The Government’s decision to allow Muslim nurses in public healthcare to don the tudung — a religious headgear — followed “many years of engagement” with various stakeholders whether Muslims or non-Muslims, said Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli.
In a Facebook post on 29 Aug, Mr Masagos said — referencing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech — that the tudung is a national issue that requires everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims – to understand and accept the policy change.
“The Government must make sure that any policy change relating to the tudung would bring the different communities closer together instead of dividing us.
“Indeed, the Government has to be careful in making any adjustments to keep our racial and religious harmony in good order,” said Mr Masagos.
The development, he said, is a sign of “the progress we have made as a multi-racial and multi-religious society, where our Singaporean way enables us to discuss and embrace our differences in a rational and calm manner, precisely because we have much more in common”.
“I join PM in encouraging everyone to take this move in the right spirit. Let us always be mindful of our diverse social context as we pursue our aspirations and contribute to nation building.
“As our Mufti said recently, “the preservation of harmony and trust between communities will always be paramount, especially for a closely-knit and urban society like ours”. So let us heed Mufti’s advice of this larger objective whenever we face challenges on issues such as race and religion.
“Let us also continue to convey our feedback on public policies in constructive ways and to refrain from imposing our own views and preferences on others,” said Mr Masagos.
Netizens, however, were quick to draw attention to Mr Masagos’ previous statements in Parliament on the tudung issue.
The tudung issue was thrust into the spotlight once again for months after the matter was previously raised by Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap as far back as 2017.
Mr Faisal, an Aljunied GRC MP, had asked the Government in Parliament again on 8 Mar this year 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 response, 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.
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.
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.
Commenting on Mr Masagos’ post on 29 Aug, one commenter said: “Mr minister sir, you are the one that are against the Muslim women working in healthcare to wear the tudung in the first place. Did you argue to implement it in parliament. I have my doubt you did.”
Many commenters also highlighted the tenacity of opposition politicians such as Mr Faisal and Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan in raising the tudung issue previously.
“Credit should be given to Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, pushing the issue since many years back. In fact, many other leaders have been pushing the issue, be it from the ruling party and also some GE candidates but Faisal Manap recent push is the catalyst to make this happen. Better to give credit where its due than claiming the credit when things happen,” said one commenter.
In 2002, Dr Chee was fined S$3000 for speaking up on the tudung issue. In a speech, he said that there was no evidence to support the Government’s claims that allowing such practices would cause racial disunity.
One commenter questioned why Mr Faisal and Dr Chee are being credited for the progress made in the tudung issue when “the government has been consulting the community at various time periods and not just a few times” compared to the politicians.
Another commenter replied: “That’s the point. Nothing got done after DECADES of ‘discussion and consulting’. Faisal Manap brought up this issue but was told to shut up by someone who should have spoken up instead.”
“The public would rather see things get done, and Faisal Manap’s voice in Parliament got the ball rolling. If not, they maybe will continue to ‘discuss and consult’ for another decade or two,” the commenter added.
“The first time you was against home based cooking during the fasting months which muslim depends on income to tide over during pandemic. Thought you was wise up when it was overturned by your boss,” said one commenter.
The commenter was referring to a statement made by Mr Masagos on 27 Apr last year, in which he criticised those who he claimed are “trying to incite” home-based businesses (HBBs) to “pressure the government to make exceptions” for such businesses during the circuit breaker period.
He made the statement in the wake of a petition urging authorities to take into account the operations of their HBBs under the circuit breaker regulations, as they would need to prepare for Hari Raya orders during the month of Ramadan.
Branding the move “irresponsible”, Mr Masagos said that such action only serves to rub “more salt” into the “wounds” of HBBs they are “purportedly fighting for”.
This is because “they know the government cannot make exceptions to any sector affected in the TCB period”, he said.
Urging the Government to allow HBBs to continue operating during the circuit breaker period, according to Mr Masagos, shows that the people calling for such a measure “do not care for the safety of our HBB operators nor our community”.
“If the HBB operators continue their business as usual, they run the risk of being infected or becoming a cluster of COVID-19 cases — more so near Raya, when orders pile up,” he added.
“Our government does not make decisions under pressure, especially when the demand is harmful to society. It is the same decision process in opening or closing our mosques. It is not done under pressure, but based on sound medical advice that our religious scholars defer to,” said Mr Masagos.
Mr Masagos called on the people to be patient and to “not let our sacrifices be in vain because of the interests of a few”.
Many netizens who commented on Mr Masagos’ statement raised issues with his criticism of those who call upon the Government to reconsider the stiff penalties and restrictions — such as the S$1,000 fine against those found errant — against HBBs.
Several netizens pointed out that far from trying to “incite” unpleasant sentiments among HBB operators, people are simply trying to draw attention to how low-income — particularly Malay-Muslim — families operating such businesses will be severely affected by the restrictions.
Mr Masagos was then accused of making a U-turn when he later said that restrictions could be eased for HBBs during the period.
One commenter said that “there is still opportunity” for Mr Masagos to take credit by tackling unemployment and low-income issues within the Malay community.
One commenter opined that even if Mr Masagos were to vacate his position as the Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs, a “Masagos 2.0 will replace him”.
“It’s not about Masagos or Yaacob Ibrahim. This is just the PAP model crafted for Islam community purposes. What to do?” the commenter lamented.