The Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zulkifli, has lashed out at Workers’ Party Member of Parliament, Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap, for raising “divisive” issues in the House.
At the heart of Mr Masagos’ concerns is how the constant airing of such “sensitive” issues would “stir the community.”
The minister said “there is a right time, a right place and right way” to discuss such matters.
“The way to make progress is gradually and quietly, working under the radar to strengthen mutual trust and understanding among Singaporeans, so that we can move forward step by step,” he said.
The minister’s criticism came after Mr Faisal’s latest parliamentary question asking for the Government to allow Muslim nurses and uniformed officers to wear the tudung (a Muslim headscarf) at work.
Mr Masagos also pointed out that Mr Faisal had previously raised other “potentially discordant” issues as well, such as halal kitchens in navy ships and the perceived discrimination of Malays in the Singapore Armed Forces.
In his response to the accusations from the minister, Mr Faisal said that as an elected MP, he had a right to raise issues of concerns from his community in Parliament.
He added that since he was elected in 2011, he had raised the tudung issue and asked for the Government to address it.
“How does that cause divisiveness and discord?” he asked.
Saying that Mr Faisal “does not need to intend to sow discord” in raising these issues, Mr Masagos said nevertheless by doing so, Mr Faisal has “subtly and frequently [brought] issues that are sensitive to the community, knowing (they are) not easy to resolve and cleverly turning it into a state versus religion issue.”
“These are all very dangerous moves,” the minister said.
“It leaves a feeling of (something) unresolved and unsolvable, and impatience that one day I believe will explode,” Mr Masagos said. “Is that what Mr Faisal wants?”
Mr Faisal had also raised the tudung issue in Parliament last month (March), where he said that “the Malay/Muslim community is also concerned about Muslim women being allowed to wear the tudung when serving in uniformed groups like the army, the Home team and nurses.”
“I sincerely hope that the Government can do something to address the concerns of the community,” he said.
The tudung issue has been raised several times by various quarters in recent years, including from PAP MPs.
In 2016, PAP MP for Jurong GRC, Rahayu Mahzam, also spoke on the matter in Parliament.
“One other thing that is constantly in the minds of our community is the tudung issue,” she told the House. “As a woman who wears tudung, I definitely hope that all women can pursue their career of choice. Hence, I hope this can be reviewed, and flexibility be given where possible, so that there will not be too many barriers for women to choose their own careers.”
Ms Rahayu also called for more open dialogues in such matters.
“Our efforts in encouraging racial and religious harmony can no longer be at a superficial level of attending each other’s cultural events. We should allow for space to talk about our identities, our religious practices such as the burning of incense paper, the wearing of the tudung, the playing of music during Thaipusam, for example. And there should be open dialogues as such conversations allow for better understanding of each other’s concerns.”
In 2015, PAP MP for Choa Chu Kang, Zaqy Mohammad, had talked about “the increase of religiosity and issues like the wearing of the tudung as part of a ‘new normal’ in governance and society in Singapore.” (See here.)
Mr Zaqy, along with Mr Faisal, had also called for the authorities “to provide more space for the discussion of identity and religion.” (See here.)
In 2013, the Suara Musyawarah committee, which is tasked to gather feedback from the Malay/Muslim community, said “that many girls coming out of madrasahs would work as nurses if they could wear the headscarf.”
“The reason given for not allowing this is that tudungs are not part of nurses’ uniforms,” the Straits Times reported then.
In his speech in 2015 at the Community Leaders’ Conference organised by OnePeople.sg, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that race and religion remain “difficult and sensitive” issues for any society.
He said while there is room for open discussion, it would be unwise to assume there is no need to be careful when dealing with such matters.
“We discuss things more openly now,” PM Lee said. “Even sensitive matters, we discuss openly in mixed groups and we speak candidly with one another from the heart. But it is very unwise to assume that we do not have to be careful, that we do not have to be sensitive when we are dealing with issues of race and religion.”
When interviewed about the issue in 2016, Mr Masagos was asked whether the government can be more flexible on allowing discussion of identity and religion, including the wearing of the tudung.
The minister said, “We may feel that the time is right for us to discuss it amongst ourselves or with the other races. But it can also easily lead us to open old wounds that can instigate riots, and we do not want this to happen.”
Religious matters, he said, belong in the domain of scholars who “not only possess deep knowledge, but they also practice and impart religion wisely.”
Noting that “some people like to interfere in such matters, especially if they can politicise it”, Mr Masagos added: “This will make a particular issue turn into something more complicated than what it was initially.”
Asked if there are any new developments in the discussion about the issues concerning religion, race or the wearing of the tudung, Mr Masagos replied:
“All matters pertaining to any religion are often discussed in the Cabinet and we do look at ways to lead society to be more open, more accepting. But we are careful in doing this.”