The DPM’s statement is encouraging, as it shows that our cabinet has acknowledged the Muslim community’s concerns. We should strongly welcome his statement. Minister Yaacob’s post on how he met up with PM Lee is also another good sign.
In the spirit of calls by the government to engage in constructive engagement, i would like to respond briefly to the concerns raised.
1) DPM Teo mentions that the government needs to balance the different communities’ needs. This is more than a fair statement. The questions that should be asked though:
i) Does wearing the hijab (in schools or hospitals or elsewhere) impinge on other communities’ needs? If so, how?
ii) Are the other communities not fine with the hijab being worn in those places?
The second is an empirical question, that can easily be discovered. I urge the government, or the Institute of Policy Studies, or MUIS, or anyone else willing and able, to do a proper survey to establish the answer to this question, if this is a genuine question. I have been doing informal surveys on my own, and thus far i gather that non-Muslims are more than comfortable with their Muslim friends wearing the hijab. Of course, my informal surveys do not employ the statistical rigour required (random sampling etc), and hence a large organization might be better-placed to conduct such a survey.
2) Minister Yaacob says that we should try to work to find ‘practical solutions’. I call for the government to suggest what are some of these ‘practical solutions’ that they have in mind. These suggestions should then be discussed with the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
On the Muslims’ part, i am sure we are more than willing to offer suggestions too.
3) DPM Teo says that social harmony is paramount. Muslims agree. Again, the question should be how does the hijab undermine social harmony? If anything, it will only increase levels of tolerance and understanding, especially if non-Muslims are exposed to this Muslim code of dressing since a young age.
4) Finally, it is hoped that the government will outline their concerns about the hijab, as thus far it has been unclear what those concerns actually are. For example, if social harmony is the worry, then they will need to explain how the hijab affects harmony. If the ‘secular space’ is the concern, then we need to define what is this imaginary space and how will it be affected.
To conclude, i call on the Muslim community to work closely with our non-Muslim friends, and solicit feedback on the hijab from them. We should encourage them to be as honest as possible with us, and can help clarify their doubts. I also hope that this issue will not be framed as ‘Muslims VS PAP’ or ‘us VS them’; rather it should be ‘Singaporeans (Muslims and non-Muslims) trying to convince a legitimately-elected government to reconsider their policy.’
Walid Jumblatt Abdullah