The government might allow nurses who want to wear a tudung at work to do so, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Tuesday (24 March), adding that this is pending the result of discussions with the Malays-Muslim community.
The minister said that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will also meet with leaders from the Muslim community to discuss the matter.
Mr Shanmugan had said that this was noted in a closed-door session with senior religious leaders and members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) in August last year.
This revelation was made in response to a question to the Minister when he speaking to Muslim religious leaders at the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang. The question was from the RRG co-chair Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan on the outcome of the government consultation.
Mr Shanmugan said about the August discussion, “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.”
“When the discussions are completed, the government will announce its decision,” he added.
This remark by Mr Shanmugam comes only a few weeks after Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap’s question on whether the government would review this particular policy was met with criticism and strong defense from the state.
In Parliament on 3 March, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli responded to Mr Faisal’s question by saying that allowing tudungs “will raise a very visible religious marker that identifies every tudung-wearing female nurse or uniform officer as a Muslim,” and that it would have “significant implications.”
Mr Masagos added that a uniform is a sign of service that is rendered equally regardless of race and religion. He went on, “We don’t 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 officer. This is what makes the decision difficult and sensitive.”
He went on to then say that issues of such sensitive nature necessitates “closed door discussions” and consultation with the community, and indicated that the government would not shift its position anytime soon.
Beyond that, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Dr Maliki Osman, cited Islamic scholars who have advised Muslims to make the appropriate adjustments while staying true to their faith in a pluralistic society.
He said, “We must avoid situations like in other countries where issues of religious expression take centre stage and become a divisive matter and put certain groups under the spotlight.”
Now, Mr Shanmugam’s recent remarks begs the question of why Mr Faisal’s question in parliament was met with such defensiveness when the government had already been in discussions with Muslim religious leaders on the same issue in August last year?
Particular, questions are being raised on the merits of “closed door discussions” whether the people can trust that the government will be consistent with what it says in public versus behind closed doors.
Penning his thoughts on the matter, Singapore People’s Party (SPP) assistant secretary-general Ariffin Sha said on his Facebook page on Wednesday (25 Mar) that he thinks that the public outcry and furore following Mr Masagos’ earlier reply in Parliament is what “tipped the scales” in shifting the government’s position on the issue.
He wrote, “This is something that may be hard to admit to, as no Government wants to be perceived as reactionary.”
Noting his cynicism that the government’s stance had potentially shifted as early as August 2020 during a closed door discussion, Mr Ariffin said, “If that is true, it would mean that the Government’s unequivocal position in Parliament was not representative of the Government’s actual position.”
“If we cannot take the position the Government sets out in Parliament at face value, that is worrying in itself.”
He asked, “If the Government’s position did change, why not announce it in Parliament?”
Mr Ariffin went on to also slam the concept of “closed door sessions”, describing them as “obsolete” and stressing that they “do not serve the interests of transparency”.
“If you can’t defend your policy in public, I doubt you can do so behind closed doors,” he quipped.
“We have an educated populace who are more than capable of holding civil and rational discussions about race and religion. We shouldn’t be citing the Sedition Act every time someone brings up a legitimate, yet potentially sensitive, issue.”
He added, “This long overdue shift yet another example of the potency of the power of the people.”
Veteran journalist Bertha Henson also commented on the shift on her Facebook page, saying “This is the problem with such talks…u confuse people when what is said in public doesn’t gel with what is said in private.”
Another person on Facebook, Rudy Irawan Kadjairi, commented on “closed door discussions” to point out how it makes invited guests feel “entitled and privileged while giving them a sense of righteous importance.”
In a post on the same day, Mr Rudy said, “Fundamentally, it allows everyone at the discussion to feel special in addressing “a national issue”, while everyone else is kept away.”
Journalist Simon Vincent weighed in as well, asking “Doesn’t the government’s revelation that it was already reconsidering its policy of disallowing nurses to wear tudungs, after two weeks of delay and public disquiet, prove that the government’s closed-door approach to sensitive issues is not as vaunted as it would like us to believe?”
He went on to say, “Going by the government’s insistence on having closed-door discussions for sensitive issues, it seems we can never reasonably deduce the terms of debate on such issues—even from Parliament statements.
“This is disquieting, considering that Parliament should be a source of authority on government thinking.”