The tudung issue is once again in the spotlight, after Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap raised it in Parliament this week. Mr Faisal had also spoken on the issue at last month’s parliamentary sitting.
His call, for the government to allow the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in the uniformed services, drew criticism from the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Masagos Zukifli.
The minister accused the WP MP of constantly raising “potentially discordant” issues which would “stir the community.” He said that such issues should be dealt with behind closed doors, rather than in public.
Mr Faisal, in response, said it was his right to highlight issues which the Malay/Muslim community was concerned about.
Reaction to the exchange and the issue of the tudung (hijab) has been split – with some agreeing with Mr Masagos’ position and others siding with Mr Faisal.
But has the government been silent or ignored the Muslim community’s call to allow the headscarf to be worn at the workplace, as some are saying?
A constant issue
In the last few years especially, People’s Action Party MPs have indeed been asking the government to review its position on the matter. And the government, for its part, has held closed-doors meetings with Muslim PAP MPs and with Muslim leaders to discuss the issue.
For example, the question was raised in July 2013 when the Suara Musyawarah committee, a group set up to gather feedback from the Malay-Muslim community, related in its report instances of Muslim workers, such as health-care professionals in restructured hospitals, being told they could not wear the headscarf.
According to a Straits Times’ report, the committee pointed out that “there are scores of girls coming out of madrasahs who would gladly work as nurses, but would want to wear headscarves.”
2 months later, in September 2013, a Chinese polytechnic lecturer asked in a public forum why Malay-Muslim nurses were being barred from wearing the tudung.
His question arose from what he had been told by his students in a health sciences school. They had been instructed to remove their headscarves before going on clinical attachments or starting full-time work in hospitals.
“How much are we as a society willing to tolerate differences that different members of a population bring?” he asked.
His question led to a wider public debate, especially online.
There was also a Facebook group called The Singapore Hijab Movement launched, and the Fellowship of Muslim Students Association also weighed in and said it wanted the issue to be discussed further.
PM Lee holds dialogue with PAP’s Muslim MPs
All this led to the Prime Minister holding a closed-door meeting with Malay-Muslim MPs of the PAP to discuss the issue in November that year.
“PM stressed that his aim was to create an environment where Muslims and other faiths can practise their religions freely and peacefully,” Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, the Minister-in-charge-of-Muslim Affairs, told the media after the meeting. “But he also explained why we must manage and balance the diverse needs of our multi-racial and multi-religious society. Hence the need for accommodation and compromise by all parties.”
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who was also at the meeting, said, “Dr Yaacob and the Malay/Muslim MPs have raised the hijab issue on a number of occasions, along with other issues which the community sees as important.”
DPM Teo said the Government “support the aspirations” of the community.
Nonetheless, Mr Teo said if every community “presses for its own concerns”, it must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it.
“That is the reality of living in a multi-racial, multi-religious society that we all have to internalise,” he said.
PAP MP Zainal Sapari said DPM Teo’s statement does not mean that there will be no change to the policy.
“The PAP Malay MPs will continue to push this agenda… If the societal climate is right, then a change in policy is possible,” Mr Sapari said.
In January 2014, the issue made its way to Parliament, with the WP MP, Pritam Singh, asking the prime minister if he will consider studying the feasibility of accommodating the wearing of the hijab by Muslim staff with the heads of the uniformed services in their organisations subject to considerations such as operational exigencies.
In his reply, DPM Teo said, “Officers are required to wear uniforms in certain services. Uniforms are to project the common identity of the service, and not just to meet operational requirements. Allowing variations would detract from this. In particular, by disallowing variations for religious reasons, we visibly uphold the secular nature of the Government and reassure citizens that they will receive key services fairly and impartially regardless of race or religion.”
PM Lee holds another meeting – with Muslim leaders
Later the same month, PM Lee held another closed-door meeting to discuss the issue, this time with some 100 leaders and representatives from the Malay-Muslim community, in what was described as a frank exchange.
Saying that he understood the community’s views on the tudung issue, PM Lee explained that the Government’s policy since Independence has been to build a multiracial society, one in which minority communities are not marginalised or feel oppressed, and which can practise their religious faiths to the maximum extent possible.
Singapore, however, cannot take any “precipitous changes”, when it comes to such matters, he said.
