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The myth of multiracialism in post-9/11 Singapore: The tudung incident



Sixteen years ago, several girls in southern Thailand insisted on wearing the Muslim hijab at school in defiance of school rules on uniforms. Consequently, they were expelled by the school authorities. This seemingly insignificant dispute led to a protest by more than ten thousand people. As a result, even the high level of the military was startled and decided to intervene. 2 Since the beginning of 2002, when the United States began its anti-terrorism campaign after the 9/11 attacks, Singapore has been undergoing a dispute quite similar to the hijab crisis in Thailand. The dispute, the tudung (headscarf) dispute, has driven public attention beyond the country's economy, which has been in the doldrums since the Asian economic crisis of 1997, and has given rise to a continuous debate involving several cabinet ministers and even the Prime Minister. Members of Parliament (MPs), ministers, political parties, non- government organizations, and radicals in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei have also become involved. Fiery debates have taken place in the other East Asian societies: e.g., Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. As a result of this dispute the Singaporean government is likely to be sued for allegedly violating the Constitution and infringing the religious freedom of Muslims.
New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 5, 1 (June, 2003): 51-71.
City University of Hong Kong
Sixteen years ago, several girls in southern Thailand insisted on wearing the
Muslim hijab at school in defiance of school rules on uniforms. Consequently,
they were expelled by the school authorities. This seemingly insignificant
dispute led to a protest by more than ten thousand people. As a result, even
the high level of the military was star tled and decided t o intervene.2 Since the
beginning of 2002, when the United States began its anti-terrorism campaign
after the 9/11 attacks, Singapore has been undergoing a dispute quite similar to
the hijab crisis in Thailand. The dispute, the tudung (headscarf) dispute, has
driven public attention beyond the country’s economy, which has been in the
doldrums since the Asian economic crisis of 1997, and has given rise to a
continuous debate involving several cabinet ministers and even the Prime
Minister. Members of Parliament (MPs), ministers, political parties, non-
government organizations, and radicals in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei
have also become involved. Fiery debates have taken place in the other East
Asian societies: e.g., Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. As a result of this
dispute the Singaporean government is likely to be sued for allegedly violating
the Constitution and infringing the religious freedom of Muslims.
1 Kam-yee Law ( is Assistant Professor in the Department of
Applied Social Studies, City University of Hong Kong and Executive Editor of the Hong
Kong Journal of Social Sciences. The original insight for the research leading to this article
came from an unpublished short critique written (in Chinese) by a good friend of the author.
For an understandable reason, the author has to keep his friend's name confidential, but
wishes it be known that principal gratitude goes to this friend. The author's thanks also go to
Dr Alex Choi for his academic advice, and Mr Man-lung Cheng, Mr Brian Ho, Mr Mike
Poole and Ms W innie Ng for their research and editorial assistance. Of course, the views
expressed in the paper are those of the author and should not be attributed to those
mentioned above.
2 For the details of the event, see Chaiwat Satha-Anand (1994), Hijab and Moments of
Legitimation: Islamic Resurgence in Thai Society” , Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall and
Helen Hardacre eds., Asian Visions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East
and Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, pp.285-9.
If the hijab crisis in Thailand is understood as the Muslim minority’s
effort to strive for a moment of legitimacy” in a country in which Buddhism
is the national religion,3 then the tudung dispute in Singapore has even greater
significance. It is rare for the parents of students to become involved in civil
disobedience in a country well-known for its authoritarianism and paternalism.
Besides the significance of fighting for religious freedom, their action has made
known the awkward situation of Malay Muslims, who have been marginalized
for a long time in the process of social mobility and ethnic integr ation. Since
the economic crisis, and in the context of the post-9/11 domestic and
international setting, the tudung incident demonstrates that within the People’s
Action Party (PAP) and among the public, right-wing political ideology has
easily re-gained the upper hand. Does this indicate that the Singaporean
government’s commitment to multiracialism and shared values is
contradictory?4 Does this incident imply a latent crisis brought about by the
globalization of American-style capitalism and US hegemony? With special
reference to the conceptual framework employed by Chaiwat Satha-Anand in
his outstanding analysis of the hijab cr isis in Thailand, I will analyze t his easily
neglected incident in Singapore in terms of bureaucratic rationality,
sociological reasoning, and the nature of the political realm.
The paper is divided into five sections. In the first section, I briefly
provide a background to the incident. Immediately following is a critical
analysis of the explanation employed by the government to justify its current
stance historically. With the use of documents from the British colonial period,
I refute the government’s argument of continuing colonial practice and show
that this argument is simply unfounded and is nothing more than a form of
bureaucratic rationalization. In fact, the real issue that is disguised by this
historical argument is the ethnic discrimination in governance against the
Malay Muslims that has deep roots in the social engineering of national
integration as perceived by the government. In the third section, I outline the
concept of national integration as articulated by the government and show
how a discourse on social engineering regarding a minor issue has been
dictated by the government’s discriminative understanding of national
integration in a multi-ethnic society. From the perspective of political
sociology, I further analyze how the policy implementation in the name of
national integration has deliberately inhibited the social m obility of this
minority group. In the fourth section, I demonstrate how the tudung incident
puts at stake the agenda, which began in the 1980s, of the development of civil
society with more political space for minorities. The incident has not only
shown that with the worsening economic situation in Singapore the political
realm for the Malay has once again been curtailed, but it has also sent a
dangerous message that the global anti-terrorism movement can be easily
3 Satha-Anand (1994), Ibid, pp.279-300.
4 Lai Ah Eng (1995), Meanings of Multiethnicity: A Case-study of Ethnicity and Ethnic
Relations in Singapore, New York: Oxford University Press, p .179; Michael Hill & Lian
Kwen Fee (1995), The Politics of Nation Building and Citizenship in Singapore, London:
The Tudung Incident 53
abused and hence transformed into a regional anti-Muslim agenda. This
incident, in fact, touches upon the prevailing global issue of how we should
understand the conflict between claims originating from liberalism and those
originating from local anti-t err orism. I will further show that the conflict can
be even worsened when we come to understand the various implications of
wearing tudung within the historical formation of the tudung movement.
Finally, I conclude that national solidarity as pursued by the Singaporean
government can never be achieved while the Muslim is marginalized, as
witnessed in this incident.
Genesis of the Tudung Incident in Singapore
For many years in Singapore, girls have been forbidden to wear the tudung
(Muslim headscarf) in national schools. However, from the beginning of
January 2002, four first-grade Malay Muslim girls in one primary school
disobeyed the school rules by wearing the tudung every day. After the school
authorities had tried in vain to stop them from doing so, the government
asserted that the girls would no longer be permitted to attend the school if
they did not, within a specified time limit, follow the rules. Nevertheless, the
parents of the students did not surrender and insisted that wearing the tudung
is an Islamic requirement aimed at protecting a girls modesty. As a result,
one of the four voluntarily left the school and the other three were compelled
by the government to leave. The parents of the girls are now considering
taking legal action against the government for depriving their children of the
religious freedom endowed by the constitution.
