Raising tudung issue in Parliament may not have been necessary if govt had tackled issue at community levels instead of behind closed doors, says management consultancy firm founder

It may not have been necessary for an opposition politician to raise the issue of allowing Muslim women to wear the tudung in uniformed professions if the government had addressed the issue at “community levels” instead of resorting to closed-door discussions, said the founder of a management consultancy firm.

In a post in the “Activities at Mosques and by Muslim Organisations in Singapore” Facebook group, Mohd Khair Bin Mohd Noor, founder and CEO of SuChi Success Initiatives Pte Ltd wrote on Tuesday (16 Mar) that “there is essentially no other way for the issue to be engaged except in Parliament via any MP who is brave enough to raise the matter”.

“Had the matter been addressed at community levels and not behind closed doors, perhaps, the route to knock the government’s door via Parliament might not be necessary after all,” he said.

Mr Khair said that any blame regarding the tudung issue should not be shifted to the opposition in Parliament, as it does not “belong to any opposition party”, but to the Muslim community.

“The narrative all these while has simply opened the door for the opposition to take up the issue in Parliament on behalf of the Muslim community,” he added.

Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli on 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 a debate in Parliament on the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth’s budget for Muslim affairs for the upcoming financial year.

Aljunied GRC and Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap 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.

In his post on Tuesday, Mr Khair also noted that the focus has always been on the prohibition on wearing tudung in uniformed services of the public sector, from the police force, the army, civil defence to the hospitals.

However, tudung can and has been worn in non-uniformed sectors of the public, private and non-government sectors, he added.

Touching on President Halimah Yacob being able to wear a tudung while in office, Mr Khair said that the role of the President is a non-uniformed one, which allows her to don the tudung in carrying out her official capacity as the Head of State.

“Female public officers who are Muslims in all other sectors are free to decide on whether they wish to put on tudung or otherwise,” he added.

Mr Khair said that in the private sector, stewardesses are not allowed to put on the tudung, and some corporate organisations have also purportedly put in place a “secret” or discreet policy to not hire Muslim women who wear the garment.

The tudung issue, said Mr Khair, “has been dealt with behind closed doors without any hope in sight”.

Yet, the Muslim community “has been very kind and patient”, and continues to support the ruling party at every election, he added.

“That’s how kind the community has been. Probably that kindness has been reciprocated by the ruling party in different ways…”take this, and not that”. Is the community frustrated? Yes, certainly. But it seems to be patient too,” said Mr Khair.

Touching on the government’s reasons behind not allowing Muslim women officers in uniformed services to wear tudung, Mr Khair said that the reasons have appeared to become more “unreasonable”.

“The most recent one seems to suggest that wearing tudung by female Muslim personnel would upset Islamophobes. Even non-Muslims have expressed disbelief that such is the narrative now.

“Previous reasons pointed to wearing tudung being “problematic” suggesting that that would hamper performance on the job. The reasons cited by the government have been viewed with cynicism as they somehow suggest how isolated Singapore society has been as compared to the rest of the world,” he said.

The narrative that wearing tudung would create discord within society is doing the non-Muslim communities a great disservice, said Mr Khair.

“The narrative is saying that the non-Muslim communities or at least there are people within the non-Muslim communities who really hate Islam and Muslims and that having uniformed personnel would destabilise the society in Singapore. Is that the case? Is it true that there is deep resentment or hatred on Islam and Muslims in Singapore among non-Muslims?” He questioned.

Mr Khair also pointed out that it has been “difficult to find a reasonable reason expressed by the government” on the irrational phenomenon of Sikh men being allowed to wear turbans in uniformed services while Muslim women are prevented from donning the tudung.

Touching on how allowing Muslim women in uniformed services to wear tudung will “trigger other ethnic or religious groups demanding for their right to wear their respective religious artifacts” while in uniform, Mr Khair said that the wearing of tudung among Muslim women is different in the sense that it is not limited to special religious occasions.

“Wearing tudung is simply fulfilling a requirement of being a Muslim woman. Any Muslim women can put on tudung. Wearing tudung is not confined to only religious authorities like priests or other similar religious positions in almost all religions.

“No need to worry that a Muslim women police officer would give a sermon before going on patrol, or that a Muslim woman nurse would conduct extensive prayers to patients in providing care for patients. No, they don’t do that. Those who decided to wear tudung are ordinary folks who simply want to do a good job and earn a decent living,” he added.

What is disconcerting about the latest response from the government, said Mr Khair, is the view that allowing Muslim women to wear tudung while in uniform would create discord, as it “seems to also suggest that the non-Muslim communities are not mature enough to deal with multi-ethnic and multi-religious living in Singapore with regards to having women-in-tudung in our midst”.

“This seems to suggest that years of multiracial engagements to get Singaporeans to embrace multi-ethnicism has somehow failed. Is that really the case? Perhaps,” he said.

RDU’s Liyana Dhamirah questions Govt on how many tudung-wearing women were represented in its closed-door meetings

Separately last week, Red Dot United Party’s Liyana Dhamirah, a Muslim woman who dons the hijab herself, questioned how it is possible to hold the government accountable if it would not answer for its policies in Parliament, particularly “a policy which affects a significant number of minority women” such as the tudung ban in uniformed professions.

In a statement on 9 Mar, she also questioned — as an individual who has a vested interest in the matter — how many tudung-wearing women were represented in the government’s closed-door meetings, and if so, what percentage did they comprise.

“I agree with RDU’s suggestion that our Government commissions surveys and dialogues to gather the people’s views on how Singaporeans feel about Muslim women wearing hijab in public sector uniformed offices which currently prohibit it. I am certain there can be a way forward that opens up these job opportunities for more Singaporeans,” said Ms Liyana.

Any discrimination involving prohibition against wearing the tudung “a serious violation” of right to equality, special provisions for Malays as S’pore’s indigenous people: Lawyer M Ravi

Human rights lawyer M Ravi on Sunday highlighted that any discrimination involving the prohibition on wearing the tudung is “a serious violation” of Article 15(1) of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of every person in Singapore to “profess and practise” their religion “and to propagate it”.

It is also in violation of Article 12, which guarantees equality, he added. This must be seen side-by-side with the “non-discrimination of Sikhs wearing turbans”.

Article 12 also prohibits any discrimination in public office on the grounds of race or religion.

Mr Ravi added that Article 152 guarantees the special position of the Malays and their culture and religion as the indigenous people of Singapore, which consequently means that the government has a duty to uphold the constitutional rights of Malay-Muslim women who wish to wear the tudung.

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.

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