Tudung Issue: Are We Missing the Point


Dr Chee Soon Juan was fined $3,000 for making this speech at the Speakers’ Corner on 15 february 2002.

The following speech was delivered by Dr Chee Soon Juan at Hong Lim Park on 15 February 2002.

Fellow Singaporeans,

This issue of the wearing of the tudung and the banning of the schoolgirls is a complex one – and one that is highly emotional. There has been a lot of heat generated in this controversy. This afternoon I want to shed more light on this matter and in order to do this I need to use reason, not emotion; logic, not rhetoric.

I see two outcomes to the present situation: One, the Muslim girls are banned from school for an extended period, maybe even indefinitely. Two, the parents give in and send their children to school without the tudung. In either scenario the PAP Government gets its way. In either scenario would the Muslim community become any happier? More importantly, would this problem be resolved? Or would it just cause the Malay community to be even more resentful.

What is the problem?

How then you ask is the problem going to be resolved? The Government must do the right thing and allow schoolgirls – if their parents want them to – to wear their tudung to school. If wearing the tudung to school does not trample upon the rights of other students, then what seems to be the problem?

The problem, the Government says, is that this will cause racial disunity and harm social cohesion. What proof does the Government have to support its case? When policies are put into place there must be substantive reasons for doing so. The Government bans smoking in public places because there is scientific evidence to show that smoking and second-hand smoke increases the chance of the inhaler developing cancer. The Government imposes speed limits on roads because there is evidence that high speeds increase the chance of drivers losing control of their vehicles. But what evidence is there to show that schoolgirls wearing tudung will cause racial disharmony? If the Government can cite evidence and convince us that such is the case, I will be the first one to support the banning of tudung in schools. To this date, the Government has not provided any evidence to support its claim.

On the contrary, allowing students to wear their headscarves to schools will expose schoolchildren to diverse cultural practices at a young age. Children at such ages are very impressionable. We can capitalise on this by teaching them about differences in people so that when they grow up, they feel comfortable in the midst of diversity. We can teach them that differences in our clothes and religion and language are good things, and that they should be embraced. This is what will enhance racial harmony.

Schools in developed countries are encouraging diversity in the classroom so that schoolchildren are exposed to different cultures and practices from a very young age. Ask any psychologist and she will tell you that the best way to remove prejudices and racial bigotry is to expose children to the various cultures when they are young. Even the educational videos that my daughter watches have themes relating to the different cultures and religions. Why are we moving in the opposite direction?

The Government says that if it allows the girls to wear tudung, then there’ll be no end to what every one wants for their children. Let us be realistic. For almost 40 years, we have allowed Sikh boys to wear turbans and Christian children to wear crucifixes to school. Has there been an explosion of parents clamouring for their children to wear this and that type of dress to school? When I was in school I had schoolmates who wore their turbans to school and no one ever thought that because of that they, too, wanted to wear their own types of clothes to school.

Let me summarise the points I have brought up thus far:

  • There is no evidence to show that different types of religious headwear will cause social division.
  • There is good reason to believe that exposing children at an early age to different types of cultural practices will lead to greater tolerance and acceptance of diversity later in life. This means enhancing social cohesion.
  • The wearing of the tudung does not impinge upon the rights of other students.
  • The Government already allows students of other religions to wear clothing that expresses their faiths. Why not the tudung?

Taking these into consideration it makes little sense to prohibit the girls from receiving an education just because their parents want them to wear their tudung.

Why is the SDP involved?

All this still does not answer the question of why the SDP has spoken up on the issue? Some people have accused us of trying to exploit the situation and to gain political mileage. This is not an election year. In fact the next election is another five years away. Even if this is was an election year, it would be politically unwise – from the point of winning votes – for the SDP to get involved in such a sensitive issue. If we wanted to win votes, it’d be better for us not to take the side of the Malay community and appeal to the majority Chinese for votes. Personally, what do I stand to gain from speaking out on this issue? I don’t need any more trouble. I already have enough on my plate fighting my legal battles with Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.

So why are we taking up this issue?

Since we spoke out on this issue, we have been receiving negative feedback from non-Muslim Singaporeans. Some say that we, meaning the Chinese, must control the Malays, otherwise there would be chaos. Others remark that the parents of these schoolgirls are up to mischief and that they should be put in their place. But most people ask what is all this fuss about. The parents should just forget about the issue. After all education is more important than religion.

I am not shocked by such sentiments. Rather, I am deeply saddened. It shows an inability on the part of non-Muslim Singaporeans to understand and empathize with someone outside of our own race and religion. Let me give you an example. When someone within a Chinese family dies, we pin a piece of mourning cloth on the sleeves of our clothes. We take that as something very natural to do. Now imagine if the Government were to disallow this practice in schools. Would we not be incensed that our children cannot carry out this harmless tradition to mourn and honour the deceased? How is this different from the present case of the girls wearing the tudung? It was pointed out to me that on the day of the late Ong Teng Cheong’s funeral, the state flag was not flown at half-mast because some Chinese felt it was not good to do that because of the auspicious day of the first day of the Chinese New Year. I have no problem with the decision not to fly the flag at half-mast on the first day of the Lunar New Year in deference to those who feel strongly about it even though not all Singaporeans feel the same way. The problem begins when we fail to see that while we insist for ourselves on carrying out certain religious practices we don’t do the same for those belonging to other faiths.