Noting that the tudung question first surfaced in 2002 over whether Muslim schoolgirls should be allowed to wear it in schools, PM Lee said 10 years later, the question has become whether it should be allowed in the workplace.
He said the Government’s position has not been static, and in fact has “gradually moved”, without anyone really noticing it. For example, there are more statutory boards which had more corporate officers wearing the tudung, he said.
“I think that’s really the best way to do it,” he explained. “This is not the sort of thing where you want to put all your attention on this item and measure the progress of either racial relations or the progress of the Muslim community based on this one item.”
PM Lee added: “You do not want to make precipitous changes, moves, which can lead to either a push-back from the other communities, which can lead to further demands from the other communities which can lead to a weakening of our multiracial ties.”
Many platforms for consultations and dialogues
In March 2014 in Parliament, Mr Faisal said “the dialogue that was conducted with the representatives of the Malay community was more of a platform for the Government to convey its stance rather than a dialogue.”
“This is because the Government has already come to the decision of not allowing [the] hijab to be worn prior to the dialogue session instead of making a decision at or after the session,” he said.
He said instead, the “more constructive approach would be public consultations conducted with different stakeholders and the different ethnic communities.”
“Public engagement and consultations that adopt a more transparent, forthright and comprehensive approach will allow us to better understand the issues at large, the context and the nuances behind each issue,” Mr Faisal said.
In response to Mr Faisal, the then Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Lawrence Wong, said there are indeed “many platforms for consultations and dialogues.”
“Some of them are open, some of them are closed door, depending on the nature of the topic,” Mr Wong said.
“On occasion, some of the issues we discussed have to be done behind closed doors,” Mr Wong explained. “That is because we know that there are sensitive issues that need to be addressed and not all issues lend themselves well to an open discussion, which may end up causing different groups to raise their demands that they want, reduce the common space that we share and raise temperatures. We do not think that is a useful approach.”
MPs not letting go of the issue
The issue was raised again in January 2016 by PAP MPs Rahayu Mahzam and Zaqy Mohamad.
“One other thing that is constantly in the minds of our community is the tudung issue,” Ms Rahayu 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.”
Mr Zaqy pointed to what he said is the “new normal” when it comes to certain religious practices, and said “how the Government handles issues concerning Muslims and inter-faith [sic] must evolve.”
He cited the example of how the hijab is now becoming “mainstream”, even in fashion.
“If you look the consumer groups today, hijab wear is big online,” Mr Zaqy said. “Even global brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and H&M, which are mainstream brands, have shifted to embrace hijab fashion as the mainstream.”
“So, that is the “new normal” that we stand,” he said. “So, it is not just about religion but, really, how it has come to mainstream as a fashion statement and how people dress.”
In February, Mr Masagos himself spoke again about the tudung during an interview with
the Malay-language current affairs programme, Bicara.
He said, among other things, that “[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.”
In March, Mr Faisal again raised his point about allowing the tudung to be worn in the uniformed services.
He repeated his point in the April sitting of Parliament, which led to Mr Masagos accusing him of raising “divisive” issues in the House to score political points.
“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,” Mr Masagos said.
It is quite clear that the hijab issue is a dear one to the Malay-Muslim community, given that not only has opposition MPs been raising it in Parliament but also PAP MPs. It has, contrary to what some are saying, also drawn attention at the highest level in government, from the prime minister and the deputy prime minister.
So, it is fair to say that the government takes the issue very seriously indeed.
Nonetheless, while one can understand the government’s concerns that public debates or discussions of such issues may degenerate into meaningless arguments, or worse, creating enmity between segments of our society, perhaps we should take courage in how Singaporeans have handled such instances in the past.
In 2011, for example, when former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew made disparaging remarks about Muslims, Singaporeans did not riot in the streets or looked on one another with suspicion.
Instead, Singaporeans found Mr Lee’s remarks questionable, as had the government’s own ministers, and spoke out firmly against Mr Lee’s misguided views. Mr Lee, to his credit, accepted he was wrong and apologised.
It is thus perhaps time to have a little faith in our own citizens, and allow such issues to be discussed publicly, so that we can all learn from each other, and in the process strengthen the harmony, trust and understanding which we have fostered these past 50 years.
Otherwise, how will non-Muslim Singaporeans understand why the hijab is so important an issue for our Malay-Muslim brethrens? And isn’t disallowing public discussion the reason why progress on the issue has been so slow in the first place?