In the wake of the debate on the tudung ban against Muslim women in uniformed professions in the public sector, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (23 Mar) that it is likely that nurses who wish to don the garment at work will be allowed to do so once the Government concludes its internal discussions on the matter.
Mr Shanmugam conveyed this position in response to a question from Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan, co-chairman of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) on updates regarding the outcome of the Government’s consultations on the issue.
Earlier this month, Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli 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 on 8 Mar.
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.
Speaking at the quarterly engagement session with RRG at Khadijah Mosque in Geylang on Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam reiterated the position he expressed in a meeting in Aug last year.
“I told you very frankly: We can see good reasons why nurses should be allowed to wear tudung if they choose to do so. I said this was being discussed internally.
“And after that, our view is there is likely to be a change and we are also consulting with the community before we make a change,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam also said that the matter has also been discussed with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), adding that the views offered by MUIS “have been very helpful”.
Discussions with the community, he said, are ongoing and will take several more months.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will also engage Muslim community leaders on the issue, added Mr Shanmugam.
“When the discussions are completed, the Government will announce its decision,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Touching on the “closed-door” discussions he had with members of the RRG, Mr Shanmugam said that such discussion entailed how there are many Muslim women in the public sector and most areas of the healthcare sector who wear the tudung.
Approaching the issue only from that perspective, said Mr Shanmugam, would have led to the “rules” being “changed long ago”.
“But it was connected to other factors so we had to make careful considerations. I explained what I meant in private and we have to weigh the different considerations against each other and reach a judgment. We spoke frankly, behind closed doors,” he explained.
“A lot of misunderstandings” around Minister Masagos, Minister Maliki’s views on tudung issue: K Shanmugam
Mr Shanmugam also said that Mr Masagos’ and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, Maliki Osman’s views during the Parliamentary debate have been misconstrued.
Dr Maliki on 8 Mar had 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 public, we are careful of how all of this is discussed. So, on tudung, Minister Masagos said in Parliament that the Government is empathetic, and the matter is being discussed. What does he mean when he says the Government is empathetic?
“It is that we understand the feelings of those who wish nurses to be allowed to wear the tudung. It is to signal flexibility. He didn’t say no,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam stressed that both he and Mr Masagos had both stated the Government’s position in the meeting in Aug last year.
“But because he was speaking in Parliament, in public, he had to be more general, whereas I could be more direct with you, in private,” he said, addressing Ustaz Hasbi.
Separately, Mr Masagos said on Tuesday that he was merely “reminding ourselves that we must proceed on this issue in a measured and considered way” in his Committee of Supply speech.
“We will need a few more months to work out how to move ahead,” he said, adding: “The Government will announce the decision when the discussions are completed.”
Netizens commenting on TODAY’s Facebook post on the matter, however, continued to question why discussions on the tudung issue have to be behind closed doors.
Some also questioned why Mr Masagos had given “flimsy” reasons in Parliament behind the Government’s stance to uphold the tudung ban in uniformed professions if plans to allow Muslim women to wear the headgear are possibly underway as stated by Mr Shanmugam.
One commenter questioned if the closed-door discussions were “purely imaginary until this matter was brought before Parliament”.
A couple of commenters said that if the tudung ban in uniformed professions were to be lifted for nurses, then cabin crew members should be allowed to don the tudung when on-duty.
“mid east cabin crew looks elegant in it. I’m sure SIA also can!” said one commenter.
Majority of netizens support open discussion on allowing Muslim female uniformed staff to don hijab after Minister Masagos Zulkifli reiterates Govt’s secular stance following ‘closed-door discussions’
Previously, many commenters had 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.
Commenting on TODAY‘s Facebook page, they said 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.
Other 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.