The parents put forward two terms for compromise. Firstly, their
daughters should be allowed to wear the tudung when enrolling in a national
secondary school in the future; or, secondly, the government should commit to
increasing financial support for madrasahs (Islamic religious schools) to
improve their educational quality, and should ensure that their daughters
would be able to attend a madrasah secondary school. If the government
agreed to either of the above terms, then their daughters could come to school
without wearing the tudung. This proposal not only mirrored the parents’
discontent with the school’s interference in the girls right to perform their
religious obligations, but it also suggested that the government had failed to
provide enough support to madrasahs, leading to marginalization in the
national education system and the restriction of a key mechanism for social
The Singaporean government did not accept either of these terms. In
the following six months, a powerful consensus developed between the
government, pro-government politicians, and a large section of the public and
this exerted enormous pressure on these parents, a rare situation in Singapore.
Below I will analyze the discourse created by this majority, taking The Straits
Times, the major Singaporean newspaper, as representative of this position,5
and I will deconstruct the discourse to expose the social and political scenario,
both in the domestic and international contexts, revealed by the incident.
Bureaucratic Rationalization or Ethnic/Religious Discrimination?
The Singaporean government held that wearing the tudung was in conflict
with the school regulations regarding uniforms, and that the parents had
contravened the spirit of the law.6 To outsiders, the government appeared
overly sensitive because the wearing of the tudung did not bother others, and
as the government allowed Sikh schoolboys to wear the turban at school, its
position indicated favour for one group over another. In response to the latter
charge, the government argued that the policy allowing Sikh boys to wear the
turban had been in effect since colonial times, and to compare these two issues
did not help solve the problem. They further argued that what was at stake in
the incident was social solidarity.
However, the government’s excuse induces one to wonder how the
British colonizers dealt with the Muslim tudung. Unfortunately, there are no
official historical records concerning whether the British colonial government
had any written rules permitting or forbidding Muslim girls to wear the tudung
at school. The government failed to provide any documents to support its
position that wearing the turban was permitted under British colonial rule.7
The colonial government considered Malays too obtuse to be educated, and
believed that they were better retained in the agricultural sector; it deliberately
only established primary schools for Malays where only the Malay language
and some basic general knowledge were taught. Furthermore, only a very
limited number of young Malay men had the opportunity to study at English
secondary schools, with the exception of those trained to be teachers at the
Malay primary schools. Before independence few Malay girls had the
opportunity to study at English schools. The British colonial policy of
strategic ambiguity” led to the common practice of colonial rulers not
establishing any regulatory standards regarding folk culture in colonies.
However, the influence in Singapore’s upper politics of the Muslim
community, including wealt hy Arab and Arab/Malay families, was well
recognized by the British before the Japanese invasion of 1942. The
pragmatic colonizer had no reason to trigger religious conflict with the
Muslims. To stay aloof in its administration was considered the best way to
avoid conflict with the indigenous people and to protect colonial trading
5 From the beginning of the incident to the end of July 2002, I analysed 52 reports and
commentaries. In comparison to the last few years when the media focused primarily on
economic recovery, it was very unusual that so much attention was paid to such an incident.
6 See the criticisms by the Home Affairs Minister, the Prime Minister and the Education
Minister, The Straits Times, 27th January 2002; 3rd
February 2002; 12th February 2002.
7 See the defence by Mr Lim Boon Heng, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, The
Straits Times, 17th February 2002.
The Tudung Incident 55
interests.8 To the British colonial government there was no need to set up any
rigid uniform regulations at schools that might lead to religious concerns.
Indeed, I easily found school photos taken in colonial times, in which most of
the Malay girls were wearing the tudung.9 Therefore, it is hardly convincing
for the Singaporean government to justify its favourable and particularistic
treatment of the Sikh turban in contrast to its biased and harsh measures
regarding the Muslim headscarf by reference to historical practice.
Furthermore, the fact that all Muslim women teachers have been allowed to
wear their tudung in national schools contradicts the government’s position on
This is not the first time that Muslims have asked the Singaporean
government to permit schoolgirls to wear the tudung at school. Two years
ago, Muslim teachers put forward the same request when the government was
to launch compulsory education.10 Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong claimed
that his government would not change the policy because the nation was not
yet well integr ated.11 Goh seemed to impress upon the Muslim community
that the practice was theoretically allowable, but the societal and ethnic
situation was not mature enough for the government to make any change now.
After the recent tudung incident, the Prime Minister once again emphasized in
public that the policy could be reviewed and changed only when the time was
right. He explained, “ this is not a ‘never never’, but I want to build a
successful multi-racial society first.” Given the current ethnic landscape and
international tension about Islam, it was unwise, Goh argued, to stir up any
sensitive ethnic/religious issues. He further argued that we have been
functioning this way for many years: students don’t wear headscarf in school.
It has worked. I think better don’t change it. 12 Yet, as reasoned by some
students parents, many schools have not followed the government line.
Occasionally, some Malays have worn the tudung with the acquiescence of the
school authorities. Some headmasters confessed that it was the first time for
many years that schoolgirls had been forced to quit school because of Muslim
attire.13 If this is correct, then why has the government become so concerned
recently about whether the rules are followed? Given the government’s
determination and the unfortunate fact that many Muslim students were forced,
though unwillingly, to go to madrasahs, can we afford to dismiss the incident
as a mere school dispute?
8 Jim Baker (1999), Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia & Singapore, Singapore
and Kuala Lumpur: Times Book International, chapters 10 & 12; there were many similar
practices in colonial Hong Kong: see Carl Smith, A Sense of History: Studies in the Social
and Urban History of Hong Kong, HK: Hong Kong Educational Publishing Co., 1995.
9 Costume through Time Singapore, Singapore: National Heritage Board, 1993, p.31.
10 “ Appeal on Islamic Attire”, The Straits Times, 21st May 2000.
11 “ Time is Not Right for lslamic Attire in National Schools” , The Straits Times, 8th May
12 “ PM firm on tudung issue” , The Straits Times, 3 rd
February 2002.
13 The Straits Times, 30th January 2002.
Sociological Reasoning: National Integration and Social Mobility
The excuse mostly used by Goh’s cabinet and supported by public opinion is
that if the government concedes on this issue, Malays and even other ethnic
groups will present to the government ever more challenging demands.14 As a
result, “common space” will shr ink, which in turn will do harm to ethnic
harmonization and national integration.15 Yet, the excuse is hardly convincing.