Clearly the problem is that the majority Chinese cannot continue to insist that it is all right for us to do certain things while it is wrong for the Malays to want the same kind of treatment from the Government. We, as the majority race, must be sensitive to the needs of the minority races. Otherwise we, as a society, are asking for trouble.

On the question of why can’t the parents of these four girls choose education over their religion – and many Chinese cannot understand this – we must ask ourselves if there is a necessity to choose one or the other. Let us return to the example of the Chinese practice of wearing the mourning cloth. If the Government made us choose one or the other, like the Malays are made to choose either to attend school or wear the tudung, there would be immense unhappiness among the Chinese. The important question here is why must we be forced to choose when clearly there isn’t any need to do so. This is a false choice.

What has the SDP got to do with all this? Why is it that I, a Chinese Christian, have chosen to speak up for four Muslim girls? There is a saying that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. The evil that I am talking about is the racial and religious differences that tear societies apart.

I know that my Malay and Muslim friends are afraid to speak out on this issue because every time they do, they are branded as racists and they attract the unwanted attention from the Government. And so many of them choose to keep quiet. But the problem doesn’t go away. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it is there. We cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. The danger is that if we ignore it, the problem will continue fester and, one day, explode in our faces.

I have been told that Malays feel deprived because the Government doesn’t allow Muslim women to wear the tudung in certain work places such as the police, immigration and in hospitals. This is an on-going concern in the Muslim community because it means that job opportunities for Muslim women are cut down. The non-Muslim communities are largely ignorant of this problem. But the problem is there. I didn’t invent it. I am not making it up. My warning is that if we, as citizens, continue to ignore the matter, the malignant cancer will spread and, if left unattended, eventually kill society.

We have chosen to speak up precisely because we are Chinese and we as a political party will fight for the rights and interests of our people regardless of race. PAP MP Mr Packer Maidin said on television that I should stay out of this matter as it is an issue for the Malays. I’ve heard this from many non-Muslim Singaporeans too. The Malays can speak only for themselves, ditto the Chinese and Indians, then why do we talk about us as Singaporeans? Then we are just separate communities live uneasily together. We can never be a nation and we should not kid ourselves by saying the pledge: “We the citizens of Singapore pledge ourselves as one, united people_” Because we are not. A united people will fight for each other, not against each other. By speaking out for my fellow Malay citizens, how have I transgressed this pledge that I have given to my country?

Genuine unity

Every fibre of my being tells me that the SDP is right to speak up on this issue. I admit that it is not a popular thing to do. But sometimes it is important to do the right thing rather than what is politically expedient. It is tempting to look the other way and pretend that the matter doesn’t concern us. But if we are honest with ourselves, it would be very foolish for us as a people to ignore this problem. Leave it to the Government to handle this? We have been leaving it up to the Government to handle this for the past forty years. It is important to note that it is because of Government policy that this problem has come about.

As a Chinese, I hope to tell my Malay brothers and sisters that the Chinese care about their concerns and that as Singaporeans, we need to work this problem out and confront the Government if need be. We are Singaporeans first and foremost and what is unfair to the Singaporean Malays is also unfair to all Singaporeans. Similarly, Singaporean Malays, Indians, and Eurasians should speak up for the Singaporean Chinese if they are unfairly treated.

When the Japanese were here, they played on the differences between the Malays and Chinese. When the British were here they played on the differences between the English-educated and the Chinese-educated. Those in power will always try to divide, because it makes their job of conquering the people that much easier. Don’t let the PAP do the same.

I call on all of you to come together and be like a fish net, strong and able to remain in one piece under strain and stress, not like the Kleenex type of so-called racial harmony to which the PAP pays lip-service.

I appeal to the higher spirit of kindness and generosity in all of us and not pander to our base instincts of selfishness and ethnocentrism. Let us advocate tolerance, let us embrace diversity, let us celebrate humanity. Let us be colour blind when it comes to standing up for our rights. Let us reach across the racial divide when it comes to caring for each other and speaking up for one another. For only then can we truly call ourselves sons and daughters of this island.

I want us all to link arms and pledge solidarity as a people:

We the citizens of Singapore

Pledge ourselves as one united people

We will speak up for one another

Regardless of race, language or religion

We reject all forms of discrimination

As we reject all forms of violence to solve our problems

To build a democratic society

Based on justice and equality

One that truly fosters peace and harmony

The Government must respect our rights

And give back to the people what belongs to the people

All this we pledge, so as to achieve happiness,

prosperity and progress for our nation.

Updated 20/02/02: Chee’s speech on tudung issue censored by local media

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