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Monday, April 28, 2008



Ministry of Educations rationale

During the Jama’ah Islamiah (JI) episode, PERGAS issued a response to the White Paper presented to Parliament, in which we also touched on the Ministry of Education’s ‘rigid’ ruling on the uniform in national schools. The following was extracted from the full official response (in bold/blue that is relevant as it pertains to the "Tudung issue"):


"Example is the 'Tudung Issue', a specific Islamic requirement for Muslim girls who have attained the age of puberty. By not resolving this issue,we fear that some section of our citizens may become disenchanted with our concept of freedom of religious practices. This issue has already raised dissatisfaction and if left unattended would lead to feelings of mistrust by one group towards the others. We are concerned that if this is not resolved amicably and convincingly, every effort towards wanting to strengthen social cohesion (amongst the races) would only be seen merely as a mere slogan chanting. To forge a more meaningful social cohesion, it must seriously consider and respect the differences existing amongst the various ethnic groups in Singapore. To regard it as insignificant or setting aside (disregarding) something seen as very important for one minority group with the excuse that we have to look into the interest and well-being of the majority should not be too often used as an excuse. "

(Extract from "PERGAS's response to the White Paper on Jemaah Islamiyah" dated 16 January 2003/13 Zul Qa'edah1423)
- For full statement see APENDIX II


Our comment in using the ‘Tudung” issue as example (above in bold/blue), somewhat received an expected response from the Ministry of Education in their letter to ST Forum dated 23, January 2003 under caption "Uniform rule helps protect minorities' interests." (See below):

---------------------------------------- Extract of letter ---------------------------------------------------------------

“I refer to the letter by Pergas president Mohamad Hasbi Hassan, "Pergas: JI has to be checked" (ST, Jan 17).

He said that "to regard (wearing the tudung) as insignificant or set aside, despite it being seen as very important for one minority group, with the excuse that we have to look into the interest and well-being of the majority, should not be too often used as an excuse."

Requiring students in national schools to wear their school uniform is not a question of disregarding the interests of the minority in order to look after the interests of the majority. The school uniform rule applies to all students regardless of race or religion.This neutral position with regard to all groups is the best way for secular, multi-ethnic Singapore to ensure that the interests of the minority are looked after, and are not overwhelmed by those of the majority.

Wearing the tudung is not the only request that we have received from Muslim parents and students, and Muslims are not the only ones who have made requests for the variation of school rules.

Acceding to these requests would accentuate differences and create new divisions among the students in our schools.

Our schools are part of the common space in Singapore where our children come together regardless of race, religion or socio-economic background.

Our students interact every day – going for recess together, singing the national anthem and taking the pledge together, and participating in sports and games together.

Wearing the school uniform helps them to identify as one. These experiences bind them together, and bring out how we are more alike than different.

This will ensure that we sustain the strong social cohesion we have built up so far.

Secretary to
Minister for
----------------------------------------------- End letter ---------------------------------------------------

ST Forum dated 23, January 2003 under caption "Uniform rule helps protect minorities' interests."

PERGAS’ counter

After the Ministry of Education’s response in the press, we were given explicitly their reasons (rational basis) for its ruling of the school uniform. This gave us in PERGAS the onus to offer our comments and enter into some kind of a dialogue, rationally and not be accused of being emotional because there were people who wished that discussions on the ‘aurah’ be stopped. Yet we were unsure of how the Minister and perhaps the Cabinet would react to our counter response in if made in the press. The media (public) platform would have been the logical place to offer our disagreement to the Ministry’s with our counter arguments and rebuttals. But it may not be received positively, as some may question PERGAS’ intention and method or even use it to label our approach as being too ‘confrontational’.

