The controversial ban on the wearing of tudung, or headscarf, in certain occupations in Singapore, resurfaced on Apr. 4, during the debate on a parliamentary motion about women’s aspirations.
The exchange between Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli and Workers' Party (WP) Aljunied GRC MP Faisal Manap reflected the different approaches that the PAP government and the opposition adopted in tackling sensitive community issues.
It also sets out a wider debate about what it means to be a Malay/Muslim MP, as well as being a voice for the community.
Common issues raised by the Malay/Muslim Community
Besides the tudung issue, the longstanding concerns include the community falling behind on socio-economic factors, its poor representation at the top political leadership and senior ranks in the civil service and military, and also structural unemployment challenges in the workforce.
From time to time, the perceived uncritical support for some countries like the United States in our foreign policy is also questioned by the community.
On socioeconomic issues, government leaders regularly updates the community on the progress it has made and also encourages Malays in Singapore to strive for higher achievements.
At the same time, it is also a well known fact that they prefer to deal with issues on race and religion away from the limelight, given their intractable nature.
As what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his Facebook post on Apr. 4:
"The best way to make progress on them is quietly, outside the glare of publicity. Championing divisive issues publicly, to pressure the government and win communal votes, will only stir up emotions and damage our multi-racial harmony."
However, despite the consistency in approach over the years, the government will likely have to constantly review and recalibrate its methods in line with the evolving social landscape.
With an increasingly educated and vocal populace that is well-connected via social media, public sentiments on such controversial issues can be easily ignited, creating a pool of discontent that in turn can be tapped and politicised by different groups in society.
Hence, it may be useful to examine both approaches and their possible unintended consequences to get a sense the challenges involved in managing these issues.
1. WP MP Faisal's way
Race and religion will always remain emotive topics in a multi-racial society like Singapore. And a differentiated position on sensitive issues vis-à-vis the government can potentially help to garner communal votes, in the political race for representation.
As an MP, Faisal believes that the parliament is the best platform to raise community issues. He had raised in past parliamentary sittings, issues such as the need for halal kitchens in Navy ships and the perceived discrimination of Malays in the armed forces, and had received replies from Ministers.
From his perspective, he is only speaking out for members of his community and it should not be seen as attempting to be divisive. However, his inclination to speak openly on these issues prompted Masagos to criticize him for needling the community's sensitivity "subtly and frequently", and dwelling on issues "that can injure or hurt the feelings of the community rather than inspire them":
Unintended Consequences: Losing the broader support of Singaporeans
As what Masagos said:
"It leaves a lingering feeling of (something) unsolved and unsolvable, and impatience that one day I believe will explode. Is that what Mr Faisal wants?"
"It will only raise the temperature and actually make the problems harder to solve"
Despite what may be good intentions, such outcomes are certainly unhelpful in advancing the cause of tudung advocates.
Faisal clarified that his intent was not to sow discord but by speaking on the a complex issue that may not be well understood by many Singaporeans, he is at risk of scoring with his community but potentially losing the broader support of other Singaporeans, as he may be seen as not having the "give and take" quality crucial to Singapore's multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
The tudung issue has cropped up several times over the years.
In 2002, it surfaced in the public sphere over primary schoogirls not being allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf in school.
In 2013, the public debate re-emerged after a polytechnic lecturer had asked at a forum on race why nurses were barred from wearing the headscarf.
So far the WP has not been clear about its party position on the issue, instead calling for a dialogue in November 2013, Faisal's position could compromise WP's attempt to expand its political base as a credible party who understands Singapore's national interest.
2. The Government's way
Informal political ground rules have been drawn up over the years. When it comes to dealing with sensitive issues in the Malay/Muslim community. The playbook usually includes closed-door forums and private discussions with the PAP leadership.
In 2013, the tudung issue was more or less resolved, albeit not conclusively, after PM Lee held a two-hour closed door dialogue with some 100 leaders and representatives from the Malay-Muslim community.
Despite PM Lee giving the assurance that the government's position on the tudung issue was not static in his comments to reporters after the session, the behind-the-scenes communication approach to forge consensus and understanding is unlikely to sit well with a new generation of citizens who value a participatory change process and desire to have a transparent public debate.
Unintended Consequences: Diminished Confidence in Malay/Muslim leadership
The outcome of such an approach may result in diminishing confidence in the Malay/Muslim leadership in the community, if they feel that no visible "progress" is made.
By criticizing an opposition MP for raising the issue, there is also the perception of being out of touch with the undercurrents in the community or certain segments in the community and denying legitimate space and time for discussion.
Will the government's low key approach continue to be effective, with rising expectations?
To what extent will this put PAP Malay/MPs at a disadvantage politically?
How should the government acknowledge the undercurrents in the community and adapt in light of greater demands for transparency?
These are not exactly new questions but certainly important ones to consider for the future.
Watch the video of the exchange of Masagos and MP Faisal here:
Top photo from gov.sg YouTube