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Valar Qringaomis

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Friday, May 08, 2015

The Myth of Multiracialism in Post-9/11 Singapore: The Tudung Incident

One of the more hysterical papers I've read:


The Myth of Multiracialism in Post-9/11 Singapore: The Tudung Incident

"A powerful consensus developed between the government, pro-government politicians, and a large section of the public and this exerted enormous pressure on these parents [who insisted that their daughters wear tudungs], a rare situation in Singapore...

Unfortunately, there are no official historical records concerning whether the British colonial government had any written rules permitting or forbidding Muslim girls to wear the tudung at school. The government failed to provide any documents to support its position that wearing the turban was permitted under British colonial rule. The colonial government considered Malays too obtuse to be educated, and believed that they were better retained in the agricultural sector; it deliberately only established primary schools for Malays where only the Malay language and some basic general knowledge were taught... I easily found school photos taken in colonial times, in which most of the Malay girls were wearing the tudung. Therefore, it is hardly convincing for the Singaporean government to justify its favourable and particularistic treatment of the Sikh turban in contrast to its biased and harsh measures regarding the Muslim headscarf by reference to historical practice...

The tudung incident revealed the marginalisation of Malay Muslims in terms of religious rights and social mobility. Its deeper significance is the exposure of a perceived incompatibility between their religious ethos and the PAP’s creed of economic growth. Because of their religion, Malays are targeted, with more and more pressure imposed upon them. In 1993 Prime Minister Goh initiated a survey on Malays’ orientation of living and thoughts, and discovered that they were not interested in economic matters at all. Instead, they paid most attention to religious concerns, such as whether their children could be enrolled in the madrasahs. Goh was frustrated by this result and considered it inappropriate to put religious concerns above the economic growth of the country. Goh went even further by stating that such an attitude would hinder the development of the national economy. Evidence shows that Goh has borne a grudge for many years. He has continuously satirized Malay parents who were eager to send their children to madrasahs. A survey in May 2002 showed that 15,000 Malay parents planned to send their children to madrasahs. Goh’s cabinet was very irritated about this, and his religious advisor, Abdul Hamid, warned “ their action will cause the Muslims to become weak when importance is only attached to individuals’ obligations to God without including their obligations to the betterment of their society in terms of acquiring knowledge and management technology and economy”. With beliefs considered incompatible with the dominant ideology, and governed by the “ superior” Chinese-PAP, how can the “ inferior” Malay Muslims in Singapore escape marginalization?...

The pressure exerted by the government and the public on the concerned parties in the tudung incident has proved, to a certain extent, that the space for the future development of civil society is quite limited. Goh dismissed the symbolic importance of religious attire and exhorted parents by saying that it was not right to strangle education for girls for such an insignificant matter. He further warned that many people had lost their trust in Malay Muslims after this incident and some Chinese employers might no longer hire them. The Prime Minister was seemingly making an earnest plea in the best interests of the Malay Muslims, but also obviously warned those disobedient Malays that they would always be the losers in their confrontation with the government. Echoing the Prime Minister’s tone, ministers have emphasized the greater importance of economic recovery over other issues at a time when the country has been making efforts to strengthen the economy. In the face of this primary target, the people should rationally put aside religious issues.

A recent poll reported that on this issue most Singaporeans side with the government; the proportion of the non-Muslim population is 80%. For a long time, the government has placed more emphasis on meeting people’s materialistic wants than on safeguarding other human rights. According to Internet and newspaper sources, most Singaporean Chinese thought that the Malay parents were causing trouble for little or no reason. However, whether this kind of consensus reflects the genuine opinions of the public is always hard to tell. As a matter of fact, major local media have always constrained themselves by following the government, and self-censorship has been a common and conscious practice among most newspaper editors and reporters. As one critically examines the content of the Straits Times, one will notice that from January, when the incident took place, until the open comments by the government on the 3rd of February, there were quite a number of articles either showing sympathy for the Muslim parents or commenting impartially. However, after the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education made their public comments on 3rd February, fewer and fewer articles delivering opposing opinions were published. The people supporting the Malays then found out that they had no public means to voice their concerns. Political parties and social activists used the Internet to condemn the Straits Times for its refusal to publish their articles. Websites that were blacklisted by the administration for posting radical opinions were even closed down temporarily. Scholars and young intellectuals claimed the government showed its immaturity by limiting the public sphere for debate to the extent that public opinion could easily be manipulated or repressed. Reporters disclosed that even though some leaders of the Muslim community and Muslim MPs had privately canvassed government officials for support, they were reluctant to side with their Muslim fellows and had chosen to back the government in public. Yet, we still cannot underestimate the significance of the civic disobedience of the Malay Muslims. That the pressure from government and the public has not stopped shows that the firm stand of those parents frightened the government...

