Sydney Morning Herald reported that politicians in Kuala Lumpur condemned the headscarf ban as “a threat to the religious freedoms of Singapore’s Malay community.”

An op-ed in Malaysia’s New Straits Times declared: “The desire to preserve secularism should not compromise the right to be different, especially to adhere to one’s cultural or religious dictates. … One cannot convert religion into patriotism. In Singapore’s case, one should not convert prejudice into patriotism.” Another New Straits Times columnist wrote: “[H]ow can Malays, be they from Singapore or Malaysia, not view the ban on the tudung as a religious persecution against the community apart from extreme prejudice of the Malays because of the faith they hold?”

A rousing editorial in the Straits Times of Singapore had a clear message for “interfering” Malaysians: “butt out.” The paper supported the education ministry’s directive and said that Muslims were wrong to frame the debate as a “religious article of faith”:

No Muslims, and the followers of any other religion, are denied anything but the fullest scope to practise their faiths. … This is the only way for multi-cultural Singapore. The tudung and any other forms of religious adornment worn by Muslims anywhere, anytime, are nobody’s business but theirs—except for schools, where the Government has made the reasonable case that overt cultural manifestations should be minimised so that children can learn about racial integration in their formative years.