If you are a Muslim living in this region then chances are you’ve heard of the online petition that wants Muslim women to be allowed to wear the hijab at workplaces in Singapore. A hijab is basically a headscarf worn by Muslim women when in public. In mainstream interpretations of the faith wearing it is a religious duty, and non-compliance is often considered a sin.
If you haven’t seen or heard about the petition you can click here to read more about it and see how many signatures it has garnered. At the time of me writing this, it’s had over 12,000 signatures. It hopes to get 20,000.
For many Muslim women, not just at the workplace but in secondary schools and colleges, staying employed (or in the case of schools which require strict adherence to a common uniform, educated) means having to commit the sin of taking the hijab off. Given how people are increasingly religious these days, especially in the Muslim community, the choice can be particularly tough.
The hijab is usually allowed in many workplaces, but for women who work as nurses, like my wife, or in frontline operations where a certain uniform needs to be worn, it’s commonly accepted that wearing the hijab will get you more than a telling off from your superior.
The existing policy on the hijab, stoutly defended by many in the ruling PAP, has led to a politicisation of the issue. Muslims in Singapore look it as yet another instance where their rights have been trampled upon, along with the government’s pressuring and meddling of local madrasahs, considered by mainstream Singaporeans as unhealthy with respect to multi-cultural integration and nation building.
It’s no surprise how this one simple issue can get so many ordinary Singaporean Muslims riled up. After all, in countries like Australia and the UK, Muslim women are granted the freedom to wear the hijab, even if they work as nurses or policewomen. It’s funny how a predominantly Western, secular country with a relatively new Muslim minority, made up mostly of immigrants, can be so quick in laying down laws which allow such modifications to uniform, while here in Singapore nothing’s changed in the last 30 years of lobbying.
What makes the current policy on banning hijabs at the workplace and school even more annoying/baffling is Article 152 of Singapore’s constitution, which upholds that Malays, considered the indigenous people of Singapore and of whom more than 99% are Muslim, shall be given special treatment. This includes the government having to “protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, RELIGIOUS, economic, social and cultural interests…”
As if that isn’t clear enough, Article 153 states that “The Legislature shall by law make provision for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a Council to advise the President in matters relating to the Muslim religion.”
It would appear that the law of the land appears favourable to Muslims wanting to retain their faith. So why is the situation on the ground vastly different? There are many reasons, but I’ve narrowed them down to three, which I’ll elaborate here.
One, Singapore is a young country with a tumultuous past that involves clashes of the racial and religious kind. In 1964, several people were killed and many others injured when Chinese and Malay groups fought with each other. A decade earlier similar scenes of violence and destruction were thrust into the realm of public consciousness when a court ruled that a girl that had been raised by Muslims was to be returned to her biological parents, who were Catholic.
These riots are repeatedly told ad nauseum every year during Racial Harmony Day, celebrated annually in Singapore on 21st July, the day of the 1964 riots. They are given different perspectives, by educators, journalists and politicians, but ultimately they remind Singaporeans that race and religion are touchy topics that should never be broached publicly.
What this usually means is simple. To speak about wanting certain rights pertaining to one’s faith is akin to being socially irresponsible and unnecessarily demanding, amidst an environment that preaches fairness to all, regardless of race, language or religion. In such a climate, one is expected to rein in one’s individual identity, and religious practice, for the continued harmony of the masses.
Two, there are, unfortunately, more than a few racists and Islamophobes in government. I won’t mention their names here lest I be hauled off to court, but suffice to say one could simply study the speeches and interviews given by some of them, and draw conclusions from there.
Racism on the ground (or in today’s day and age, FB) against Malays, as witnessed recently through the likes of Amy Cheong, leads to a severe backlash. Racism amongst the political elites? More often than not, brushed away as the musings of senility, a hard truth, or my personal favourite, a quote taken out of context.
But here’s how I see it. Racism or Islamophobia in Singapore is subtle. Nobody gets their front porch smashed for being Muslim. Nobody gets beaten up for wearing a burqa or growing a beard. But yearning for spirituality in a country steeped in materialist values is odd, and will attract you more than a few stares. So wanting to wear the hijab, or pray five times a day, or stay away from social events due to the inter-mingling and alcohol is often equated with being backward.