How could the wearing of headscarves by primary school girls pose a threat to
national integration and reduce the common space? In contrast to the
deafening commodity promotions on Orchard Road (Singapore’s most
popular shopping district) and the answering of mobile phones in cinemas, the
wearing of headscarves would never disturb others. There is no report that
the Malay girls who wore the tudung were kept at a distance by other
schoolmates and hence threatened inter-ethnic communication or
understanding among students. As a news critic remarks, “ school children are
not inherently prejudiced against other races, unless they have been taught so
by adults .16 Some headmasters also defended the tudung by commenting
that, except for arousing curiosity at the very beginning, it did not disturb the
running of classes.17 Obviously, forbidding Muslim students to show their faith
when their religious act does not disturb others can only deepen the gap
between different ethnic groups and eventually threaten ethnic harmony and
national integration. Hence, the problem that was exposed in the incident is
not whether the Muslim headscarf is permitted, but whether the particular ban
and the government’s ethnic policies in general are made on a clear, fair, and
rational basis. How can different treatments of the same religious ritual, be it
the Muslim’s tudung or Sikh’s turban, be justified as consistent in realizing the
government’s aim of promoting national integration? In other words, how
can inter-ethnic antagonism not be intensified by such an inconsistent policy?
Indeed, the news critic Chua Lee Hoong argues that solution to the
problem lies in getting Singaporean children used to diversity – in dress, looks,
and cultural practices – and that this should start in school. One way of
encouraging this is to allow school uniforms to be modified according to
religious requirements.18 This idea was immediately criticized by the
Education Minister, Teo Chee Hean, who has for years advocated that
uniform is a way to stress common ties”.19 Sharing Teo’s philosophy of
conformity, Prime Minister Goh also argued against Chua’s suggestion.20
14 See the interview with the Minister of State Yaacob Ibrahim, “ Common Uniform Policy
Strengthen National Unity”, The Straits Times (Singapore), 9th February 2002.
15 See the interview with Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, “ SAP to Stay” , Today, 4th
February 2002.
16 Chua Lee Hoong, “ What lies behind the tudung debate?” The Straits Times, 30th January
17 “ 4 still wearing tudung as deadline approaches” , The Straits Times, 30th January 2002.
18 Chua.
19 See the interview with Education Minister Teo Chee Hean, “ Uniform is W ay to Stress
Common Ties”, The Straits Times, 2nd
February 2002.
20 “ PM firm on tudung issue” , The Straits Times, 3 rd
February 2002.
The Tudung Incident 57
Ironically, in response to the tudung dispute, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien
Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, presented a view that was in principle very
similar to that of Chua: in schools, pupils must learn about one another’s
customs and traditions, and learn how to get along with one another” .21 In
principle, Lee and Chua Lee Hoong seem to share the same position. In Lee’s
speech, however, the pupils who should learn from others are Malay Muslims.
It is puzzling why minorities, or only one minority in this case, should alone be
obliged to make such efforts to learn from others.
The Singaporean government further argued that the girls had no
obligation to wear the tudung as they had not reached puberty, and that when
they had reached puberty, they could choose to study in madrasahs.22
Following this line of thinking, one would agree that forbidding the wearing of
headscarves in national schools is really not a big deal, as there are schools that
not only take Muslim students but also allow them to dress according to their
faith. However, there are only six madrasahs in Singapore, which all focus on
subjects such as Islamic doctrines, Malay, and Arabic, etc., and in which
mathematics, physics, and other practical sciences are considered less
significant. Their educational purposes and structures are entirely different
from that of the national schools. Furthermore, madrasahs depend financially
on fundraising and donations from Islamic organizations. For decades their
financial situation has been very strained, and the annual funding from the
Ministry of Education is only 10 SGD per student.23 Two years ago, when the
government was to launch compulsory education, it promised to fund one of
the madrasahs but only under the harsh condition that its students must have
passed the Primary School Leaving Examination so as to be exempt from
enrolment in national schools. The shortage of financial and institutional
support from the government inevitably results in poor educational quality in
madrasahs and they have become much inferior to the national schools. The
parents in the tudung incident pointed out that judging from the faculties,
facilities, and budget in the madrasahs, it is extremely difficult for students to
enter university. Theoretically, Malay Muslim girls have the same opportunity
to choose other schools, but in reality they have to make a painful decision in
face of the following dilemma: either they perform their religious duties in the
madrasahs but stay in a lower social cluster, or they enter a secular school in
order to be mobilized upward in the rigid social hierarchy.24 Given this
dilemma, the above-mentioned ‘compromise’ put forward by parents is better
understood as an accusation about the long-term marginalization of Malay
children, and how they are being obstructed from upwar d mobility within the
current education system.
On the surface, the PAP believes in meritocracy; the value of a person
being based on fair competition regardless of race, and only excellent students
21 “ Ministers call for ‘give and take’ attitude” , The Straits Times, 17th February 2002.
22 See Goh Chok Tong’s speech, “ Take Practical Approach to Tudung Issue” , The Straits
Times, 3rd
February 2002.
23 See madrasah homepage,, 12th July 2002.
24 “ Three girls to wear tudung to school today” , The Straits Times, 1st February 2002.
are eligible for the key positions in government and major enterprises. As the
academic achievements of Malay students are generally inferior to those of
Chinese and Indians, the government is always inclined to attribute Malays’
inferiority to their indolence and absence of motivation to achieve the so-
called ‘culture deficient theory’.25 Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister
and founder of Singaporean authoritarianism, even emphasized that the talent
of a human being is innately determined, and the government ought to focus
on cultivating the elite and follow elitism in engineering the education system.26
Accordingly, more resources should be allocated to the elite and, beginning
from primary school, students should be classified solely on their talent and
performance and educated separately from their inferiors. When the
government is obsessed by elitism, these marginalized Malay Muslim students
inevitably receive far less attention and support, and in return it is even harder
for them to move upward in the education system. It is beyond doubt that the
Singaporean government has deliberatively neglected the interactive relations
between “inferiority” and negative socio-economic and educational factors for
the Malay, placing sole emphasis on innate talent and cultural factors in policy-
making.27 Consequently, the Malay has been treated as having an inferior
ethnicity. The government also hesitates to provide more resources to the
inferior” Malay through a fear of arousing discontent from other ethnic
groups. In terms of educational support, it has thus limited itself for many
years to exempting Malay students from tuition fees. There has been no other
measure to improve the academic achievement of Malay students or to
facilitate t heir st udy.28 The population of Malays is two times that of Indians,
but in the eyes of the PAP, Malays are the worst in terms of income, career,
educational level, economic performance, potential, and contribution to the
national economy. Some of their indices in the above items are only one tenth
that of the Indians. The Indians performance in the above items is better than
the average, even better than that of the Chinese who are the majority in
Singapore (see Tables 1-3 at end of paper). Is this one of the clues that can
help explain the government’s distinct policies toward Malay Muslims and
25 Lily Zubaidah Rahim (1998), The Singapore Dilemma: The Political and Educational
Marginality of the Malay Community, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 52-57.
