Echoes of French Muslim headscarf debate heard in Singapore

As France's imminent outlawing of the Muslim headscarf in schools generates fierce global debate, a similar ban in the Southeast Asian nation of Singapore continues to stir up emotions but well away from the public eye.

Singapore's predominantly ethnic Chinese government, which has ruled the nation since its independence from Britain in 1965, does not allow Muslim girls to wear the headscarf at school, a rule designed to "promote religious harmony".

But unlike in France, where conspicuous insignia from other religions will also be banned from state schools, the government here allows the sons of Singapore's Sikh community to wear turbans while they study.

The anomaly, as well as Singapore's constitutional right allowing all citizens to profess and practice their religion, has contributed to the anger of some Muslims in Singapore who believe they are victims of discrimination.

"Muslims are unhappy about the government banning the tudung," the chairman of Singapore's minor opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Mansor Abdul Rahman, told AFP, referring to the headscarf by its Malay name.

"By banning the tudung the government has violated the constitution of Singapore on freedom of religion."

Public emotions about the ban in Singapore reached a peak in 2002 when four girls were suspended from classes for trying to wear headscarfs to school, sparking a rare show of public dissent in the island-state.

At the height of the row, the father of one of the girls took his daughter to Australia to live and study.

But a court challenge to the ban was snuffed out after the government refused to allow prominent Malaysian lawyer Karpal Singh to represent the girls, accusing him of wanting to "intervene in Singapore's internal affairs".

The government has made it clear it does not want the issue openly debated, believing it will destabilise religious relations among Singapore's 3.5 million citizens, about 77 percent of whom are Chinese and 14 percent Malay Muslim.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong warned Muslims in 2002 against continuing with efforts to lift the ban and going outside the country with their campaign, raising the spectre of ill-feeling against them following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

"For them now to try to push the wearing of the tudung in schools will only cause greater concern to the non-Muslims, so I would advise them to be quite cautious in this," Goh said.

His warning has been heeded and public debate on the issue is rare, with the media, saddled with a government-imposed "nation-building" role, reluctant to raise the matter.

Yet the issue still generates much ill-feeling, with Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong conceding in an interview with the Malay-language Berita Harian newspaper in November last year that the "main unhappiness" among Singaporean Muslims was the tudung ban.

"We are especially concerned for the students because at a young age any marks of distinction on any group of students can make others look at them differently," Lee told the paper in defence of the ban.

"This can make them feel different and cause them to be segregated from the rest."

Dianah Suhaimi, 21, an intern at a fashion magazine who wears the tudung, disagrees with Lee's assessment, telling AFP banning the garment could have a negative effect on racial harmony and understanding.

"I feel that the kids of other races should be exposed more to people wearing the tudung, so that when they grow up they won't feel awkward about being around people in tudung. They won't be so ignorant," she said.

Dianah said she did not feel discriminated against because of her religion most of the time, however she has encountered problems in the fashion industry with people sometimes ignoring her at public relations functions.

Chinese production assistant Adrian Sim, 23, a Catholic, also believes girls should be allowed to wear the tudung to school.

"That's what their religion mandates and it's something they voluntarily choose to do so we should respect whatever they choose to believe and do," he said.

"As long as it doesn't infringe into other people's private space, it shouldn't be banned."

However opposition to the school ban is not unanimous among Singapore's Muslim community, as reflected by undergraduate Suryani Omar, 21, who wears the tudung.

"They are still kids -- the parents might be forcing them to wear it," Suryani said, explaining her reasons for supporting the tudung ban in schools.

"The kids might not fully understand what wearing the tudung means. And it might cause segregation -- kids who wear the tudung will stick together. But beyond secondary school, it should be allowed because by that time they would be grown up enough to know what it means and not to discriminate."