The Halal-food-in-school issue

I refer to this recent furore about the establishment of halal canteen in a public school here in Singapore.

The head of the school from the perspective of principled consistency in administration was technically not wrong. But he has ignored the deeply ingrained existing realities and has thus faltered egregriously on a very sensitive issue that violated an implicit but common understanding among the different peoples here.

 He has failed to fully appreciate that:

1)  mainstream schooling here is a secular government establishment.

2) adequate provisions had been made for muslim students halal food requirements

3) the existing system was working fine for all (i.e he tried to fix a thing that was not broken in the first place)

Fundamentally, the government, due to reasons entrenched in our historical cultural demography coupled with colonial era political legacy and post-independence socio-political upheaval, finds it imperative to preserve the secular character of the school system to allow for the peaceful sharing of the fast dwindling common space here.

The idea is to allow for healthy human social interaction and engagement and peaceful co-existence while preserving the socio-cultural distinctiveness of every group. So it is a situation that not only calls for tolerance of each others cultural behaviour and practices but also to actively partake in and gain knowledge and experience of the ways of our fellow citizens who are different from each other.

In Australia New Zealand, Europe and the north-Americas, a myriad of different cultures, even including that of the indigenous population, were uncermoniously (and sometimes violently) subsumed by a single dominant culture under a socio-political policy of integration. In Singapore we adhere to a policy of pluralism in the societal administration of our social and economic policies.

Like every system of choice there are always trade-offs and one major trade-off of a policy of pluralism is the opportunity-cost of social cohesion at the expense of allowing indivdual space for cultural expression and practices of the various social and cultural groups.

So while a policy of integration works to unite people it robs the society of the colour and vibrance of the symbiotic-diversity that pluralist societies, such as that of Singapore‘s, enjoy.

Muslims, like the rest of the peoples here already enjoy their own cultural space and to push the limits of tolerance that may unduly pressurise others into grudgingly accept a policy that violates the fundamental rules of common space is not only unfair, it is downright insensitive. The principal should have known better as his only serves to play upon the weak social fabric of this pluralist society that took decades to stabilise. It puts the spotlight on the darker side cultural differences and lowers the threshold of tolerance among its peoples.

For muslims it is a double whammy because firstly they are not the dominant cultural group even though they wield a relatively stronger influence despite their small numbers. Secondly this negative spotlight will have a ripple effect on the rest of the muslims who may be treated with wariness whenever they stake their claim to theor share of their cultural pie.

The principal thus should have realised the gravity of  implementing such risky policies with scant regard for the sensitivities of others and existing realities. Such principled halal policies are only fit for a madrasah or where people are generally in agreement to such a move.

Having said that, the government also needs to do more to address the needs of muslims seeking religious education instead of the mainstream secular ones. The madrasahs need more funding and more infrastructural attention.

Paying token service to this need while statutorily and administratively restricting parents from exercising their choice to send their children to a non-mainstream schools is not a step in the right direction.

If the demand is there, the government must provide the necessary infrastructure and the required funding to accommodate a significant cultural group. Compulsory secular education could also be done in a madrasah. If the government pays scant regard to such important needs then there is always a danger that this need may spill into the common arena and cause unnecessary social upheavals.

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