Not too long ago, the controversy on the right of Muslim women to don the tudung in uniformed professions was raised in Parliament when Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap asked for the Government to reconsider the current ban.
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.
Further, Mr Masagos went on to say that any discussion on such matters should be held behind closed doors because these issues were delicate and “sensitive”.
He further said that 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” — which seems to imply that Singaporeans are racist or against certain religions.
Mr Masagos’ comments were criticised by netizens who found his arguments weak, especially given that our President herself wears a tudung. The saga continued with other prominent members of Singapore society entering the fray.
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 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 the issue does not “belong to any opposition party” but to the Muslim community as a whole.
“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.
Yet, this has not stopped Mr Masagos from attempting to pin the blame on Mr Faisal.
Instead of addressing legitimate concerns raised by an elected official, Mr Masagos shifted the onus on Mr Faisal for raising the issue in the first place.
“He dwells on issues that can injure or hurt the feelings of the community rather than inspire them. In fact, Mr Faisal has used many occasions to raise potentially discordant issues in this House,” he told Parliament in 2017.
Given that Mr Masagos is the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, it seems odd that he is focusing his attentions on Mr Faisal instead of the actual issues raised by Mr Faisal.
Further, Mr Masagos has attempted to tarnish Mr Faisal’s reputation by linking him with Zulfikar Shariff, who was arrested under the Internal Security Act last year for his support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Mr Masagos said: “It makes us wonder whether it is Mr Faisal who is supporting Mr Zulfikar or Mr Zulfikar supporting Mr Faisal, or are they together in this because of a common cause.”
Mr Faisal replied that he was there solely to support Wear White, which opposes homosexuality and nothing more and said: “I’m not so sure what’s behind (the) Minister’s mind when he tried to link me to Zulfikar, and I’m a bit distraught by his effort to paint me negatively.”
Mr Masagos went on to say that he too wanted “to see progress in the tudung issue and religious matters that are dear to Muslims,” but that there was “a right time, a right place and right way to discuss this,” and that the way to make progress is gradually and quietly, working under the radar to strengthen mutual trust and understanding among Singaporeans.
However, this statement seems to be at odds with what Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (23 Mar).
Mr Shanmugam said that nurses who wish to don the garment at work will likely be allowed to do so once the Government concludes its internal discussions on the matter.
If Mr Shanmugam is publicly saying that tudung will likely be allowed for Muslim women in the nursing profession in the public sector, why is Mr Masagos so reticent when he is the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs?
When is the “right time” or “right place” or “right way” to discuss this issue? Who determines that?
It would indeed make sense for such a specific issue to be debated between a Muslim MP as a representative of the community and the Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs.
Yet, looking at how things played out with the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs seemingly pushing the buck, which has led to Mr Shanmugam’s statement on Tuesday, does this imply that the Ministry of Law and Home Affairs determines the parameters of any such discussions?
After all, if tudung will be allowed at the workplace for uniformed Muslim female staff who wish to wear it, shouldn’t it be Mr Masagos making that announcement? Why is it coming from the Minister of Law and Home Affairs?
Mr Shanmugam’s public assurances imply that the Government had already been discussing this and that it was going to be imminently allowed.
If so, was Mr Masagos unaware of this? If he was indeed unaware, then what is the point of having a Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs? If he was aware, why is he kicking up such a fuss with Mr Faisal raising the issue?
Is it not a case of ‘much ado about nothing’?