In February 2002, Dr Chee Soon Juan presented the SDP’s stand on Malay women in Singapore donning the tudung, or hijab in a speech at Speakers’ Corner. Although the speech referred to the banning of schoolgirls wearing the headscarf, the statement also applies to women who wish to wear it at the workplace. Our position still stands.$CUT$
This issue of the wearing of the tudungand the banning of the schoolgirls is a complex one – and one that ishighly emotional. There has been a lot of heat generated in thiscontroversy. This afternoon I want to shed more light on this matterand in order to do this I need to use reason, not emotion; logic, notrhetoric.
I see two outcomes to the presentsituation: One, the Muslim girls are banned from school for anextended period, maybe even indefinitely. Two, the parents give inand send their children to school without the tudung. In eitherscenario the PAP Government gets its way. In either scenario wouldthe Muslim community become any happier? More importantly, would thisproblem be resolved? Or would it just cause the Malay community to beeven more resentful.
What is the problem?
How then you ask is the problem goingto be resolved? The Government must do the right thing and allowschoolgirls – if their parents want them to – to wear their tudung toschool. If wearing the tudung to school does not trample upon therights of other students, then what seems to be the problem?
The problem, the Government says, isthat this will cause racial disunity and harm social cohesion. Whatproof does the Government have to support its case? When policies areput into place there must be substantive reasons for doing so. TheGovernment bans smoking in public places because there is scientificevidence to show that smoking and second-hand smoke increases thechance of the inhaler developing cancer. The Government imposes speedlimits on roads because there is evidence that high speeds increasethe chance of drivers losing control of their vehicles. But whatevidence is there to show that schoolgirls wearing tudung will causeracial disharmony? If the Government can cite evidence and convinceus that such is the case, I will be the first one to support thebanning of tudung in schools. To this date, the Government has notprovided any evidence to support its claim.
On the contrary, allowing students towear their headscarves to schools will expose schoolchildren todiverse cultural practices at a young age. Children at such ages arevery impressionable. We can capitalise on this by teaching them aboutdifferences in people so that when they grow up, they feelcomfortable in the midst of diversity. We can teach them thatdifferences in our clothes and religion and language are good things,and that they should be embraced. This is what will enhance racialharmony.
Schools in developed countries areencouraging diversity in the classroom so that schoolchildren areexposed to different cultures and practices from a very young age.Ask any psychologist and she will tell you that the best way toremove prejudices and racial bigotry is to expose children to thevarious cultures when they are young. Even the educational videosthat my daughter watches have themes relating to the differentcultures and religions. Why are we moving in the opposite direction?
The Government says that if it allowsthe girls to wear tudung, then there’ll be no end to what every onewants for their children. Let us be realistic. For almost 40 years,we have allowed Sikh boys to wear turbans and Christian children towear crucifixes to school. Has there been an explosion of parentsclamouring for their children to wear this and that type of dress toschool? When I was in school I had schoolmates who wore their turbansto 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 havebrought 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 itmakes little sense to prohibit the girls from receiving an educationjust because their parents want them to wear their tudung.
Why is the SDP involved?
All this still does not answer thequestion of why the SDP has spoken up on the issue? Some people haveaccused us of trying to exploit the situation and to gain politicalmileage. This is not an election year. In fact the next election isanother five years away. Even if this is was an election year, itwould be politically unwise – from the point of winning votes – forthe SDP to get involved in such a sensitive issue. If we wanted towin votes, it’d be better for us not to take the side of the Malaycommunity and appeal to the majority Chinese for votes. Personally,what do I stand to gain from speaking out on this issue? I don’t needany more trouble. I already have enough on my plate fighting my legalbattles with Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
So why are we taking up this issue?
Since we spoke out on this issue, wehave 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 ofthese schoolgirls are up to mischief and that they should be put intheir place. But most people ask what is all this fuss about. Theparents should just forget about the issue. After all education ismore important than religion.
I am not shocked by such sentiments.Rather, I am deeply saddened. It shows an inability on the part ofnon-Muslim Singaporeans to understand and empathize with someoneoutside of our own race and religion. Let me give you an example.When someone within a Chinese family dies, we pin a piece of mourningcloth on the sleeves of our clothes. We take that as something verynatural to do. Now imagine if the Government were to disallow thispractice in schools. Would we not be incensed that our childrencannot carry out this harmless tradition to mourn and honour thedeceased?
How is this different from the present case of the girlswearing the tudung? It was pointed out to me that on the day of thelate Ong Teng Cheong’s funeral, the state flag was not flown athalf-mast because some Chinese felt it was not good to do thatbecause of the auspicious day of the first day of the Chinese NewYear. I have no problem with the decision not to fly the flag athalf-mast on the first day of the Lunar New Year in deference tothose who feel strongly about it even though not all Singaporeansfeel the same way. The problem begins when we fail to see that whilewe insist for ourselves on carrying out certain religious practiceswe don’t do the same for those belonging to other faiths.
