In December 1966, in a parliament composed only of People’s Action Party (PAP) members, one dissenting voice criticised the government’s uniform policy. Mohamed Ariff Suradi spoke of an incident in which Malay secondary schoolgirls had been asked to stop wearing their baju kurung uniform and instead wear a “skirt and blouse type of school uniform”. The schoolgirls’ parents, he lamented, were told “that this type of school uniform is more progressive than baju kurong.” The MP (member of parliament) rejected such a characterisation:

Mr Speaker, Sir, in my opinion, whether the students are progressive or not does not depend on their uniform; it does not matter whether the school uniform is baju kurong or skirt and blouse. It depends on the education imparted to them by the teachers in the schools and the encouragement they get to study at home.

Young Malay women in baju kurung and tudung at Changi, Singapore, in the 1970s. The Ronni Pinsler Collection

Yet, despite his protests, the baju kurung has since disappeared from national schools and so too has the tudung (or hijab). Except, perhaps, on Racial Harmony Day—the only day when Singaporean students are permitted to flaunt their sartorial differences.

These were the early days of the Singapore government’s efforts to standardise all school uniforms in the name of progress and national unity. In a land saturated with diverse traditions and practices, the PAP government has long been anxious about building a cohesive identity despite these differences. Diversity was taken to be in tension with national unity. Schools were thus chosen as an “equalising” arena to minimise differences, so as to make way for a distinctly Singaporean identity.

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