TL;DR – It was a disappointing exchange.
Parliament debated a motion about women’s aspirations recently.
If you tried to google for it now, most of the top results you get won’t be about the actual debate. Instead, most of the top results will be about the exchange between Faisal bin Abdul Manap of the Workers’ Party (WP) and Minister Masagos Zulkifli.
Even our Prime Minister weighed in on this in his Facebook post.
That exchange was sparked when Mr Faisal Manap asked that Muslim ladies who want to work as nurses and uniformed officers be allowed to wear the tudung. That resulted in Minister Masagos to chide Mr Faisal Manap for “subtly and frequently needling” the Malay/Muslim community. Minister Masagos said that “there is a right time, a right place and right way” to discuss such matters. According to Minister Masagos:
“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”
Minister Masagos seemed to have forgotten that Mr Faisal Manap isn’t the only MP who has asked the government to review this tudung issue. PAP’s MP for Jurong GRC, Ms Rahayu Mahzam, in her maiden speech in Parliament on 29 January 2016, said this:
“One other thing in the minds of our community is the tudung issue. As a woman who wears the tudung, I hope that all women can pursue their career choice and I hope this can be reviewed and flexibility be given where possible so that they can choose their own careers.”
Why didn’t Minister Masagos rise to chide Ms Rahayu in Parliament then? Is there any substantive difference between what Mr Faisal Manap said and what Ms Rahayu said that deserved the different treatment from Minister Masagos? Or was it just because Mr Faisal Manap is from WP and thus we must automatically impute some nefarious intent to what Mr Faisal Manap said?
Beyond the apparent double standards, there is a deeper issue. It’s one of trust. The government has shown, once again, that it doesn’t have confidence in Singaporeans. Instead of providing rational explanations why we don’t allow Muslim ladies who want to work as nurses or in the uniformed services to wear the tudung, Minister Masagos chose to bury and evade the issue.
Why? Is Minister Masagos not confident that the Muslim community is able to accept rational explanations? Or is Minister Masagos worried that the Muslim community won’t be willing to continue making some sacrifices for the greater good of the whole Singapore? Or perhaps there are just no good reasons for not allowing Muslim ladies who want to work in those jobs to wear the tudung?
No. That’s not true. There are good rational explanations for the current policy. Singaporean writer, poet and playwright, Alfian Sa’at, explained it most coherently here.
The two reasons Alfian highlighted are:
- Risks of Cross-Infection
This applies specifically to nursing. Muslim women who wear the tudung will also wear long sleeves (that’s part of the whole practice). These can harbour microbes from patients that nurses come into contact with, which can be potentially passed on to other patients. In fact, many hospitals all over the world practise ‘bare below the elbows’. When you wear short sleeves, then you can scrub your forearms after contact with a patient and you minimise this risk. But with long sleeves, you can’t. This is a very real risk as patients’ lives and safety are at stake, especially since superbugs thrive in hospital environments.
- Neutrality of the Public Service
This is a tricky issue, because it depends on public perception of the attitudes and world views of a public servant who wears the hijab. Wearing a uniform is one way to efface one’s religious identity, which contributes to the impression that one has no religious bias when dealing with members of the public. This is a blurry area, because there is no way to effectively efface one’s own race, and one is thus always open to charges of racial bias–such as racial profiling, for example.
If Minister Masagos had explained it like that, would the Muslim community not agree that, for the greater good of Singapore, there are some roles which Muslim ladies cannot be allowed to wear tudung? I believe most Muslims will. I believe that most Muslims, after hearing those explanations, will accept that, for the greater good of Singapore, they must continue to make certain sacrifices.
After all, it’s not just Muslims who have to make sacrifices. Minister Masagos rightly pointed out that Singapore has remained as a harmonious society “not because every community is given its rights, but because each community has sacrificed something that is very precious to them for the sake of that harmony”.
And, as a non-Muslim, I am deeply appreciative of the sacrifices that my Muslim friends make. More so now that it has been raised in Parliament.
More than that, I hope that Singapore and Singaporeans will be a mature enough society where we can openly discuss the sacrifices that each community has made. I believe that these discussions will help us appreciate one another even more, and work together to keep reducing the sacrifices that each community has to make without compromising the greater good of Singapore.
I believe that that’s the best way to protect and grow the very precious racial and religious harmony that we now have.