THE Singapore government has taken a hard line against four six-year-old Muslim girls at state primary schools whose parents insist they wear headscarves.
The controversy comes at a time of increased racial sensitivity. Singapore is still shocked by the terrorist-related arrests of 15 Muslims in December and police claims that the men were planning attacks on US civilians, military personnel and facilities in Singapore.
Two Primary 1 girls were suspended last week, when they ignored a deadline and arrived at school in uniform and scarves. They had been wearing scarves since January. A third was given until last Monday to comply with the rules. Parents of a fourth girl are reported to have withdrawn her from school.
Islam is the second most common religion among Singapore's 3.2 million citizens. The mainly Buddhist Chinese community outnumber the Malay and Indian minorities by three-to-one. Almost all Malays are Muslim, as are one-quarter of the Indians. Malay parents usually only require girls to wear a scarf after adolescence.
The government is haunted by the memory of race riots in the 1950s and 60s and strives to balance religious freedom and social cohesion. While Singaporeans are encouraged to celebrate their ethnic origins at home, schools are supposed to be secular spaces. Uuniforms are supposed to remind students of their common ties. The Government wants to avoid ghetto schools, and there are racial quotas in public housing estates.
However, the Malay minority often feels left out. Some complain that it is unfair that Sikhs are allowed to wear turbans at school.
Singapore is squeezed between two Muslim countries, Malaysia, and Indonesia. But religious leaders, anxious to appear moderate, have urged the parents to send the children back to school.