In yet another face-off with Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Faisal Manap on the issue, Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli on Monday (8 Mar) reiterated the Singapore government’s secular stance on the issue of allowing Muslim women to wear the tudung in uniformed professions such as nursing and the police force.
The sensitive nature of such issues necessitates “closed-door discussions” and consultations with the community, said Mr Masagos during the debate on the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s budget for Muslim affairs for the upcoming financial year.
Mr Faisal had earlier asked the Government whether it would reevaluate its ban on the religious headgear for women working in uniformed services, stating that the rule has prevented many Muslim women from taking up such roles.
Allowing nurses to wear the hijab at work, thus, could expand the local pool of nurses, he illustrated.
Mr Masagos in his response said that allowing the donning of the tudung “would introduce a very visible religious marker that identifies every tudung-wearing female nurse or uniformed officer as a Muslim”.
“This has significant implications: We do not want patients to prefer or not prefer to be served by a Muslim nurse, nor do we want people to think that public security is being enforced by a Muslim or non-Muslim police officer.”
“This is what makes the decision difficult and sensitive,” said Mr Masagos.
It would be difficult to achieve compromise under the weight of “public aggressive pressure”, which is why a closed-door approach must be maintained when discussing such matters, said Mr Masagos.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, Maliki Osman expounded on Mr Masagos’ views on the Government’s secularist standpoint, saying that uniforms are meant to project neutrality and a common identity.
In the case of nurses and other public healthcare workers, he said that a uniform “underscores” the concept that such professionals “provide impartial care regardless of race or religion”.
He also cited the opinion of Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of the world-renowned Al-Azhar University, who had advised Muslim women to not leave their jobs solely out of being prohibited from wearing the hijab due to workplace requirements.
Mr Faisal had asked why opposition MPs such as himself are not included in closed-door discussions concerning such matters.
Dr Maliki replied that “whether Mr Faisal Manap participates in these sessions or not, I think the most important thing is a large segment of the community has been consulted and we continue to consult them”.
Mr Faisal highlighted that Muslim policewomen and nurses in countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are now allowed to wear the hijab in their respective countries while serving.
Mr Masagos responded that there are “many things that other countries do that we do not do”.
“We are Singaporeans; we will do what is good … If you want to do something that they like, we must also then do what we don’t like that they do. I don’t think we want that either. We do what is good for us, our community, and our nation,” he added.
Commenting on TODAY‘s Facebook page, many commenters criticised Mr Masagos’ explanation of the Government’s stance to prevent frontline public service or uniformed Muslim female staff from wearing the tudung at work.
Several commenters highlighted — as Mr Faisal had mentioned in Parliament — that governments in other countries where secular laws are upheld have also lifted bans on the hijab or have introduced the hijab as a part of uniformed officers’ attire.
Many also pointed out that President Halimah Yacob — Singapore’s head of state — herself wears a tudung, and that thus it is absurd to disallow frontline public service or uniformed Muslim female staff from doing the same.
Some also criticised Mdm Halimah’s apparent silence on the matter, given the significance of her position in the Government and as a Muslimah who wears the hijab.
One commenter criticised the mention of closed-door discussions that, in their view, seem to bear “no positive outcome”.
“Dr Maliki shld name the religious scholars and organizations which he said support the Government stance,” they said.
A couple of commenters suggested conducting a survey to gauge the views of Singaporeans in general regarding the issue instead of having the Government unilaterally assume the position that Singaporeans are against frontline public service or uniformed Muslim female staff from wearing the tudung at work in its closed-door discussions.
Closed-door discussions on such matters, according to one commenter, puts opposition MPs “in a bind”, as they end up “getting accused of trying to sow discord” despite merely seeking clarification from the relevant ministers, given how they were kept out of the loop during such discussions.
One commenter said that the Government’s assumption that Singaporeans are not receptive towards Muslim women wearing the hijab is akin to the presumption that Singaporeans are not ready for a non-Chinese Prime Minister — a view previously expressed by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.
However, there were several commenters who were of the opinion that Mr Faisal should have focused his attention on the issues both Muslims and non-Muslims have in “common”.
Some questioned why Mr Faisal’s position appears to be at odds with WP chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh’s stance on the importance of being wary of the prospect of the religious beliefs of senior civil servants influencing policymaking in Singapore.
There were commenters who agreed with Mr Masagos’ views that secularism must be adhered to in Singapore’s governance, even if it entails barring Muslim women from donning the hijab when working in uniformed professions or frontline public service roles.
