Government has divided society

This letter was first posted on an Internet chat-site.

Dear Prime Minister,

I will never forget 1 February 2002. On that day, your government managed to divide the Singapore society in a way that even the ISD arrests and the threat of terrorism in Singapore did not. Four little girls had settled well in their respective schools and were doing what all little kids should do: study and make friends. On Feb 1, your government required that these children be suspended, and deprived of their education. Their crime? They dared to wear the tudung, a tiny piece of cloth that covered their heads.

Your grounds for suspension? They breached the school uniform rule, and the school uniform is necessary for children of different races to unite. Dear Prime Minister, have you asked any of the classmates whether they had difficulty mixing with these girls because of their tudung? Has anyone complained that the girls were not integrating with their classmates because of the tudung ? Believe me, no one who truly believes in racial harmony will buy your government’s immature assertion that the uniform is necessary to preserve unity. And repeating a clich?continuously does not make it any more believable.

Dear Prime Minister, have you also considered the effect of your draconian action on the schoolmates of the affected children? My niece, Ayeshah, is in White Sands. Although she had read the newspapers regularly and knew some “tudunged” kids were facing suspension, she never imagined her schoolmate, whom she had seen many times in the playground, was one of those affected. You see, she had so much trust in her principal that she told her mother rather proudly that Mrs Dhillon was unlike the principals mentioned in the news because she was allowing a child to practise her faith in peace. She was distraught on Friday when she found out that one of the three children was indeed from White Sands. She was shattered. This was a child who truly believed everyone in Singapore mattered regardless of race and religion and felt that she was as important as any non-Muslim. Now she has her doubts. She does not wear the tudung regularly, but certainly hope to wear it when she was slightly older. Now, she knows she may never be able to do it in school, and she feels her rights have been violated.

I attached with this mail a copy of her entry in her school journal addressed to her teacher. I hope you take time to read it.

You may think that we adults have been feeding all the wrong ideas into her head, but it is not true. Any thinking child can see that your actions are discriminatory. As for your argument that Sikhs are allowed their turbans because it was allowed during the colonial times are you then saying that the colonial government had greater respect for the religious rights of their subjects than the democratically elected government of our independent republic? I do not begrudge the Sikh his right to wear his turban. Islam requires me to respect the rights of others, and freedom of religion is a cardinal principle of my faith. Of course, we are also required to speak up for our rights hence this letter. Every Singaporean should support us if he or she truly believe that we all have a right to practise our respective religions (Article 15 of Constitution) and that every one has a right to an education (Article 16).

As for the argument that by practicing one’s religion in school, common space is breached I ask how? As long as a request does not infringe on anyone else’s rights, does not cost the school anything financially, and can be validated by a respected religious authority, a request for the modification of a school rule should not infringe on common space. The school remains neutral, and the interaction between the children remains normal, too. Common space is not breached by differences in skin colour, why should it be breached by slight differences in school uniform?

I wonder, if upper secondary school boys have an option of wearing either long or short trousers in school, why can’t the same option be afforded to girls? Isn’t that gender discrimination? And once that option is given to girls, why should the options be limited to upper secondary alone? Why not to all children who have reached puberty? And once that is deemed reasonable, a piece of cloth over one’s head will not seem so serious a matter any more. You see, Prime Minister, the modification of the school uniform to accommodate particular needs is not a difficult concept to visualize if you have the inclination to do so. But your government has chosen to take a rigid stand instead, and to polities an otherwise simple matter which could have been settled within the four walls of the school.

Today I have been convinced of the need for an opposition voice in Parliament. I voted for the PAP during the last elections, and was disappointed when Mr Low Thia Kiang won in Hougang. Now I am grateful he and Mr Chiam See Tong are there. I don’t know if it will happen, but at least I can hope that this matter will be discussed in Parliament through an alternative voice.

On the same note, I’d like to issue a challenge to your government today, audacious as it may seem. You have said that your government will consider creating a shadow cabinet that will debate the government’s policies in parliament. I’d like to hear this matter being debated through that milieu. I do not want the Malay/Muslim MPs to be the ones to raise the matter in Parliament as I do not thing this issue concerns only Malays/Muslims but all minorities. It is for that reason that I cc this letter to so many of your MPs.

Lastly, I promise you, Mr Prime Minister, that until this matter is resolved in a way that is humane I for one will never believe what I read in the newspapers about your government’s programmes to improve racial harmony and integration. Your statement that Singaporeans should learn about each other and value each other smacks of the worst kind of hypocrisy when at the same time you are depriving school children of the best opportunity to learn and accept each other as they are, ie in school. For the message you haven given Singaporeans in general is this: that it is alright to prevent a Singaporean from practicing his religion in the name of unity and rules. You may say this is justified in schools, but how do you prevent others from extending the same policy and justifying it in the outside working world as well? Can we say they are discriminatory when they are merely aping your actions?

I know this letter is not very gentle. It is not my intention to be rude, but everything I say here comes from my heart, and I just have to let you know how I feel. So as is the Muslim practice, I apologise for the parts where I have been offensive in any way, please attribute it to the want of a better style rather than malice.

Before I end, let me just remind you of what the father of one of the girls said when asked whether he was pursuing this matter in court, I don’t want Singapore to have a bad image. This is one Singaporean I am proud of. What a pity the government is not as gracious.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Respectfully Yours,

Noorunnisa d/o PK Ibrahim Kutty