Having weighed the matter, we decided to reply directly to the Minister and avoided the media. We had hoped that whatever we argued in our response would not be misjudged by anyone as an attempt on our (PERGAS) part to gain public support. It was our sincere response, as an opprtunity to offer our view, as advice, which may include rebuttals to certain viewpoints, for the Minister’s reconsideration. We were appealling to reason and fair arguments and were hoping to engage the Ministry rationally and intellectually. This was the content of our letter as response:

--------------------------------------------- Extracted ----------------------------------------------------

The Honourable
Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean
The Minister for

1. We refer to the response made by your press secretary Mr. Lim Chee Hwee (Press Secretary to the Minister for Education) and wish to thank him for his response and clarification (ST Forum dated 23 January 2003). We do not wish to engage in polemic on the matter in the public media with your Ministry, as our concern is only to express our view for your consideration.

2. From your clarification, we are please to note the Education Ministry’s frankness and openness in presenting the rationale regarding the policy on uniforms for students in national schools. Although PERGAS understands with respect, that the prerogative to decide regarding this policy matter rests with the Minister for Education, yet we may not share those rationales as stated by your secretary, as we do have a differing opinion. Please allow us to comment on these and perhaps suggest our views on the matters raised.

3. That the “uniform rule applies to all students regardless of race or religion,” should not negate the fact that in its ‘rigid’ implementation, it has already inadvertently disregarded the genuine interests of a minority to practice their religion. In the face of upholding and respecting the rights and personal freedom for adherents of all religions there surely must be exceptions to such ruling regarding uniform. We are not just referring to Islam. Regarding forms of personal dressing and appearance, any request from any religious group that can be substantiated with a direct reference to their genuine scriptural source, must be respected. As has been authoritatively verified, the covering of aurah (modesty) is a religious requirement for Muslims. In terms of religion, it is compulsory. Thus, acceding to the genuine Muslim requirement of covering the aurah would only be consistent with the government’s expression of respect for religious freedom enshrined in our Constitution. The onus of proving legitimacy by the respective religious authorities serves as a solid check against any request in the name of religion, which is in fact new fads and cultural innovations. This should remove the Minister’s concern of the possibility of abuse. The fact that there has been precedence (as in our Sikh community) cannot be omitted in the minds of people nor was it ever a problem. To now reflect deference would be a clear double standard, which would invite suspicions or even accusations of discrimination. Indeed, in the case of the turban, it has inculcated respect by others towards the religious needs and practice of our Sikh compatriots while giving the Sikhs the choice of donning the turban or not.

4. You opine that the “neutral position with regard to all groups is the best way for secular, multi-ethnic Singapore to ensure that the interests of the minority are looked after, and are not overwhelmed by those of the majority.” We thank you for stating your concern, but in the case of us Muslims, the real feeling is that the rigidity of the ministry’s rule on school uniform (which is seen by Muslims, as rule of the majority) has already overwhelmed the minority Muslims. In the case of the ‘Tudung’ issue, we see that the minority Muslims are overwhelmed when they are forced to leave national schools in order to practice a religious obligation. The rigid implementation of the current school uniform policy, in effect, forces Muslims to choose between studying in fine Singaporean national schools or carrying out a genuine religious obligation. This is clearly a false dilemma unfairly imposed on a minority.

5. We note your descriptive phrase of our Singapore being “secular, multi-ethnic” without acknowledging the multi-religious aspect of our national landscape. We wonder why. Are we changing the often-repeated pledge “regardless of race, language or religion” diligently proclaimed in our schools everyday? Our understanding of the term ‘secular’ as commonly used is, in our view, only to describe the social acceptance (a social convention) to keep politics neutral, not only of religions by all religious groups in society but also from racial overtones. It does not mean that our society is devoid of religions and multi ethnicity. This, we feel is important to remember because there may be some people who embrace ‘secularism’ as a personal belief or ideology (and we have to respect their right to this), but who may then conveniently misinterpret this (general usage of the term ‘secular’) to mean a license for them to then ‘religiously’ impose their ways upon others, insensitive to the requirements of those who are following the officially acknowledged religions.