In Singapore the term “ political” has negative connotations in social discourse. Goh’s cabinet has been successful in pressuring parents. In his February speech, he described those parents who criticized Muslim MPs as “ politically motivated.” In May, Dr Abdul Hamid suggested that the Muslim parents might have received the support of the opposition Muslim party for reasons of politics. Two months later he even suggested that the Malay opposition party, the Singapore National Front, had been in touch with the parents for a political purpose. Such a strategy yielded the desired result. The parents were then alerted, resisted being regarded as “ political” , and so refused to align themselves with any political group. Their resistance puzzled those who are concerned with the development of civil society in Singapore...

Early in November 2001, Goh complained about the Muslim community’s uncooperative stand on America’s war in Afghanistan, and even labelled it a threat “ to split the nation apart.” In fact, according to a recent poll on America’s war against terrorism, 75% of Muslims and 84% of non- Muslims in Singapore supported the US. Although the difference was only nine percent, it was sufficient to make the government and the public nervous...

For more than 10 years, Goh has been complaining about Malay Muslims’ poor support, in contrast to Chinese support, for the Chinese-dominated PAP in parliamentary elections. However, what has bothered him may only be a 5-10% difference between these two ethnic groups. In response to this insignificant difference, in allocating public housing Goh has limited the proportion of Malay families and their relatives living in the same district to avoid any potential negative influence on his party in elections. He has gone even further by restricting the enrolment of Malays in the army to avoid any possibility of their collusion with Islamic extremists in neighbouring countries. Goh’s policies have been so discriminative that even Habibi, the moderate President of Indonesia, did not hesitate to express concern about the suffering of his fellow Muslims in Singapore.

In the tudung incident, I noticed the following paradox: the more critical the responses and interventions received from the neighbouring countries, the more severe the oppression imposed by the Singaporean government upon Malay Muslims. It seems that ever since independence, the Singaporean government, like the Israeli government, has been moulded by crisis thinking... to be sensitive to threats and hence oriented by crisis thinking is quite different from being moulded and hence limited by crisis thinking. The Singapore Government has been well known for a form of crisis management that is always ready to surrender to authoritarianism and the violation of peoples rights for the sake of the so-called national security. In the case of the Muslim headscarf, we witness the same line of reasoning...

In the case of Malay Muslims, the origin of wearing the headscarf has a direct relationship with the dakwah religious movement of the 1970s. According to Nagata, the clothing of Malay women was quite casual before the movement, but with the dramatic change in Malaysia’s economy during the 1970s and 1980s, women grew up in that period consciously feeling that they could barely hold on to their spirituality in the face of rapid modernization and urbanization. In search of Muslim tradition, university students and young women professionals living in the cities thus began to launch the dakwah to look for self-assertion with the help of Islamic spirituality. By dressing in religious clothing, they showed their faith in Islam, identified themselves with traditional culture and, most importantly, made a gesture to resist the intrusion of Western secular clothing into their Islamic country. What is most interesting is the fact that most of them had received higher education, and cared much about their self-image. Hence, it is beyond doubt that wearing the headscarf was a self-assertive personal choice. Such a rational and self-conscious movement should not be perceived as equivalent to a religious extremism that forces women to cover their faces with headscarves... To Malay women, no matter whether they are wearing the tudung nowadays or were wearing a selendang (a headscarf loosely covering the head and neck) in the early days, their religious act has the same message: to discourage male sexual fantasies, a woman should not expose her hair and neck (not necessarily including the face) in public. Some Islamic women even go further to insist that by wearing the headscarf they gain more respect from other people. Men will then not treat them as targets of sexual assault; and there is no need to dress themselves up just to please other people and to make themselves adherents of the Western fashion industry"
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