26 The Straits Times, 15th August 1983.
27 In Western societies it is generally agreed that there is a close relationship between
students academic performance and their economic background. In most Asian newly
industrialized economies (e.g., Hong Kong), the relation is also widely recognized. The
opinion in Singapore is an exception, see Herbert Grossman (1995), Teaching in a Diverse
Society, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, chapter 1; Mike Cole ed., (1989), The Social Contexts of
Schooling, London: The Falmer Press, part 3; Tsang Wing Kwong (1993), “ Educational and
Early Socio-economic Status Attainment in Hong Kong,” Occasional Paper No. 23, Hong
Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
28 With government sponsorship, the Malays set up a self-help organization, Mendaki
(Council on Education of Muslims Children), in 1982. Its purpose is to improve the
performance of Malay students, but it has been criticized as being a government puppet. See
Lily Zubaidah Rahim (1998) and Tania Li (1989), Malays in Singapore: Culture, Economy
and Ideology, Singapore: Oxford University Press.
The Tudung Incident 59
Indians? Surely it is more reasonable to conceptualize the Malays’
predicament as a class problem. For a long time, however, the PAP preferred
to interpret the Malays’ plight within the framework of ethnic discourse, as
long as the living standard of the middle class could be sustained.29
The tudung incident revealed the marginalisation of Malay Muslims in
terms of religious r ight s and social mobility. Its deeper significance is the
exposure of a perceived incompatibility between their r eligious ethos and the
PAP’s creed of economic growth. Because of their religion, Malays are
targeted, with more and more pressure imposed upon them. In 1993 Prime
Minister Goh initiated a survey on Malays’ orientation of living and thoughts,
and discovered that they were not interested in economic matters at all.
Instead, they paid most attention to religious concerns, such as whether their
children could be enrolled in the madrasahs. Goh was frustrated by this result
and considered it inappropriate to put religious concerns above the economic
growth of the country. Goh went even further by stating that such an attitude
would hinder the development of the national economy.30 Evidence shows
that Goh has borne a grudge for many years. He has continuously satirized
Malay parents who were eager to send their children to madrasahs.31 A
survey in May 2002 showed that 15,000 Malay parents planned to send their
children to madrasahs. Goh’s cabinet was very irritated about this, and his
religious advisor , Abdul Hamid, warned their action will cause the Muslims to
become weak when importance is only attached to individuals’ obligations to
God without including their obligations to the betterment of their society in
terms of acquiring knowledge and management technology and economy” .32
With beliefs considered incompatible with the dominant ideology, and
governed by the “ superior” Chinese-PAP, how can the inferior” Malay
Muslims in Singapore escape marginalization?
The Development of Civil Society and the Political Realm: Has it Ended
Too Soon?
With sluggish economic growth and the current anti-terrorism campaign,
Malay Muslims are encountering more and more disappointments in their
politics of recognition. In the 1980s, when the economic situation was much
better, the PAP Government was more liberal about the development of civil
society.33 However, that was only to the extent of allowing the establishment
of some middle class interest groups that were apolitical and without
29 Garry Rodan(1996), State-society relations and political opposition in Singapore” , in
Garry Rodan ed., Political Oppositions in Industrialising Asia, London: Routledge, p.105.
30 The Straits Times, 3rd
June 1993.
31 The Straits Times, 28th September 1995; 5th November 1995; 5th December 1999.
32 “ 15,000 Muslim children shun secular schools” , The Straits Times, 29th May 2002.
33 Garry Rodan (1996), “ Class transformations and political tensions in Singapore’s
development” , in Richard Robison and David Goodman eds., The New Rich in Asia: Mobile
Phones, McDonalds and Middle-Class Revolution, London: Routledge, pp. 37-39.
grassroots links. Under the worsening economic condition brought about by
the Asian economic crisis, right-wing ideology revived the belief that the
government could speed up the recovery of the economy by adopting an
authoritarian model of governance, which has unfortunately shackled the
political openness in this NIE.34 The pressure exerted by the government and
the public on the concerned parties in the tudung incident has proved, to a
certain extent, that the space for the future development of civil society is quite
limited. Goh dismissed the symbolic importance of religious attire and
exhorted parents by saying that it was not right to strangle education for girls
for such an insignificant matter. He further warned that many people had lost
their trust in Malay Muslims after this incident and some Chinese employers
might no longer hire them.35 The Prime Minister was seemingly making an
earnest plea in the best interests of the Malay Muslims, but also obviously
warned those disobedient Malays that they would always be the losers in their
confrontation with the government. Echoing the Prime Minister’s tone,
ministers have emphasized the greater importance of economic recovery over
other issues at a time when the country has been making efforts to strengthen
the economy. In the face of this primary target, the people should rationally
put aside religious issues.36
A recent poll reported that on this issue most Singaporeans side with
the government; the proportion of the non-Muslim population is 80%.37 For a
long time, the government has placed more emphasis on meeting people’s
materialistic wants than on safeguarding other human rights. According to
Internet and newspaper sources, most Singaporean Chinese thought that the
Malay parents were causing trouble for little or no reason. However, whether
this kind of consensus reflects the genuine opinions of the public is always hard
to tell. As a matter of fact, major local media have always constrained
themselves by following the government, and self-censorship has been a
common and conscious practice among most newspaper editors and reporters.
As one critically examines the content of the Straits Times, one will notice that
from January, when the incident took place, until the open comments by the
government on the 3rd of February, there were quite a number of articles
either showing sympathy for the Muslim parents or commenting impartially.
However, after the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education made their
public comments on 3rd February, fewer and fewer articles delivering opposing
opinions were published.38 The people supporting the Malays then found out
that they had no public means to voice their concerns. Political parties and
34 Raul Daza, “ The Asian Crisis: Political Responses to the Problem” ; and Michael
Vatikiotis, “ The Long Hard Road Towards Political Reform in Asia” , in Uwe Johannen et
al., The Political Dimensions of the Asian Crisis, Singapore: Selected Books.
35 “ SM-Singapore Faces Danger Despite Arrests of 13” , The Straits Times, 18th February
36 See, for instance, The Straits Times, 27th January 2002; 16th June 2002.
37 “ Races not far apart” , The Straits Times, 20th February 2002.
38 After the Prime Ministers speech on the 3rd February, only four articles showed their
sympathy for Malay parents in Singapore.
The Tudung Incident 61
social activists used the Internet to condemn the Straits Times for its refusal to
publish their articles.39 Websites that were blacklisted by the administration for
posting radical opinions were even closed down temporarily. Scholars and
young intellectuals claimed the government showed its immaturity by limiting
the public sphere for debate to the extent that public opinion could easily be
manipulated or repressed.40 Reporters disclosed that even though some
leaders of the Muslim community and Muslim MPs had privately canvassed
government officials for support, they were reluctant to side with their Muslim
fellows and had chosen to back the government in public.41 Yet, we still
cannot underestimate the significance of the civic disobedience of the Malay
Muslims. That the pressure from government and the public has not stopped
shows that the firm stand of those parents frightened the government. As one
of the sympathizers has powerfully remarked,
Only a handful do so right now, but numbers alone do not attest to
the issue’s significance or the power it holds among the local
Muslim community. What used to be a quite personal decision to
do or not to do the tudung seems to grow into a political issue as
threats are made to test the constitutionality of the Ministry’s stand
in court.42
In Singapore the term political has negative connotations in social discourse.