Clearly the problem is that themajority Chinese cannot continue to insist that it is all right forus to do certain things while it is wrong for the Malays to want thesame 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 theparents of these four girls choose education over their religion -and many Chinese cannot understand this – we must ask ourselves ifthere is a necessity to choose one or the other. Let us return to theexample of the Chinese practice of wearing the mourning cloth. If theGovernment made us choose one or the other, like the Malays are madeto choose either to attend school or wear the tudung, there would beimmense unhappiness among the Chinese. The important question here iswhy must we be forced to choose when clearly there isn’t any need todo so. This is a false choice.
What has the SDP got to do with allthis? Why is it that I, a Chinese Christian, have chosen to speak upfor four Muslim girls? There is a saying that all it takes for evilto triumph is for good people to do nothing. The evil that I amtalking about is the racial and religious differences that tearsocieties apart.
I know that my Malay and Muslim friendsare afraid to speak out on this issue because every time they do,they are branded as racists and they attract the unwanted attentionfrom the Government. And so many of them choose to keep quiet. Butthe problem doesn’t go away. Whether we choose to acknowledge it ornot, it is there. We cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. The dangeris that if we ignore it, the problem will continue fester and, oneday, explode in our faces.
I have been told that Malays feeldeprived because the Government doesn’t allow Muslim women to wearthe tudung in certain work places such as the police, immigration andin hospitals. This is an on-going concern in the Muslim communitybecause it means that job opportunities for Muslim women are cutdown. The non-Muslim communities are largely ignorant of thisproblem. But the problem is there. I didn’t invent it. I am notmaking it up. My warning is that if we, as citizens, continue toignore the matter, the malignant cancer will spread and, if leftunattended, eventually kill society.
We have chosen to speak up preciselybecause we are Chinese and we as a political party will fight for therights and interests of our people regardless of race. PAP MP MrPacker Maidin said on television that I should stay out of thismatter as it is an issue for the Malays. I’ve heard this from manynon-Muslim Singaporeans too. The Malays can speak only forthemselves, ditto the Chinese and Indians, then why do we talk aboutus as Singaporeans? Then we are just separate communities liveuneasily together. We can never be a nation and we should not kidourselves by saying the pledge: “We the citizens of Singaporepledge ourselves as one, united people_” Because we are not. Aunited people will fight for each other, not against each other. Byspeaking out for my fellow Malay citizens, how have I transgressedthis pledge that I have given to my country?
Every fibre of my being tells me thatthe SDP is right to speak up on this issue. I admit that it is not apopular thing to do. But sometimes it is important to do the rightthing rather than what is politically expedient. It is tempting tolook 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 usas a people to ignore this problem. Leave it to the Government tohandle this? We have been leaving it up to the Government to handlethis for the past forty years. It is important to note that it isbecause of Government policy that this problem has come about.
As a Chinese, I hope to tell my Malaybrothers and sisters that the Chinese care about their concerns andthat as Singaporeans, we need to work this problem out and confrontthe Government if need be. We are Singaporeans first and foremost andwhat is unfair to the Singaporean Malays is also unfair to allSingaporeans. Similarly, Singaporean Malays, Indians, and Eurasiansshould speak up for the Singaporean Chinese if they are unfairlytreated.
When the Japanese were here, theyplayed on the differences between the Malays and Chinese. When theBritish were here they played on the differences between theEnglish-educated and the Chinese-educated. Those in power will alwaystry to divide, because it makes their job of conquering the peoplethat much easier. Don’t let the PAP do the same.
I call on all of you to come togetherand be like a fish net, strong and able to remain in one piece understrain and stress, not like the Kleenex type of so-called racialharmony to which the PAP pays lip-service.
I appeal to the higher spirit ofkindness and generosity in all of us and not pander to our baseinstincts of selfishness and ethnocentrism. Let us advocatetolerance, let us embrace diversity, let us celebrate humanity. Letus be colour blind when it comes to standing up for our rights. Letus reach across the racial divide when it comes to caring for eachother and speaking up for one another. For only then can we trulycall ourselves sons and daughters of this island.
I want us all to link arms and pledgesolidarity 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 orreligion
We reject all forms of discrimination
As we reject all forms of violence tosolve our problems
To build a democratic society
Based on justice and equality
One that truly fosters peace andharmony
The Government must respect our rights
And give back to the people whatbelongs to the people
All this we pledge, so as to achievehappiness,
prosperity and progress for our nation.
(Dr Chee was fined $3,000 formaking this speech at the Speakers’ Corner on 15 February 2002. The state media did not report the speech.)