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Schoolgirl scarves cause diplomatic row

A Muslim girl swims at a pool at the Kuala Lumpur City Center recreation park, Malaysia  

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- The act of two Singaporean schoolgirls in wearing head scarves to school has escalated into an international diplomatic row.

Over the past two weeks, politicians from predominantly-Muslim Malaysia have joined ethnic Malay Muslims in Singapore in voicing concern over a decades-old government ban on headscarves at Singapore's public schools.

The ban led to the suspension of two Muslim girls last week and a third on Monday, all of whom who refused to remove their scarves at school.

Six-year-old Khairah Faroukh did not comply with school rules barring headscarves and left school minutes after entering the compound holding her father's hand Monday morning, the Reuters news agency reported.

The government says that allowing the scarves would harm national unity by highlighting racial differences.

The fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party -- the country's largest opposition group -- published a letter on its Web site addressed to Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, urging him to "correct" the headscarf ban to preserve healthy bilateral ties, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The ban "will raise many negative effects in both countries," Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the party's spiritual adviser, wrote in the letter dated February 5. "Singapore's government will be regarded as having caused the erosion of religious freedom."


Deputy Education Minister Abdul Aziz Shamsuddin called on Singapore to review the policy, prompting the city-state's Ministry of Foreign Affairs to remind Malaysian politicians not to interfere in its internal affairs.

News reports over the weekend said that youth leaders of Malaysia's ruling National Front coalition would raise the issue with their counterparts in Singapore's People's Action Party in a February 28 meeting.

Chandra Muzaffar, a prominent Malaysian human rights activist, said Sunday that the Singaporean government should try to forge religious harmony by helping the public to understand and accept diversity. Asia
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"There is no reason why headscarves should be banned in schools," Chandra said. "This might be interpreted by some Muslims as a lack of respect for their religious symbols."

Malay Muslims account for about 15 percent of Singapore's 4 million people. Majority ethnic Chinese Buddhists and Christians comprise 80 percent of the population, and ethnic Indian Hindus make up most of the rest.

Singapore and Malaysia, both former British colonies, were united in a federation in 1963 but bitterly split two years later over political disputes. Long-running spats over issues like water, airspace and immigration facilities have occasionally bedeviled relations.


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