Goh’s cabinet has been successful in pressuring parents. In his February
speech, he described those parents who criticized Muslim MPs as politically
motivated.43 In May, Dr Abdul Hamid suggested that the Muslim parents
might have received the support of the opposition Muslim party for reasons of
politics.44 Two months later he even suggested that the Malay opposition
party, the Singapore National Front, had been in touch with the parents for a
political purpose.45 Such a strategy yielded the desired result. The parents
were then alerted, resisted being regarded as political”, and so refused to
align themselves with any political group.46 Their resistance puzzled those
who are concerned with the development of civil society in Singapore:
Among some Muslim individuals or groups, underlying religious
assertion may well be political assertion the assertion of political
stature and a battle for more political space. There is nothing
inherently right or wrong about the latter; contestation for space is
part and parcel of civil society and citizenhood. Trouble starts,
39 See; http://www.singaporedemocrats .org/index.php?id=media
release/media0042.html; and
40Tudung, Fateha: Debates which ended too soon?” The Straits Times, 9th March 2002.
41 “ Muslim leaders must been seen to speak their minds” , The Straits Times, 6th February
42 Chua.
43 The Straits Times, 3rd
February 2002.
44 The Straits Times, 29th May 2002.
45 “ Group wants parents delay tudung case” , The Straits Times, 13th July 2002.
46 “ Three girls to wear tudung to school today” , The Straits Times, 1st February 2002;
Tudung issue: PAS visits not political, say parents” , The Straits Times, 1st June 2002.
though, when the two are confused or not recognized for being two
separate forces at work.47
The changing attitude of the Singaporean government toward the Muslim
schoolgirls tudung from acquiescence to denial must have been influenced, to
a certain extent, by the post-9/11 international context. Singapore has been
closely related to the West, especially with the US, in the fields of the economy
and militar y affairs.48 It is quite natural for Singapore to support the anti-
terrorism campaign led by the American government. Furthermore, the
government in Singapore has keenly noticed how American anti-terrorism has
dictated its foreign policy since 9/11. Indonesia and Malaysia, two Islamic
neighbours of Singapore, have reacted quite differently to Washington’s quest
for cooperation in fighting terrorism. Compared with Indonesia, Malaysia has
been more proactive and supportive of Washington’s anti-terrorism. In
accordance with their responses, Washington has thus drastically adjusted its
relations with Indonesia, which was once its close ally, and with Malaysia,
which was once a major cr itic of Americas global policy.49 The Singaporean
government must have observed the change, and therefore adjusted its policy
towards the Muslim minority. In addition to moving quickly to arrest any
suspected terrorists, Singapore has expressed anger towards Indonesia, which
has shown little inclination to act on information that Singapore has provided
to it about radicals with terrorist connections.50 Goh has repeated several
times that there would be no alteration concerning the school rules on the
tudung, and that the Government’s rigidity on this policy was related to the
ongoing anti-terrorist campaign and the fact that a dozen Muslims were
arrested because they were engaged in terrorism in Singapore.51
Early in November 2001, Goh complained about the Muslim
community’s uncooperative stand on America’s war in Afghanistan, and even
labelled it a threat to split the nation apart.”52 In fact, according to a recent
poll on America’s war against terrorism, 75% of Muslims and 84% of non-
Muslims in Singapore supported the US.53 Although the difference was only
nine percent, it was sufficient to make the government and the public nervous.
This insignificant difference was unfortunately manipulated as a sign of
potential terrorist threat from the Muslim minority. As a result, the
Singaporean government reasoned, one of the ways to prevent the occurrence
47 Chua.
48 Trish Saywell (2002), “ Common Ground” , Far Eastern Economic Review, 165 (3), 24th
January 2002, p.21.
49 John Gershman (2002), “ Is Southeast Asia the Second Front?Foreign Affairs, 81(4),
50 US Wins Licence to Open Second Front in Terror War” , The Times (London), 30th
July 2002.
51 The Straits Times, 3rd February 2002; “ Tudung issue: ‘Not wise to involve outsiders” ,
The Straits Times, 18th February 2002; “ Tudung issue must not lead to segregation” , The
Straits Times, 3rd
March 2002.
52 “Ruling party confident of Malay backing” , The Straits Times, 2nd
November 2001.
53 The Straits Times, 20th February 2002.
The Tudung Incident 63
of terrorism was to abandon all open Muslim religious ceremonies and
symbols. Such linkage of Muslim religious issues with terrorism is without
doubt irrational. It is not certain whether these measures can attain the desired
goal, but they most certainly have worsened the relationship between the
Malay Muslims and the government and other ethnic groups, and have
aroused widespread protests in neighbouring Islamic countries.
Unfortunately, the incident has developed into a vicious cycle. It has
naturally stirred up strong anti-Singaporean sentiment and radical responses in
Singapore’s Islamic neighbours, i.e. Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Criticism
of the Singaporean government’s oppression of the religious rights of Malay
Muslims has been heard from all these countries. Ministers and MPs have
strongly condemned the violation of Muslims’ human rights, political parties
have raised funds for the parents legal action, and universities and NGOs have
protested for justice in the media, embassies, and to Singapore’s High
Commission.54 More than a hundred angry protestors even besieged the
Singaporean Embassy in Jakarta.55 As far as Singapore is concerned, two
geo-political factors are vital to it as a small city-state: regional security and its
dependence on its neighbours for natural resources. Maintaining good and
balanced relationships with its neighbours has always been the major concern
in Singapore’s foreign policy. Yet the mindset of the policy-makers is also
deeply moulded by their biased understanding of the Islamic resurgence
movements in its peripheral neighbours (including the Philippines).56
Domestically, Muslims are usually stereotyped as disobedient to the
government, disloyal to the country, and uncompromising in safeguarding the
values of their religion in the face of temptations posed by the materialistic
desire for a middle-class living standard. The Singaporean government has
regarded such a politically disobedient group as a bad example of an ethnic
minority – a radical other. In a country composed of diverse religious
traditions and ethnic groups, Islam is inevitably perceived as a challenge to the
government’s cautious policy of maintaining harmony in domestic politics, and
Muslim Malays as an ethnic group pose a threat to domestic control and
national security. For more than 10 years, Goh has been complaining about
Malay Muslims poor support, in contrast to Chinese support, for the Chinese-
54 “ Politicians and groups criticize S’ pore over tudung”, The Straits Times, 31 st January
2002; “ KL minister tells S’ pore to heed tudung sensitivity” , The Straits Times, 3rd February
2002; “ PAS leaders in Singapore to give support to tudung girls” , The Straits Times, 21st
May 2002; “ PAS raises $4,700 for tudung girls” , The Straits Times, 23rd May 2002; and
“ S’pore under fire again at PAS assembly” , The Straits Times, 2nd June 2002. A political
party in Brunei also delivered its letter of protest to the Singapore Government, see Sing Pao
(Hong Kong), 7th February 2002. “ PAS Youth hands protest memorandums to embassies” ,
New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), 30th January 2002; “ Keadilan urges tolerance over
wearing of tudung”, New Straits Times, 5th February 2002.