Allowing the hijab as a part of the dress code, they said, may result in a slippery slope where other groups will begin asking for similar concessions.
One commenter said, however, that asking to be able to don the hijab in frontline public service roles and uniformed professions is not asking for special treatment, but rather “opens more doors to opportunities” to professions certain Muslim women were barred from entering.
One commenter said that the prohibition on hijab may have caused Singapore to lose some good female nurses and police officers.
One commenter thanked Mr Faisal for championing the issue in Parliament on behalf of a minority community, whose concerns are — in their view — often “forgotten” including by Malay/Muslim People’s Action Party MPs.
Prohibition of tudung in frontlines of govt agencies, public schools continues to be a mainstay in S’pore’s policies
The Singapore government, to this date, prohibits the wearing of headscarves by students on public school grounds.
Nearly two decades ago, three primary schoolgirls were suspended from their respective schools for continuing to wear their tudung to school despite previous reminders against doing so.
Following the schoolgirls’ families’ decision to sue the Singapore government over their daughters’ predicament at the time, lawyer Sadari Musari told Reuters in April 2002: “The directive given by the Ministry (of Education) to the school principals not to allow these three daughters, school children to put on their headscarves—it’s unconstitutional.”
The schoolgirls’ suspension sparked a heated Parliamentary debate on the right of Muslim girls and women to wear the hijab in Singapore’s public schools, and on a larger scale, the Republic’s frontlines of government or government-linked offices, as seen with Muslim female police officers and nurses.
Mr Faisal, during a motion on the “Aspirations of Singapore Women” on 4 April 2017, called upon Parliament to “not exclude Muslim women who wish to fulfil their career aspirations in line with their religious obligations”.
Citing countries that have permitted Muslim women serving in uniformed organisations to wear headscarves such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, Mr Faisal questioned as to when Singapore would move to do the same for the Home Team and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
“As a Singapore Muslim, a husband as well as a father to a daughter, I appeal to the Government to make into reality this call for inclusiveness that is often heard in this Chamber,” he added.
Mr Masagos, in response, branded Mr Faisal’s approach “worrisome”.
“He [Mr Faisal] has used this motion, which is focused on the aspirations of all women in Singapore, to raise again the issue of the tudung, to focus on differences instead of rallying people to be united.
“He dwells on issues that can injure or hurt the feelings of the community rather than to inspire them. In fact, Mr Faisal Manap has used many occasions to raise potentially discordant issues in this House,” Mr Masagos retorted.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post later rebuked Mr Faisal’s move to raise the issue in Parliament.
“WP MP Faisal Manap brought up the tudung issue again. Minister Masagos Zulkifli challenged Mr Faisal and explained why this was unwise. He spoke with courage and conviction.
“Championing divisive issues publicly, to pressure the government and win communal votes, will only stir up emotions and damage our multi-racial harmony,” he said.
Changes to the status quo should be introduced over time rather than “being pushed for in terms of rights and entitlements”: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the tudung issue
In 2014, TODAY reported PM Lee as saying that it has always been within the Government’s policy to ensure that racial and/or religious minorities in Singapore are able to practice their culture and creed as freely as possible.
However, he opined that changes to the status quo should be introduced gradually and broadly rather than “being pushed for in terms of rights and entitlements” at the expense of the Republic’s national harmony.
In response to questions regarding when the Government will be ready to allow Malay-Muslim frontline officers in public service to wear the headscarf, Mr Lee said: “You never arrive. Over the last ten years, we have gradually moved. Nobody has really noticed.”
Mr Lee also noted that there had been an increase in corporate officers working for statutory boards who don the tudung.
“I think that’s really the way to go … This is not the sort of thing where you want to put all your attention on this item and measure the progress of, either racial relations or the progress of the Muslim community based on this one item,” he added.
Tudung is the Malay word for hijab, an Arabic term that means “barrier”. It is a “headscarf” or “veil” often worn by Muslim girls and women to cover their hair, necks and chests as a means to demonstrate piety to God.
Mainstream interpretations of Islamic dress code suggest that the hijab is only obligatory for Muslim girls upon reaching puberty, which usually takes place in their early- or mid-teen years. However, some Muslim parents enforce the tudung on their daughters at an earlier age.
There are also many Muslim women who begin wearing the hijab past puberty out of their personal will after making a personal hijrah — a form of spiritual migration or transformation.