In an exchange on the issue of allowing uniformed personnel to wear the tudung, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman said that the government takes the matter "very very seriously".
"We have continued to engage union leaders, religious teachers, respected members of the community, putting to them the concerns of the government, the other community leaders, and, as well as, not just the Muslim community." said Maliki.
The happened during the Committee of Supply (COS) debates for Muslim Affairs on Mar. 8.
Discussion on allowing nurses to wear tudung
In his Budget Debate speech on Feb. 24, Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap, in Malay, "reiterated [his] call to allow the use of the tudung as part of a nurse's uniform."
Faisal raised the point in response to a part of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's speech about the government's "plan to balance local and foreign workers".
"As many would know, we have a lot of foreign nurses who serve in our medical institutions, especially in restructured hospitals and the polyclinics," said Faisal, in Malay.
"It can't be denied that there are Muslim women who have the intent to serve as nurses, but are forced to let go of their intentions as they know that they will be prohibited from wearing the tudung.
By allowing the use of hijab as part of a nurse’s uniform, perhaps more Muslim women can fulfill their desire to pursue a career in nursing."
Uniform policy in public service is a sensitive issue
In his speech on Mar. 8 during the COS debates, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli responded to Faisal's comments, and acknowledged the views of those who want to wear the tudung as part of a nursing uniform.
"Indeed, many Muslim women contribute meaningfully and serve our nation and society through noble jobs such as nursing, and their contributions have been tremendous especially during the pandemic," said Masagos.
However, Masagos then explained the importance of the uniform, saying, "save for the practices that we inherited as a legacy from the British Government, our uniform policy in the public service cannot be tilted towards any particular religious belief."
He added, of the uniform, "(it) is a visible sign that the service is rendered equally regardless of race or religion."
Allowing tudungs would introduce a "very visible" religious marker that identifies the wearer as a Muslim, Masagos explained.
This has significant implications, as the government does not want patients to express preferences over being served by a Muslim or non-Muslim nurse, nor does it want people to think that public security is being enforced by a Muslim or a non-Muslim officer.
Public, aggressive pressure makes compromise harder
"This is what makes the decision difficult, and sensitive," Masagos explained. He added:
"Public, aggressive pressure on such an issue can only make compromise harder. Any government concession to religious pressure will cause other groups to take note and adopt similarly aggressive postures. Race and religion will become increasingly polarising and this will harm all of us, especially the minority communities.
Hence, after discussing the Government’s considerations with the PAP MPs, we agreed to take the approach of careful, closed doors discussions because we understand its complexity and sensitivity."
He also said:
"In this regard, let me again state that I empathise that some Muslim women may find it challenging to choose or remain in professions where they personally find it difficult to fulfil both religious and professional duties at the same time, at some point in their life. However, workplaces are an important part of the common space that we share with our fellow Singaporeans, and we must not withdraw from them.
Masagos gave the example of mosques, which adjusted by lowering the volume of the azan or the call to prayers in consideration of non-Muslim residents nearby. The azan is also played on the radio. This did not "limit" the community's faith, and new mosques continue to be built in the heartlands."
In response to the point raised on "closed-door discussions", following Masagos's speech, Faisal said that he "would like to offer myself to the ministers to be part of this closed-door discussion."
Faisal claimed that he was not privy to any of the discussion being done behind closed doors. He said that at the moment, it only involves PAP MPs, and he "feels that all elected Malay MPs should be part of this closed-door discussion".
Masagos refuted this, and said in response that he has had such a discussion with Faisal before, and explained the stance, but added that "it continues to be put up in the open on every occasion that can be done."
In his own response, Maliki said that while anything can be raised in Parliament, PAP Muslim MPs also recognise their roles as community leaders, and must exercise discretion as they have a responsibility to ensure racial and religious harmony, which cannot be compromised.
"Thus as leaders, we have to lead our community to understand sensitivities, when they cannot initially maybe, of such topics and issues which are best not discussed in the open," he said.
Solution is not straightforward
While there are closed-door discussions, Maliki elaborated that they have continued to engage union leaders, religious teachers, and respected members of the community, not just MPs.
He said that they agreed that these are sensitive issues are best discussed behind closed doors, and that the solution is not straightforward.
"We should not rush [into a solution] without addressing these other concerns, and whether Mr. Faisal Manap participates in these sessions or not, I think the most important thing is a large segment of the community is consulted, and we continue to consult them," said Maliki.
"There are Muslim scholars [who] have given guidance that Muslims must make appropriate adjustments, while staying true to their faith, when living in a plural and contemporary society. This is important for us in Singapore.
We must avoid situations like in other countries where issues of religious expression, take center stage and become a divisive matter and put certain groups, under the spotlight."
Al-Azhar Grand Imam's opinion
Maliki then referenced the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb, speaking about the tudung when he came to Singapore in 2018.
"In response to a question on tudung not being allowed in certain workplaces, the Grand Imam made it clear that while Islam commands women to wear tudung, he advised Muslim women against leaving their jobs solely because they are not able to wear it.
He advised not to make hijab, an issue that determines your life, to the extent that you have no choice but to leave your job. And he emphasised that there is a legal maxim in Islam, that would permit Muslim women to take off their tudung due to work requirements."
Maliki emphasised that they will always approach issues that affect Singapore's common space very carefully.
He added that while Faisal might not agree, religious scholars and community leaders do because "they understand that these issues, especially those that involve racial and religious sensibilities, are complex, and any decision on them should not be taken lightly."
Top image adapted from MCI/YouTube.