6. We understand that your Ministry may have also received from other religious communities, not just Muslims, “requests for variation of school rules.” But instead of considering the merits of each request, it would seem to us that the Minister would rather not accede to any. Surely in our nation building, ample space must be allowed for the growth of every community, be they Chinese, Malay, Indian or others, as long as this ‘growth’ does not encroach or deprive the rights of others. And it is clear that Muslim children dressing modestly (as stipulated by their religion, Islam) do not encroach into anyone else’s private space. Our understanding of ‘neutral’ public space is space for growth in the making of Singapore, where differences can be managed and commonality forged positively and not merely to be kept ‘too antiseptically neutral’ and stifling.

7. We fully understand and appreciate your concern as expressed as your “fear of it accentuating differences and create new divisions among students.” However, if we are sincere in re-making Singapore, educating our citizens from young towards respectfully accepting differences in others, cannot and must not be ignored. This is especially if these differences are already the actual reality of our society’s landscape, the sooner we guide our children to learn to deal with these differences in school would be the wiser, rather than to stubbornly ignore them. As we understand it, one of the most important objectives in education, after all, is to prepare our young to face the reality of life in Singapore and indeed the global world.

8. We refer to your comment “Wearing the school uniform helps them to identify as one. These experiences bind them together, and bring out how we are more alike than different.” In this matter, we do not doubt the positive benefit of wearing the school uniform in forging a sense of unity and loyalty in schools. Lest we forget, (in the ‘Tudung’ issue) the Muslim parents are not advocating abolishment of the wearing of school uniforms, only varying it to accommodate a genuine religious requirement. After all, school uniforms are not meant to be strictly homogeneous, as in the clear example of the uniforms for boys and girls. Another very obvious example is when a Sikh boy wears a turban with the requirement that the turban be colour co-ordinated with the colours of the school uniform. Thus their attire, though not exactly alike, is still regarded as uniform as they conform to commonly shared school symbols, like colours and badges etc. Lest it be misconstrued, ‘aurah’ requirement for Muslims is not about mere form or about trying to be different, but for us Muslims, it serves to inculcate decency and modesty in a Muslim (indeed a valuable aspect of our education).

9. PERGAS agrees and supports the need “to sustain the strong cohesion, which we have built so far.” We are indeed grateful and our government should be applauded for the present achievements. Yet, more than just merely sustaining, PERGAS believes that such strong cohesion among Singaporeans of the various races and religions must be continuously nurtured and strengthened. To overly depend on school uniform alone is never sufficient. The JI episode should remind us all not to be complacent. It is undeniable that such elements would capitalise on the clear double standards of the Ministry of Education with regards to its rigid school uniform policy vis-à-vis the Sikhs and the Muslims. Our society’s attitude and clear demonstration of our commitment towards actively manifesting and forging unity, even in diversity, is even more important now than ever before. The sooner we signal to our young, of our willingness to embrace and tolerate our differences, respecting each other’s rights to the different beliefs and practices, the sooner can we remove whatever socio-psychological barriers existing amongst Singaporeans, be they feelings of being neglected, resentment, prejudices, suspicion and mistrust which our diverse social make up are prone to if improperly unmanaged.

10. Once again PERGAS would like to thank the Minister and your Press Secretary (Mr. Lim Chee Hwee) for your response and clarification, and we hope our input on this matter be taken positively. We cannot emphasise enough that PERGAS is committed to contribute in strengthening social cohesion in the face of whatever threats, which may afflict our beloved Singapore.

May we have a tolerant, united, peaceful and prosperous Singapore.

27 FEB 2003 / 25 ZULHIJJAH 1423

-------------------------------------- End of letter to the Minister --------------------------------------

From this, PERGAS received a short note of acknowledgement from the Press Secretary on behalf of the Minister and conveying his thanks for our letter, but without any other comments.

What effects did our arguments have on the Minister’s decision?

Whether he disagreed with the points raised and perhaps avails his correction or counter arguments against it; or offers a more convincing reasons etc.?

Would he be reconsidering the policy?
How does he feel about it?

There was no indication. We were left cold. There was no other development after this. The rigid rule on the school uniform remains unchanged.


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