"No to serban" rule discriminates against students

Press Statement
by Karpal Singh

(Kuala Lumpur,  Friday): Minister of Education Datuk Hishamuddin Hussein has applauded the decision of the Court of Appeal on Monday allowing the appeal by the Government against the decision of the High Court, Seremban which on 6 August, 1999 rules that the headmistress of Sekoleh Kebangsaan Serting Hilir, Negeri Sembilan, had no jurisdiction to prevent Muslim pupils from wearing turbans to school. The High Court had held that the expulsion from school of the pupils for wearing turbans was null and void and of no effect. 

The pupils had justified wearing the serban on the ground that such was the tradition of the Holy Prophet. Likewise, in the United Kingdom, the House of Lords has held that a Sikh bus conductor, in line with his religion, had the right to wear a turban. In Canada, a Sikh Mountie was held, through a judicial pronouncement, to have the right to wear a turban as ordained by his religion. In Mandla v Dowell Lee on 24th March 1983, five Law Lords of the House of Lord unanimously allowed the appeal of a Sikh schoolboy who was refused admission to a private school in the United Kingdom unless he removed his turban and cut his hair. The headmaster of the school had contended that the wearing of the turban, being a manifestation of the boy’s ethnic origins, would accentuated religious and social distinctions in the school which, being a multi-racial school based on the Christian faith, the headmaster desired to minimize. The House of Lords held the “no turban” rule was not justifiable and discriminatory. In that case, the court was dealing with provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976 of the United Kingdom.


Datuk Hishamuddin says certain allowances had been made for Sikhs due to historical and other reasons. Likewise, there are historical and traditional reasons for Muslims pupils to wear the serban to school. Clearly, if Sikh pupils can be allowed to put on the turban to school, there would be unadulterated discrimination to disallow Muslim pupils from doing so. Such discrimination cannot stand close scrutiny,


The Government should be mature and pragmatic. There is no question of the rights of the majority standing above the rights of the minority. In fact, one of the purposes of a written constitution, like the one Malaysia has, is to protect minorities from a mere Parliamentary majority. I cannot see how the wearing of the turban to school could polarize people or the agenda of national integration. In fact, the reverse has been demonstrated by allowing Sikh pupils to wear turban to school during colonial and subsequent times in Malaysia. The Government should be congratulated for its consideration of Sikh sentiments.


The Government should not alienate Muslims in the country who wish to see their children put on the serban to school. What the Government is doing, in my view, is no different from the ban of the tudung in Singapore.


I hope good sense will prevail and the option to put on the serban to school will be extended to all Muslim pupils in schools in the country. It is not a question of constitutionality but implementing what does not offend any general law relating to public order, public health or morality, and the serban does not come within the striking range of any of these considerations. 


* Karpal Singh, DAP National Chairman and MP for Bukit Gelugor