Shanmugam: Singapore nurses likely allowed to wear tudung pending discussions – report

Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam addresses Parliament on Thursday, 4 March 2021. (SCREENGRAB: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel
Singapore's Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam in Parliament on 4 March 2021. (SCREENGRAB: Ministry of Communications and Information YouTube channel ) (Ministry of Communications and Information)

SINGAPORE — Pending the result of discussions with the Malay-Muslim community, nurses who want to wear a tudung or headscarf at work would probably be allowed to do so, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

Shanmugam added on Tuesday (23 March) that discussions will take a few more months, while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will also meet with Muslim community leaders.

According to Today, the minister said this was relayed during a closed-door session with senior religious leaders and members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) last August.

Speaking to senior Muslim religious leaders at the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang on Tuesday, Shanmugam was responding to a query from RRG co-chair Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan on the outcome of the government's consultations.

Alluding to his comments in August 2020, he 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 added, “When the discussions are completed, the government will announce its decision."

Controversial issue

Earlier this month, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli caused a stir with his response in Parliament to Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap's query on whether the government will review its position on forbidding Muslim women working in uniformed services, such as nursing, from wearing the tudung.

Faisal noted that the rule has deterred many Muslim women from taking up such roles.

In his reply, Masagos said,"Allowing tudungs will raise a very visible religious marker that identifies every tudung-wearing female nurse or uniform officer as a Muslim. This has significant implications."

Explaining that the uniform is a "visible sign that service is rendered equally regardless of race or religion", Masagos added, "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."

Dr Maliki Osman, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, also weighed in, citing Islamic scholars who have advised Muslims to make appropriate adjustments to a pluralistic society while staying true to their faith.

"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."

'A lot of misunderstandings'

At Tuesday's engagement session, Shanmugam, who is also an MP for Nee Soon, claimed there were "a lot of misunderstandings" about Masagos and Maliki's comments.

"The clearest indications of our position is what I said to you six months ago. Mr Masagos and 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."

Shanmugam noted that in previous closed door engagements, 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 wearing of the tudung.

“In public, we are careful of how all of this is discussed. So, on tudung, Mr 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 that nurses be allowed to wear the tudung. It is to signal flexibility. He didn’t say 'no'.”

Consultations with the community

At a separate event on Tuesday, Masagos reiterated that the government came to the view some time ago that it will likely change its position. However, the issue was connected to other factors so it has to be carefully considered.

“We wanted to assure Malay-Muslim leaders that the government was taking their views seriously and considering how we can make adjustments."

He added, "In my Committee of Supply speech (in Parliament), 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."

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