SINGAPORE, March 23 — Nurses who wish to don the tudung at work will likely be allowed to do so once the Government wraps up discussions with the Malay-Muslim community in a few months, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (March 23), adding 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.
Recalling what he had told the August 31 meeting at a quarterly engagement session with RRG at Khadijah Mosque in Geylang on Tuesday, Shanmugam said: “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.”
Shanmugam was responding to a question by Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan, co-chairman of the RRG, who had asked if the minister can give an update on the outcome of the Government’s consultations.
“That is the Government’s position. We have also discussed with Muis, and taken into account views given by Muis, which have been very helpful,” added Shanmugam, referring to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
He said that discussions with the community are ongoing and will take a few more months, adding that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will also meet with Muslim community leaders.
“When the discussions are completed, the Government will announce its decision,” said Shanmugam.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking at an engagement session at Khadijah Mosque on Tuesday (March 23). Photo: CNA screengrab
About two weeks before Shanmugam spoke to the religious leaders on Aug 31 last year, TODAY reported that a part-time promoter at a pop-up booth in Tangs department store was allegedly told to remove her hijab — a Muslim headscarf covering the head and chest — in order to be allowed to work on its premises.
The issue then made headlines again earlier this month when Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap asked in Parliament whether the Government would relook allowing Muslim women to don the headgear while working in uniformed services such as nursing.
He added that the rule barring them from doing so has deterred many Muslim women from taking up such roles.
During the Committee of Supply debate, Masagos Zulkifli, who is the Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs noted that this is not the first time the matter has been raised, stressing that the Government’s secular stance has been consistently clear in policymaking.
Explaining why the uniform policy in the public service cannot be tilted towards any religious belief, Masagos said that in services that play a critical role in society, the uniform is a visible sign that the service is rendered equally regardless of race or religion.
Recalling the closed-door discussions he had with members of the RRG, Shanmugam said they spoke about how women wear tudungs in many parts of the Government and in most areas of the healthcare sector.
The headgear is also donned by President Halimah Yacob and by MPs.
“I also said if you only look at that one point, nurses wearing a tudung, it would not be an issue. Rules would have been changed long ago.
“But it was connected to other factors so we had to make careful considerations. I explained what I meant in private and we have to weigh the different considerations against each other and reach a judgment. We spoke frankly, behind closed doors,” said Shanmugam.
During the panel discussion on Tuesday, Shanmugam said there were “a lot of misunderstandings” about what Masagos and Dr Maliki Osman, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, said during the parliamentary debate.
Dr Maliki had said that the Government has the support of religious scholars and community leaders who understand that these issues, especially those that involve racial and religious sensitivities, are complex and have to be discussed away from the glare of the public.
Shanmugam said that in his previous engagements with the RRG and religious leaders, he was able to share the Government’s position candidly behind closed doors on a variety of issues such as terrorism, religious issues and the issue of the tudung.
“In public, we are careful of how all of this is discussed. So, on tudung, Minister 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 nurses to be allowed to wear the tudung. It is to signal flexibility. He didn’t say no,” he added.
“The clearest indications of our position is what I said to you six months ago. Minister Masagos 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.”
Masagos, on the sidelines of a separate event today, reiterated that the Government has come to the view that it will likely change its position some time ago.
But the issue was connected to other factors so it has to be carefully considered.
Referring to the Government’s consultation with the community and stakeholders, Masagos said: “We wanted to assure Malay-Muslim leaders that the Government was taking their views seriously, and considering how we can make adjustments.
“In my Committee of Supply speech, I was reminding ourselves that we must proceed on this issue in a measured and considered way. We will need a few more months to work out how to move ahead,” he added.
“The Government will announce the decision when the discussions are completed.”
Speaking to reporters after the engagement session, Ustaz Hasbi said the Government’s willingness to change its stance is a positive development as the matter has been “discussed for a long time”.
He added that follow-up discussions may be done to get a more concrete view from the Malay-Muslim community
“Our message to the community is to be patient. To wait for good results, (we) must be patient.” — TODAY