SINGAPORE — As the controversy over the prohibition of wearing the Muslim headscarf, the tudung, in public schools in Singapore moves on to the next stage, a cardinal doctrine of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — noninterference in the domestic affairs of member countries — looks set to be breached.

In this instance, observers can expect many Malaysians to criticize Singapore’s handling of the controversy. It began last month when the parents of four Malay Muslim schoolgirls chose to have their daughters suspended from school, rather than conform to a regulation prohibiting the inclusion of tudung from public-school uniforms.

The parents said they strongly felt that a ban would compromise the Islamic dress code for their daughters. The Singapore authorities pointed out that a religious symbol like the such as the tudung could impede painstaking efforts to integrate Singaporeans of different races and faiths in schools, where youths’ attitudes are shaped.

The Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the uncovering of a regionwide Islamic terrorist network in Southeast Asian countries including Singapore and Malaysia have added urgency to ethnic assimilation.

The government fears that failure could result in the sowing of suspicions between Singapore’s 77 percent Chinese-majority and the 15 percent Malay-Muslim minority.

While Malaysia has, in principle, upheld ASEAN’s noninterference in the internal affairs of member countries doctrine, many Singaporeans feel that in practice, Malaysia is breaching it. They point to remarks of Malaysian Foreign Minister Hamid Albar that Muslim Malaysians were free to comment on the issue, since it affects their fellow Muslims, even if they live in separate countries.

Many Malaysians find themselves inevitably drawn into the controversy mainly because of their country’s proximity in geography, history, economics and culture to Singapore, which broke away from the Malayan Federation 36 years ago.

Malaysian politicians, especially those from the leading Muslim-based parties, the United Malays National Organization and the Islamic Party have criticized Singapore’s move.

As the controversy reached an impasse earlier this month, its effects spilled over to Malaysia when the parents of two of the four suspended schoolgirls, acting through Fateha, a Singapore-based Muslim nongovernmental organization, decided to engage a prominent lawyer there to sue the Singapore government.

Legal proceedings can expect to commence after the busy Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage period, which ended this week. Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has clearly has held firm on the ban, saying it wanted the controversy to be resolved amicably among Singaporeans, and within Singapore. The party’s youth wing said that it regarded the Malaysians’ action and remarks tantamount to interference in Singapore’s domestic affairs.

It reiterated Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s warning that once a controversial issue succeeds in dividing the people on religious grounds, social cohesion or the “common space” shared by its multiracial and multifaith people could eventually disappear, never again to be recovered.

Singapore, which has taken 30 years to build such cohesion, therefore aims the aim to pre-empt such a scenario and has given priority to promoting a unifying symbol such as the school uniform.

Some Singaporeans also feel that remarks of the Malaysian foreign minister were unwarranted. They argue that by the same token, Singapore with its Chinese-majority population has as much right to comment on Malaysia’s race-based policies that adversely affect its Chinese citizens. However, they prefer not to do so as it would be tantamount to interfering in Malaysia’s internal affairs.

Seen in a wider context, the headscarf controversy highlights the sharp contrast between nation-building policies of the two countries since Singapore separated in 1965.

While Singapore feels that in a secular, non-Muslim majority nation, a potentially divisive factor like religion should be kept separate from politics. But Malaysia, as a Muslim-majority nation, regards Islam as a factor in uniting and strengthening Malay Muslims and therefore wants religion to feature prominently in nation-building.

The dichotomy extends to an issue like the tudung. Singapore regards the ban as a move to reaffirm national integration and a common identity. But Malaysia sees the tudung as symbolic of Muslim rights and believes that it should not be banned summarily by any country.

Some Malaysians have pointed out that Singapore allows Sikhs to wear their turbans as part of their school uniform for religious reasons. Singapore authorities have countered that the dispensation for Sikhs was an exception and a British colonial legacy.

In any case, the Sikhs have not politicized the turban to the extent that some Muslims are politicizing the tudung. Many Sikhs, in fact, choose not to wear turbans in schools.

Caught in this growing controversy is Singapore’s Malay Muslim minority. They have not become unduly agitated despite grave provocation from within and without the country. This can be traced to the deft way in which the Singapore authorities have handled the controversy.

When it first broke out, the Singapore media extensively aired the comments of Malay Muslims who criticized the ban, pre-empting possible charges by Singapore’s larger Muslim neighbor that it behaves high-handedly toward its Muslim minority.

With fair air time given to all, it turned out that the strongest criticisms of Muslims who oppose the ban came from members of the Malay Muslim community itself, including some Malay-based opposition parties.

Many of them are pragmatic enough to realize that stressing too much on religious symbols in a science and technology-oriented environment could lead to their alienation from the mainstream of society. They could end up as losers while the non-Muslims progress.

Moreover, the Singapore Malays Muslims are aware that the tudung, though a part of the Muslim dress code to enhance females’ modesty, is not compulsory for Muslim schoolgirls until they reach the age puberty.

Many of them have also come to accept the government’s argument that the tudung ban in schools is not an infringement of their religious rights, since Muslim girls remain free to don the headscarf outside school hours, in universities and colleges and at work, where there are no standard uniforms.

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