Workers’ Party (WP) politician and former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) Yee Jenn Jong on Wednesday (24 Mar) expressed his discomfort with the statement made by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli in Parliament recently regarding the issue of nurses being allowed to wear tudung at work.
Speaking in a Committee of Supply debate in Parliament earlier this month, Mr Masagos 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 March.
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.
In response to this particular statement, Mr Yee said in a Facebook post that it makes him uncomfortable as it makes non-Muslim Singaporeans “seem narrow-minded”.
He explained that it has been 56 years since Singapore’s independence and that the people must have made much progress in their thinking due to decades of national education and conscious racial mixing in the community.
“It has been 56 years. We have decades of national education and deliberate racial mixing in the community. We have a tudung wearing President and tudung wearing MPs. The education level of our country is very high now and many travel or work globally. Surely, we must have made much progress in our thinking,” Mr Yee said.
“Even some first-world western democracies have found ways to allow tudung designs that can be used for healthcare or security work, without these interfering with their work.”
Mr Yee added that 56 years is a long time and it covers two to three generations.
“Yes, race issues are still sensitive and we need to be mindful of the feelings of others in our community. However, I have no reason to judge anyone’s capabilities based on what they wear on their head.
“It is what’s inside their head that matters. If they are a qualified doctor or nurse or an officer, then I am happy to be served by them,” the WP member noted.
As an example, Mr Yee said he worked with many artists in one of his education ventures, and half of their staff or independent artists are Muslims.
One fine day, a long-time staff came to the office donning a tudung for the first time.
“She explained that it is a decision she made with her husband and why it is important. It helped me understand why the issue is important to Muslims,” Mr Yee said.
He continued, “She continued to go to the schools and preschools we work with, including faith-based schools. No one said anything to me about her change in attire or had any issue with it, not for the past 3 years since she decided to don the tudung daily.”
Nurses likely allowed to don tudung
In regards to this issue, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (23 March) 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.
He added that this had been relayed during a closed-door discussion with senior religious leaders and members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) more than six months ago.
“In public, we are careful of how all of this is discussed. So, on tudung, Mr 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 that nurses be allowed to wear the tudung. It is to signal flexibility. He didn’t say ‘no’,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“The clearest indications of our position is what I said to you six months ago. Mr Masagos and I were both stating the Government’s position. 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.”
Commenting on this, Mr Yee said in his post that it makes Mr Masagos’s statement in Parliament “quite puzzling” if this issue was more or less decided six months ago, as pointed out by Mr Shanmugam.
Mr Yee wondered why this issue was not better communicated among MPs to offer “some thoughts on the progress that is being made”.
“Is not Shan’s statement also quite public – it is a response to a question that will be reported by mainstream media, just two weeks after that parliament statement,” Mr Yee noted.
“Yes, we need to make real progress on this issue.”