Government’s Stance on Hijab Issue: No Change for more than 10 years


Splashed across two main papers today, namely Berita Minggu and the Sunday Times, were the government’s position on the hijab issue. Never has a piece of cloth generated so much buzz online and offline with polarized responses in support or otherwise.

The government, true to its style, in a closed door dialogue with “community leaders”, reiterated its position once again. In gist, it’s akin to saying, we understand the concerns and aspirations of the community, yet for now, we are still unable to accede to that request.

PM, in his dialogue was reported to have said, “the issue is broader than the hijab itself. . . It is about what sort of society we want to build in Singapore” (ST, 26Jan 2014: 1). My question here is this, what sort of society exactly is he referring to? One that separates totally the secular from the religion? Or one that sees the Singapore community as a homogeneous community?

What is problematic about the stance that the Singapore government is adopting is, while it claims that it is building a multiracial society “where everyone has full and equal opportunities, the minority community can live its own way of life, practice its faith to the maximum way possible and not be . . . marginalized by the majority” (ibid), it is going against the very exact grain of that statement.

There has been no thoughtful, insightful and intellectual rationalization of the hijab not being allowed to be worn in certain segments of the workplace. Highlighting that in the past 10 years, we have seen more agencies being flexible and allowing or incorporating the hijab at the workplace is a mere red herring to the bigger issue at hand. In fact, what it does show is that wearing the hijab is not an impediment or posing a problem to the worker or agency itself.

Short ofcalling this a racist marginalization of a minority community, this reluctance to allow the hijab in various sectors are clearly bogged down by baggage from the past, stereotypes and the government’s obsession with uniformity and homogeneity.To them, having an outward show of religious symbols, would not exemplify Singapore as the model nation where it is secular yet still allowing the various religions to practice it in their own private spheres.

There is a bigger problem, one that stems mainly from a prejudicial majority view. It is the wanting of minority communities to be assimilated into the culture of the majority. To them, if we can keep our religions to our private domains, why can’t you do the same? Without doubt, this attempt at the sinicization of the minority groups couched as building a multiracial society is clearly at odds with each other.Multiracialism should support diversity, and not creating one homogeneous society with only certain traits plucked and mixed together from the various societies.

To date, we have not been told or it been clearly explained to us what this push back from other communities may be and frankly, had this been such an issue or point of contention with the other races, they would have made their sentiments known.Their nonchalance or perhaps non response on this issue points to 2 things: 1) either they really don’t know that the Muslims are facing this issue or 2) they really don’t care. Either way, the hijab issue to them, is a relatively minor issue or not something that is of grave concern to the other communities that it was pictured to be.

The hijab issue must be made clear. Muslims are not asking for ALL women to wear hijab in ALL sectors, rather we are asking that for those ALREADY wearing the hijab, to allow them to continue wearing it. More importantly, the sectors in which Muslims are asking for are in the public nursing sector, the secular schools and certain frontline duties. I mean really, would Singapore suddenly become a Muslim country if the rule changes overnight?

What is even more disappointing is when the Muslim community’s own leaders, and here I’m specifically pointing to the political leaders, who have time and again tried to placate the masses by telling us that they are doing something behind closed doors and that all these online calls, movements, rallying etc are only hurting their attempts. Look, if the last time this issue was brought up in 2001/2002 and the next time it sparked such a furore was in 2013/2014, what have you guys been doing for a good 10 years? Really, I genuinely wonder. Do you guys go to the PM and say “can we start allowing nurses to wear hijab this year? Ok, no? Ok we’ll try again next year.”

How many times have this happened? You told us you did something, yet because we voiced our concerns in public, the government is backing down. It’s like saying to us,we almost had it there, but you guys had to spoil it. Now the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the community who voice their concerns because many of us see that no ground has been made by the Muslim political leaders. How easy it is to start pointing fingers at the very community who you claim have been supporting you all these while. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

To those who have criticized the Mufti, and insulted him for his stance, I urge you, be conscious of Allah. Clearly, this only reflects on the immaturity of you guys for doing so. He has clearly stated that this issue now is not an issue of religion because no one disputes that it is compulsory for a Muslim woman to don the hijab. So do not misconstrue his words as if he is saying that the hijab is not an issue of religion. All he is saying is to tackle this issue with wisdom and maturity. One may not personally agree with his stance as it may seem to be regressing and Muslims need to continue to push. However, we must also understand his position, that being part of the government, he is still tied to the policies/regulations that the government has in place. Even if you don’t agree that as the Mufti he should be doing that, at the very least, hold your tongues against insulting a fellow Muslim. I personally wish that PERGAS would be more vocal of this issue as they were in 2001/2002. They are in the best position to give their honest views and continue to fight for the Muslim right to wear the hijab in the various workplace and/or institutions. However, PERGAS have been seen by many as already being co-opted by the government and is now also another mouthpiece to placate the masses. PERGAS needs to re-identify themselves and recalibrate their position so as to perform the duty of checks and balances to MUIS when the need arises.

Amidst all these, we must understand that this (hijab issue) is a small battle that we are facing. The hijab issue must not, at the same time, detract as from facing issues of education, socio-economic standing, social problems etc that are persistently present all these years. That said however, this does not mean that because we have bigger battles to fight, we ignore the smaller skirmishes. The hijab issue is one that is close to the heart of Muslims. By telling the Muslims that you are not allowing them to don the hijab in certain sectors, you risk further alienating them from the mainstream society. This would only perpetuate further the long held view of the government that Muslims are distinct and separate. Allow the Muslims to don the hijab, and make the others understand why Muslims need to and do so, and perhaps you may then truly create a multiracial society that is all tolerant and understanding.

Muhammad Haikal

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