When a new canteen contractor was appointed by the school, they had to get the stalls re-certified, and with it, the principal decided to remind the parents not to bring in non-Halal food into the canteen.
Parents of the non-Muslim students who account for 80% of the school population protested the ban, ringing up the school, the education ministry and the media to vent their frustrations. To them, the new rule amounted to discrimination.
Immediately, the ministry intervened and released several press announcements to urge "all schools to provide a mix of halal and non-halal food stalls in their canteens to cater to children of all races".
When I first read this story, I was amused and disappointed, not with the no-non-halal-food rule, but by the lack of racial and religious understanding of 80% of the students' parents.
Bringing in non-halal food in halal certified premises bans are not uncommon in multi-racial Singapore. There a lot of halal establishments like Banquet and Food Culture, which prohibits customers from bringing in non-halal food into their dining area. Even though their establishments certify only the stalls. Yet, why didn't the public protest against these establishments?
Have these establishments committed an act of discrimination?
The establishment, Banquet, the first completely Halal food court seem to suggest otherwise. Quoting from Banquet's website:
"The opportunity for dining with different races under the same roof provides an excellent platform for social interaction among different races, and cultivation of mutual respect through better understanding of cultural differences in dining habits of different races and religions, values of which are of utmost importance especially so for a multi-racial country like us in Singapore."
If Boon Lay Garden Primary School had performed an act of discrimination, then the parents of these grieved students are grossly misinformed. The school had obviously attempted to make the canteen a social catalyst, to help students of different races enjoy each other's company.
When I was still a primary school student, there was only 1 muslim food stall. Our queue was always long, because there were many mouths to feed. So the school decided to open another muslim food stall to reduce the queuing bottleneck as students only had 30 mins for recess. The situation didn't improve much. The reason was simple. Some non-Muslim students queued at the muslim stall too. Because they had the luxury of choice.
It was no different in secondary school. There was only 1 muslim food stall. And the queue was always darn long. Because there were also non-Muslims queuing up at the muslim food stall who chose not to eat their usual Chinese dishes.
In secondary school, I had a close-knitted class. Chinese, Malays, and Indians sat on the same table at times, enjoying each other's company and savouring their food. The canteen was a common space. But it was very hard for a muslim to try to build on that space.
I remember one afternoon when my classmates and I were having lunch. Obviously, I bought my lunch from the Muslim food stall. I sat opposite a Chinese friend of mine who was savouring his obviously non-Halal dish. I was curious about his food as I liked to explore cultures different to mine. I asked him curiously, "What's that?", pointing to the bits of meat-like portions on his plate as he gobbled down his food with his chopsticks.
"Oh you want some?", he asked as he simultaneously picked up a piece with his chopsticks and placed it on my yet to be touched plate. I gaped in horror accompanied by gasps from the other Muslims at the table.
He was trying to be nice by offering his share. But his act of kindness became an unfortunate misunderstanding of social space and borders. It wouldn't have been a problem if my canteen was completely halal.
I could have eaten that morsel of meat (I think), that my friend offered me. But that incident prevented me from ever asking about another person's alien dish again for fear that it would spoil my plate.
This is why I encourage schools and the ministry to get their food stalls halal-certified. It would not only allow the queues at lunch and recess to be spread out more efficiently, providing students, regardless of race, with enough time to consume their meals, but it would also encourage, rather than discourage social interaction among students of different races and beliefs. Because if we don't change the system now, we will always have a situation where we will never have the ability to be inclusive.
There should be no rolling of heads at Boon Lay Garden Primary School. The principal did a magnificent job in creating a common space where students could socialise. They also had choice, which allowed them to queue as they please, and gave them time to eat their meals properly, an important thing for a growing child.
But there should be rolling of heads at the Ministry of Education. For suggesting that the principal had made an error when he should be commended for his efforts. If anything, this episode has unearthed Singapore's weak social fabric that binds us different races together. That we cannot, it seems, to agree on at least having a nice meal at the dining table, where everyone could share their food.
* ST Photo by Shahriya Yahaya