SINGAPORE - Two young Muslim girls will put Singapore's government in a testing position Monday if they wear headscarves to primary school as officials weigh the emotive issues of religious sensitivities and ethnic cohesion.
In a rare case of civil disobedience, the parents of Nurul Nasihah and Siti Farwizah Mohamad Kassim have defied the national rule on common public school uniforms by having their daughters wear the traditional Muslim "tudung."
A third girl, Siti Amirah Amir, has been withdrawn from school by her family to be educated at home.
The impasse comes at a sensitive time for the city state of four million people as the government and religious leaders stress the need for harmony after the arrests in December of 13 suspected Muslim militants for plotting a bombing campaign.
Singapore, whose Chinese population outnumbers the Malay and Indian communities by three to one, has had little ethnic trouble since race riots in 1964 but is ever conscious of the presence of massive Muslim neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia.
SCHOOLGIRLS FACE SUSPENSION
Monday is the deadline for the girls to comply with the uniform rule and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made clear they would be suspended if they arrived for class in headscarves.
"You cannot give way on that," Goh told a gathering of Malay Muslim professionals Saturday, countering the idea that the tudung could help children learn about cultural diversity.
"If the court decides that the government is wrong, we will go by the court's decision. I think that's the best way to move forward instead of punishing their own young daughters."
Mohamad Nasser said his daughter Nurul would remove her headscarf only if she were allowed to wear it when she enters secondary school.
"I have not decided if I will send her to school on Monday," he told the Sunday Times newspaper. "I will discuss the matter with my family and relatives."
Abdul Aziz Shamsudin, the deputy education minister of Muslim but secular Malaysia, waded into the debate by calling on the government to reconsider, prompting a sharp rebuke last week that he should not be meddling in Singapore's affairs.
DOES CONFORMITY EQUAL HARMONY?
Almost all of the city state's 450,000 Malays are Muslim, making Islam the second-largest religion after Buddhism.
Since the September 11 attacks on the United States and the arrests of the suspected militants, Singapore's Muslim leaders have been at pains to emphasize the moderate nature of their community and its role in society.
But the issue of headscarves is only one of several long-standing grievances that include the exclusion of Muslim men from sensitive areas of the military and concern over Malays lagging behind the Chinese majority economically.
The minister in charge of Muslim affairs, Abdullah Tarmugi, said he hoped the parents would comply with the uniform rule "so that we can move on from here."
But one opposition party accused the government of being out of line.
"Racial harmony cannot be preserved by coercing citizens to conform to a certain dress code," the Singapore Democratic Party said in a statement.
"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."
The headscarf regulation was all the more glaring, it added, because Sikh boys are allowed to wear turbans under a ruling from Singapore's days as a British colony.