Sure, it might be the same elsewhere. Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman was quizzed on her hijab, seen as antithetical to the values she was promoting in wanting to revolutionise Yemen (see image below). Her reply was top drawer. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
But in Singapore, with a lack of healthy democratic discourse, such views, especially when they come from the governing elite, can end up invading every sector of society. To put it another way, if there is a lack of diverse opinions on the hijab issue amongst the people in power, why should it be any different for everyday people like you and me?
The third and perhaps the saddest reason (for Muslims like myself at least), is that the Muslims in Singapore, from the leaders to the laymen, are unwilling to push for change. Blame their “huge” government-drawn salary, blame dire economic status, blame mindless consumerism, blame the ruling party, blame the sequence of events that led us to being separated from our big brothers in Malaysia.
At the end of the day, we worry more about our next paycheck, how wonderful our upcoming wedding will be, which city in Korea to visit next, than whether our Muslim sisters will be allowed to wear the hijab or not. Sure, we’ll sign any petition, and believe you me we’ve signed many, but in ten years if things still don’t change, it’s not really going to hurt us that much. Nothing compared to the hurt we get from watching Manchester United under David Moyes these days.
Let’s put it this way. If only one Muslim wrote in to his/her MP and asked that hijabs be allowed in the Singapore workforce, chances are pretty slim that any change will be forthcoming. The letter will probably get trashed and the person will most likely be blacklisted. But what if a thousand people wrote in? Or ten thousand? What if one hundred thousand people wrote to their MP? (The CIA factbook states that 14.9% of people in Singapore are Muslim, which from my rough calculations means 813,585 Mohammedan souls.)
Better yet, what if EVERY Muslim woman who entered the workforce had the courage to confront their employers regarding this? What if they all had fathers like Ustaz Zhulkeflee Haji Ismail, who wrote in tirelessly, asking for his daughter to be given the permission to wear the hijab during her stints at the hospital? Would the powers that be still be able to sweep this under the proverbial rug?
There’s no need for collective action or a mass rallying of Muslims. All that’s needed is for each and every Muslim to be fearless and firm in their pursuit of what’s right. Unfortunately, it is not only a state of indifference and ignorance prevalent in the community that practising Muslims have to battle (jihad?) with today. More and more Muslims are wont to belittle these efforts at redress. They are easy to identify, these against-the-grain Muslim “intellectuals”. Usually successful in the worldly sense, they make no secret of their desire to be even more successful (read: make more money). These people are the ones often praised to high heavens when the government needs examples of how far the Malay community has progressed.
In return, they attempt to rationalise us, the irrational Other. Their language is one of accommodation, of compromise. We mustn’t be too emotional, they tell us. We already have much to be thankful for as Muslims in a non-Muslim country, they remind us. It’s not difficult to see why they say what they say. Some of them are (paid) supporters of the government, and as much as they would like to be seen as enlightened, many in the community just think of them as political and career opportunists.
Much more can be written about the hijab in Singapore, but I’ll end here. It is my sincere wish that this matter be resolved as soon as possible, but like all other religious matters, I doubt it will. A Minister or Muslim MP will probably be quoted as saying Singapore is “not ready” for such change, which is really doublespeak for “we don’t have the time nor inclination to make things better for you Muslims.”
A MUIS-sanctioned religious scholar will exhort us to be grateful for what we have, and perhaps drop a Quranic verse or two on the extent of Allah’s Mercy (when judging women who’ve had to take off their hijab in the name of gainful employment.)
Like those before me, I’m beginning to think my future lies in another country, perhaps not too far away like New Zealand or Australia. The average Singaporean will perhaps caution me of the racism found there. From the frying pan to the fire, they’ll say.
Post script: The woman who started the petition (Syafiqah K.) has since closed it. She has yet to identify herself, and nobody knows why the petition was closed (well, except for her of course, and perhaps the people who rule this country).