Picture from the SDP Facebook Page

In 2002, Chee Soon Juan was fined for speaking up on Tudung Issue

In light of recent accusations of Racism direct at Dr Chee by Minister of Culture Grace Fu and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, it may be timely to remind the voters of Bukit Batok and the populace at large that Dr Chee was the only Singaporean ever to be charged for speaking for Muslims.

In 2002, Dr Chee was slapped with a $3000 fine was speaking up on the Tudung issue. In 2002, the Tudung issue gained traction as 4 Primary 1 Girls were prevented from entering their schools for wearing headscarves.

Dr Chee poses for a picture with a Malay family
Dr Chee poses for a picture with a Malay family

In his speech, Dr Chee argued that there was no evidence to support the Government’s claims that allowing such practices would cause racial disunity.

The problem, the Government says, is that this will cause racial disunity and harm social cohesion. When policies are put into place there must be substantive reasons for doing so. The Government bans smoking in public places because there is scientific evidence to show that smoking and second-hand smoke increases the chance of the inhaler developing cancer. But what evidence is there to show that schoolgirls wearing tudung will cause racial disharmony? If the Government can cite evidence and convince us that such is the case, I will be the first one to support the banning of tudung in schools.

On the contrary, allowing students to wear their headscarves to schools will expose schoolchildren to diverse cultural practices at a young age. By teaching them about differences in people, they will feel comfortable in the midst of diversity when they grow up. We can teach them that differences in our clothes and religion and language are good things, and that they should be embraced. This is what will enhance racial harmony.

Schools in developed countries are encouraging diversity in the classroom so that schoolchildren are exposed to different cultures and practices from a very young age. Ask any psychologist and she will tell you that the best way to remove prejudices and racial bigotry is to expose children to the various cultures when they are young. Why are we moving in the opposite direction?

The Government says that if it allows the girls to wear tudung, then there’ll be no end to what every one wants for their children. Let us be realistic. For almost 40 years, we have allowed Sikh boys to wear turbans and Christian children to wear crucifixes to school. Has there been an explosion of parents clamouring for their children to wear this and that type of dress to school? When I was in school I had schoolmates who wore their turbans to school and no one ever thought that because of that they, too, wanted to wear their own types of clothes to school

The full transcript of his speech can be read here.

In an subsequent interview, he rubbished claims that he was speaking for Muslims to gain political mileage and shared why the he and SDP was speaking up on the issue

Why is it that I, a Chinese Christian, have chosen to speak up for four Muslim girls? There is a saying that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. The evil that I am talking about is the racial and religious differences that tear societies apart.

I know that my Malay and Muslim friends are afraid to speak out on this issue because every time they do, they are branded as racists and they attract the unwanted attention from the Government. And so many of them choose to keep quiet. But the problem doesn’t go away. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it is there. We cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. The danger is that if we ignore it, the problem will continue fester and, one day, explode in our faces.

I have been told that Malays feel deprived because the Government doesn’t allow Muslim women to wear the tudung in certain work places such as the police, immigration and in hospitals. This is an on-going concern in the Muslim community because it means that job opportunities for Muslim women are cut down. The non-Muslim communities are largely ignorant of this problem

The gist of Dr Chee’s submissions during the ‘tudung trial’ are encapsulated in the excerpt from the Court transcipt below

If you follow the prosecutions logic that just because I used these words, therefore I have spoken on religious or religious matters and therefore in breach of the conditions of exemption of the Speakers’ Corner then we, like computers, have fallen into the trap where black can be turned into white, right into wrong.

Yes, words such as tudung, turban, and crucifix were words I used in my speech. It is imperative, however, to ascertain the context in which the words were used and for what purpose that I used them.

The prosecution’s witness, Inspector Tan Mei Far, admitted on cross-examination that I had not made any disparaging remarks that would have caused enmity, hatred, hostility and ill-will about any racial or religious group. Not only did I not make any disparaging remarks about religion or any particular religious faith, I actually used these words to support the thesis of my speech which was to advocate equality, racial harmony, and social cohesion.

Minister for Muslim Affairs, Mr Yacob Ibrahim explains why some Government Jobs do not allow Muslims to wear the tudung
Minister for Muslim Affairs, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim explains why some Government Jobs do not allow Muslims to wear the tudung

When the tudung/hijab issue gained traction again in 2013 through an online petition that gathered more than 12,000 backers, Minister for Muslim Affairs, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, tried to appease the Muslim populace by explaining the rationale behind the Government’s policies. He opined that wearing a Muslim headscarf at the workplace would be “very problematic” for some Government jobs, like nursing, that require their staff to be in uniform.

“Nor do we allow Muslim police women officers to wear the hijab on duty. But when they are out of uniform, they are free to wear the hijab, as indeed many do going to and from work.”

It is indeed strange, but not surprising, that the very ones who label Dr Chee as a racist are the same ones who introduce policies to prevent Muslims from wearing their headscarves at the workplaces. What is also noteworthy is the consistency in Dr Chee’s views on racial and religious harmony and freedoms. Recently, the SDP also released a Policy Paper to address the issues that the Malay Muslim Community face. The same issues he championed a quarter of a century ago are the same ones he still speaks about at rallies in Bukit Batok. It really makes one wonder if it was Dr Chee, or us as a population, who have matured.

A little more than 14 years ago, in front of a small crowd at Speakers’ Corner, Dr Chee wrapped up his speech with the following words,

I call on all of you to come together and be like a fish net, strong and able to remain in one piece under strain and stress, not like the Kleenex type of so-called racial harmony to which the PAP pays lip-service.

I appeal to the higher spirit of kindness and generosity in all of us and not pander to our base instincts of selfishness and ethnocentrism. Let us advocate tolerance, let us embrace diversity, let us celebrate humanity. Let us be colour blind when it comes to standing up for our rights. Let us reach across the racial divide when it comes to caring for each other and speaking up for one another.

For only then can we truly call ourselves sons and daughters of this island.