55 Hong Kong Commercial Press, Oriental Daily (Hong Kong), 26th February 2002.
56 Erich Kolig (2001), “ Modernisation without secularization? Civil Pluralism,
Democratisation, and Re-Islamisation in Indonesia” , New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies,
3(2), pp.17-41; Patricia A. Martinez (2001), The Islamic State or the State of Islam in
Malaysia” , Contemporary Southeast Asia, 23(3),.pp.474-503.
dominated PAP in parliamentary elections. However, what has bothered him
may only be a 5-10% difference between these two ethnic groups.57 In
response to this insignificant difference, in allocating public housing Goh has
limited the proportion of Malay families and their r elatives living in the same
district to avoid any potential negative influence on his party in elections.58 He
has gone even further by restricting the enrolment of Malays in the army to
avoid any possibility of their collusion with Islamic extremists in neighbouring
countries. Goh’s policies have been so discriminative that even Habibi, the
moderate President of Indonesia, did not hesitate to express concern about the
suffering of his fellow Muslims in Singapore.59
In the tudung incident, I noticed the following paradox: the more critical
the responses and interventions received from the neighbouring countries, the
more severe the oppression imposed by the Singaporean government upon
Malay Muslims.60 It seems that ever since independence, the Singaporean
government, like the Israeli government, has been moulded by crisis
thinking.61 As a matter of fact, such challenges have always posed a real
threat to the security of the country: such things as concern over the nature of
colonial rule, ethnic conflict and riots, threats from neighbouring countries, the
spread of communism in Southeast Asia, the recent Asian Economic Crisis
and the 9/11 terrorist attacks all demonstrate how national security has always
been the major concern of the Singapore Government. Yet, to be sensitive to
threats and hence oriented by crisis thinking is quite different from being
moulded and hence limited by crisis thinking. The Singapore Government has
been well known for a form of crisis management that is always ready to
surrender to authoritarianism and the violation of peoples rights for the sake of
the so-called national security. In the case of the Muslim headscarf, we witness
the same line of reasoning. The incident, occurring just at a time when Muslim
people all around the world could easily be labelled as the object of anti-
terrorism, has been highly politicized as a means to resolve internal ethnic
conflict and to tame potential external threats from Islamic revivalists in
Malaysia and Indonesia. Occurring in the high tide of anti-terrorism, a case
involving the violation of basic human rights has been justified by the
government as a local battle against potential terrorism. In the face of the
alchemical discourse created by the government, Muslim MPs were forced to
explain to the PAP the difference between Muslim piety and Islamic
fundamentalist extremism and to give assurances that the Islamic resurgence
movement of the Malay Muslims has nothing in common with the latter.62
57 The Straits Times, 26th September 1988.
58 Chua Beng-Huat (1997), Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore,
London & New York: Routledge, chapter 7.
59 The Straits Times, 29th September 1999.
60 “ S’pore to KL groups: Stay out of tudung issue” , The Straits Times, 1st February 2002;
“ Young PAP says Malaysian politicians should respect Singapore’s right to resolve
domestic matter internally” , The Straits Times, 6th February 2002 “ Tudung issue:Not
wise’ to involve outsiders” , The Straits Times, 18th February 2002.
61 “PM Reveals Plan to Crash Jet into Changi”, The Straits Times, 6th April 2002.
62 “Don’t confuse piety and extremism” , The Straits Times, 26th November 2001.
The Tudung Incident 65
Manipulating the endless crises and threats, the Singapore Government
successfully manoeuvres the society to sacrifice the freedom and human rights
of the minority for the interests of the majority.
The Religious and Social Implications of the Muslim Headscarf
Singapore is not the only country that forbids Muslim attire at school. Similar
events have taken place in France, Thailand, Turkey, Israel, and most recently
in Spain. The reasons for the prohibition vary from the theoretical to the
practical. In the eyes of feminists, the Muslim headscarf is a means for the
oppression of women and hence should not be allowed in schools, which are
places to educate using enlightened values. Feminists in Canada used this
argument in advocating the abandonment of Muslim headscarves. Similarly,
Goh has succeeded in manufacturing a social discourse that criticizes the
religious act of wearing the tudung asconservative.” 63 Yet the fact is that
the government and most Chinese are ignorant of Islam in general and Malay
cultur e in particular. An illustr ation of the misunder standing of the Chinese
about Malay Muslims is the fact that when some Chinese parents heard that
their children’s teacher was a Muslim, wearing the tudung, they requested that
their children be transferred to other classes.64
When judging Singapore’s policies, we cannot be ignorant of the
religious meaning and social implications of the tudung. The Quaran does not
tell women to wear headscarves. This became part of Muslim ritual only after
readers made specific interpretations of the Quaranic call for modesty with
regard to women’s attire. Nowadays most Muslims, be they orthodox or
liberal, regard it as a must. Yet, there are no agreed principles concerning the
extent to which the head and face should be covered. Muslims living in the
West or those living in countries that have frequent contact with the West are
more inclined to think that covering the face is not necessary.65 In the case of
Malay Muslims, the origin of wearing the headscarf has a direct relationship
with the dakwah religious movement of the 1970s. According to Nagata, the
clothing of Malay women was quite casual before the movement, but with the
dramatic change in Malaysia’s economy during the 1970s and 1980s, women
grew up in that period consciously feeling that they could barely hold on to
their spirituality in the face of rapid modernization and urbanization. In search
of Muslim tradition, university students and young women professionals living
in the cities thus began to launch the dakwah to look for self-assertion with the
help of Islamic spirituality. By dressing in religious clothing, they showed their
faith in Islam, identified themselves with traditional culture and, most
63 PM Reveals Plan to Crash Jet into Changi” , The Straits Times, 6th April 2002; Asad
Latif, “ There s no room for skepticism, distrust and fear in Singapore” , The Straits Times
Weekly Edition, 6th April 2002, pp.14-15.
64 Trish Saywell (2002), “ Common ground” , Far Eastern Economic Review, 165 (3), 24th
January 2002, pp.20-2.
65 Annes S. Roald (2001), Women in Islam: The Western Experience, London: RoutIedge.
importantly, made a gesture to resist the intrusion of Western secular clothing
into their Islamic country. 66 What is most interesting is the fact that most of
them had received higher education, and cared much about their self-image.
Hence, it is beyond doubt that wearing the headscarf was a self-assertive
personal choice. Such a rational and self-conscious movement should not be
perceived as equivalent to a religious extremism that forces women to cover
their faces with headscarves. The Islamic resurgence movement launched by
young cultured Malay women was not an independent phenomenon. It also
took place elsewhere in Southeast Asia, such as southern Thailand and
Mindanao in the Philippines. There is no doubt that one side-effect of the
movement is that it annihilated other traditional clothing, but the religious
message conveyed by wearing the headscarf is what deserves our attention.
To Malay women, no matter whether they are wearing the tudung nowadays
or were wearing a selendang (a headscarf loosely covering the head and neck)
in the early days, their religious act has the same message: to discourage male
sexual fantasies, a woman should not expose her hair and neck (not necessarily
including the face) in public. Some Islamic women even go further to insist
that by wearing the headscarf they gain more respect from other people. Men
will then not treat them as targets of sexual assault; and there is no need to
dress themselves up just to please other people and to make themselves
adherents of the Western fashion industry. For them, wearing headscarves
means women’s liberation in the genuine sense of the term. The meaning of
this religious ritual is in sharp contrast with the general misunderstanding that
the headscarf is a symbol of oppression of women’s rights.
We should not ignore the fact that those parents who were involved in
the tudung incident placed much emphasis on their children’s religious
education and preferred to send them to madrasahs rather than secular
schools. These people were not only highly educated, but had also studied in
the West with government sponsorship.67 Should we deliberately dismiss this
choice, as the right-wing extremists did, as irrational religious frenzy? Should
the educational values held by the parents be condemned because they are not
politically correct in an authoritarian country that stands against universal
humanitarian ideas originating in the West? Should the Singaporean
government take advantage of the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in the
West at the moment and use it to support its own abuse of minority rights?
This complicated phenomenon definitely deserves further scrutiny.
The prolonged suffering of Malay Muslims can never be fully understood by
examining a single incident. What I am particularly concerned about is
66 Judith Nagata (1995), “ Modern Malay Women and the Message of the ‘ Veil’” , Jahan
Karim ed., Male and female in Developing Southeast Asia, Washington: Oxford University
67 The Straits Times, 29th May 2002.
The Tudung Incident 67
whether the Singaporean government can achieve its goals of social stability
and national solidarity. By not allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear the tudung
at school, the government has violated Malay Muslims’ right to religious
freedom, a right that does not infringe on the rights of others. Malays have
long been marginalized in Singapore, and lack both social recognition and
political security. Hence, Islam serves them as a spiritual support. Abolishing
the right to wear the tudung has sent a strong message to Malays that their
social status has been further marginalized and their spiritual support is under
thr eat. Consequent ly, the social stability and et hnic coexistence of Singapor es
people as a whole will be threatened in the long run.
Will the government’s policy really result in a long-awaited social
stability and national solidar ity? The government has always claimed that its
multiracial policies provide equal opportunity for all ethnic groups.
Theoretically, every ethnic group can live according to its own culture, use its
own language, and believe in its own religion. However, there is another side
to the story. Besides pursuing diversity, the government also advocates
ethnic harmony and unity”. To achieve this goal, all ethnic groups are
compelled to eliminate their cultural differences so that harmony, coexistence,
and integration can be achieved. The government also strives to pursue the
ideal of the so-called New Singaporean” along with new Singaporean
shared values” , according to which individual interests and values are
secondary to the interests of society as a whole, with economic growth being
the ultimate national goal at the expense of minority interests.
In practice, ethnic relations are never an isolated issue. They can only
be understood in the web of power politics. Looking the web of Singaporean
politics, the current ethnic predicament is nothing more than a product of a
power conflict between different interest groups. Disguised in the
government’s idealistic phraseology of ethnic harmony is a battle for power,
control and counter-control, degradation and recognition, coercion and
freedom among different ethnic groups. On the surface the ethnic issues look
very complicated, but the factors that render ethnicity problematical are very
straightforward. The following observations of two Muslims may help at this
point to explain the core issue in the debate about wearing the tudung at
school.68 An Indian Muslim said: one should first be informed that dissension
about wearing the tudung has been a phenomenon in ethnic politics for a
number of years. It is no new thing. What is an issue in the recent debate is
that the Singaporean government’s reaction has been reduced to a kind of ego
issue. Persistent tudung activities have caused the government to dig in its
heels, and now the situation is one of the ego issues disguised in the
vocabulary of national unity. A similar opinion was held by a British Muslim
who remarked that while a large number of Muslim Singaporeans he knew
shared the concerns espoused in the tudung dispute, the confrontational
approach placed the government in a position where accession to any of the
demands meant that it would lose face.
68Tudung controversy a test in art of negotiation” , The Straits Times, 20th February 2002.
A similar crisis once took place in Thailand sixteen years ago. Unlike
Singapore, the Thai government eventually legalized the Muslim ritual. Its
Ministry of Education revised regulations, thus permitting Muslim students to
wear their traditional ethnic clothing at school. Sixteen years later, has that
tolerant decision belittled the “ common space” in Thailand and destroyed
ethnic unity? Such is surely not the case. A Muslim woman in Singapore
thus could not help asking the government, “ why should Singapore not prove
itself capable of a new paradigm in racial integration?”69
Robert J. Ackerman has argued that mainstream religion has great
potential to develop into a socially critical force.70 Indeed, the tudung incident
in Singapore may be an excellent footnote to the above diagnosis. Buddha
once said, there are three thousand worlds immanent in a conscious-instant.
Bearing in mind that, apart from the abovementioned Thai actions, France also
relaxed its ban on headscarves in schools after a ten year debate, the
Singaporean government should take heed of historical precedent and show
the world a new Singapore that is truly diversified, multi-ethnic and, most
importantly, tolerant.
69 Chua.
70 Robert J. Ackerman (1985), Religion as Critique, Amherst, MA: University of
Massachusetts Press.
The Tudung Incident 69
The Tudung Incident 71
... There has been repeated lobbying and contestation over these policies by the Singaporean Muslim community over the last two decades, with many taking to social media to voice their discontent, though to no avail. Two often-mentioned examples are the suspension of four primary school girls in 2002 and the subsequent labeling of their parents for insisting that their children don the hijab in national schools, and the 2013 campaign to enable nurses to wear the hijab in Singapore's hospitals (Kamaludeen and Aljunied, 2009;Law, 2003). In short, the decision to wear the hijab can limit a young woman's opportunities in school, at work, and elsewhere. ...
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While research on youth cultures in Southeast Asia has traditionally focused on crime, class, and delinquency among adolescent and young-adult males, the 21st century has seen an increase in research on the intersections between youth, religion, popular culture, media, identity, and consumption. As part of this trend, we report on an exploration of the terms hijabista and hijabster, which refer to female Muslim cultural identities centered on the nontraditional use of the hijab or Muslim headscarf. After situating the phenomena within the larger context of conservative regional politics and religion, we consider their cultural meanings in terms of mass and social media, suggesting that hijabista and hijabster cultures and identities are simultaneously hybrid and negotiated as young Muslim women, culture industries, and political and religious agents all employ a variety of strategies to shape emerging definitions. Finally, we reflexively discuss the implications of our own theoretical interests on interpretations of what it means to be a hijabista or hijabster.
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Both cultural persistence and change reflect, in part, the broad forces of globalization. For example, consider the decline of handwoven rugs upon the introduction of mechanical looms or the rise of Navajo arti-sanship through new markets in Europe and Asia. We need only remember that the enormous market for Corinth’s striking black-figure pottery was eclipsed in the mid-sixth century BCE by the rise of Athens as a competitor and then the new-style Attic pottery. Yet deliberate and direct human action also shapes how language, religion, artistic expression, and historical memory and interpretation are maintained or altered.
This article addresses how racialization can be applied to examine the state construction of Malay identity in Singapore. The conventional understanding of racialization is that it is a process that attributes differences to biological constitution, usually phenotypical characteristics. We take the broader interpretation that people racialize or naturalize differences and relations between races/ethnic groups even by referring to culture, religion, language, nation, or other issues. By examining the public and political discourses particular to some of these issues, we demonstrate how the state has racialized and influenced the development of Malay identity in various stages in the political history of Singapore: colonial, national, and global.
This article assesses the Singapore state's approach towards multiracialism by focusing on the hijab issue. I argue that a combination of elite ideology and regime type can explain the state's overall stances on religion, including the hijab issue. Previously, when the state was hegemonic, its policies were determined solely by the ideologies held by its key elites. However, as the state moves towards competitive authoritarianism with increased electoral competition, the dominant party will no longer be able to act solely based on its ideological predispositions. This explains why a staunch no-hijab stand was held by the state in the past, whereas in recent years, there appears to be a softening of this stance.
This paper investigates the nature of secularism practiced by the Singapore state, focusing on the two main Islamic organizations, MUIS and Pergas. I postulate that the state uses “muscular” and “calibrated” secularism to manage them, and co-opts them either formally or informally. The two organizations agree to such an arrangement.
In recent years discussion about female genital mutilation (FGM) has expanded and the UN has recently called for a universal ban of the practice. The practice in Southeast Asia is widespread among Malay Muslims and, although different styles and practices exist, procedures conducted in medical clinics are extremely minor and, according to gynaecological research, have no effect on sexuality due to the clitoris being left totally untouched. One of the states in which Malay Muslims maintain such a tradition is Singapore. Nonetheless, Singapore is rarely mentioned in academic studies or even in reports discussing the ritual. Even inside Singapore, only Malays tend to know of the tradition, while other ethnic groups remain oblivious to the fact that Singapore is among the states that allow such an operation. The present article does not discuss FGM per se and avoids contributing to the diatribe about labels and values, although these are, of course, extremely relevant. Instead it focuses on the reasons for the practice remaining hidden and undiscussed in Singapore, so much so that some respondents did not know that they had been circumcised.
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Branded by its government as 'Asia's world city', Hong Kong is described as 'an open, tolerant and pluralistic community, and a city rich in culture and tradition'. However, beneath this 'harmony' lies the fact that majority of Hong Kong Chinese socially exclude many South Asian ethnic groups. The Hong Kong government sim-ilarly lacks a multicultural policy that encourages its citizens to respect other races and provides resources for ethnic groups to cultivate and maintain their well-being and cultural identities. In this article, the authors will probe into the actual depth of the Hong Kong public and government's self-image of diversity and tolerance and deter-mine whether another reality is hidden behind the beautiful exposition. A discussion follows on the changed or unchanged scenarios influenced by public policies for eth-nic minorities, who regard the city as their second home or were born here, since Hong Kong returned to China. Although Hong Kong has been handed over to China for 15 years, the legacy of colonialism is found to be apparent when we attempt to critically review the plight of ethnic minorities in the city through the framework of multiculturalism.
The position of Islam in the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia is an issue both intriguing and of seemingly interminable, often poignant, topicality. On a very conspicuous level, riots, at least partially inspired by religious differences between Muslims and Christians, seem to be an unsettlingly frequent occurrence. And equally notable, the current Acehnese Islamically inspired 'insurgency' is no less spectacular than the several Darul Islam movements in various parts of the far-flung archipelago have been in the past. Some of these attempts to install a Negara Islam (Islamic state) have been outstanding for their bloodletting. Presumably, even though this is not always patently obvious, politics in Indonesia have always been made with at least half an eye to religion (cf. McVey 1983). First the Dutch, as colonial masters, tried to stem the social importance of Islam, recognising in it the major and most concerted resistor to colonial rule, and subsequently endeavoured to shape it in the Christian mould of an 'inner religion' - with little success one might add. Then with the Sukarno era and its emergent nationalism there was an attempt to harness the considerable moving force of Islam for the decolonisation effort. Later, Islam was an instrumental medium for purging Indonesia of communism. 1 Still later, and of great importance, was the uneasy relationship between Islam and Suharto's New Order regime, which was torn between a secular modernising vision and the need to curry favour with the Muslim masses.
A political party in Brunei also delivered its letter of protest to the Singapore Government, see Sing Pao
" Politicians and groups criticize S'pore over tudung", The Straits Times, 31 st January 2002; " KL minister tells S'pore to heed tudung sensitivity", The Straits Times, 3 rd February 2002; " PAS leaders in Singapore to give support to tudung girls", The Straits Times, 21st May 2002; " PAS raises $4,700 for tudung girls", The Straits Times, 23rd May 2002; and " S'pore under fire again at PAS assembly", The Straits Times, 2nd June 2002. A political party in Brunei also delivered its letter of protest to the Singapore Government, see Sing Pao (Hong Kong), 7 th February 2002. " PAS Youth hands protest memorandums to embassies", New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), 30 th January 2002; " Keadilan urges tolerance over wearing of tudung", New Straits Times, 5 th February 2002.
There's no room for skepticism, distrust and fear in Singapore
  • Asad Latif
Asad Latif, " There's no room for skepticism, distrust and fear in Singapore", The Straits Times Weekly Edition, 6 th April 2002, pp.14-15.
Bearing in mind that, apart from the abovementioned Thai actions, France also relaxed its ban on headscarves in schools after a ten year debate, the Singaporean government should take heed of historical precedent and show the world a new Singapore that is truly diversified
  • J Robert
Robert J. Ackerman has argued that mainstream religion has great potential to develop into a socially critical force. 70 Indeed, the tudung incident in Singapore may be an excellent footnote to the above diagnosis. Buddha once said, " there are three thousand worlds immanent in a conscious-instant." Bearing in mind that, apart from the abovementioned Thai actions, France also relaxed its ban on headscarves in schools after a ten year debate, the Singaporean government should take heed of historical precedent and show the world a new Singapore that is truly diversified, multi-ethnic and, most importantly, tolerant.