Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli yesterday criticised an opposition MP's tendency to raise divisive issues relating to the Malay/Muslim community in Parliament.
At the debate on supporting the aspirations of women in Singapore, Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) called for Muslim nurses and uniformed officers to be allowed to wear the tudung at work.
He said countries like Australia and Britain allowed this, and asked when Singapore would do so.
Responding, Mr Masagos said he found Mr Faisal's approach "worrisome", as he had used the motion "to focus on differences instead of rallying people to be united".
"He dwells on issues that can injure or hurt the feelings of the community rather than inspire them. In fact, Mr Faisal has used many occasions to raise potentially discordant issues in this House," he said.
NOT THE WAY TO GO
Parliament is the forum for serious discussion on important issues. This Parliament has not shied away from discussing difficult or contentious matters - last November we had a vigorous debate on changes to the Elected Presidency.
However, some sensitive issues of race and religion have no easy or immediate solutions. The best way to make progress on them is quietly, outside the glare of publicity. Championing divisive issues publicly, to pressure the Government and win communal votes, will only stir up emotions and damage our multiracial harmony.
In the debate on Aspirations Of Singapore Women, WP MP Faisal Manap brought up the tudung issue again. Minister Masagos Zulkifli challenged Mr Faisal and explained why this was unwise. He spoke with courage and conviction.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG
He cited issues Mr Faisal raised in past sittings, such as the need for halal kitchens in navy ships and the perceived discrimination against Malays in the armed forces.
He asked: "Is it his or his party's position that these issues are the top concerns of the community?"
The minister said Mr Faisal's approach needled the community's sensitivity "subtly and frequently".
"It leaves a lingering feeling of (something) unsolved and unsolvable, and impatience that one day I believe will explode. Is that what Mr Faisal wants?" he asked.
Mr Masagos noted that the Government had replied to Mr Faisal's queries before. He would not say more but stressed that "we are in a multiracial society and we all have a role to play to enlarge our common space".
Religion is important, he said.
"I, too, want to see progress in the tudung issue and religious matters that are dear to Muslims," he added.
But government and community leaders of all races and faiths were discussing such deeply emotive matters behind closed doors.
"There is a right time, a right place and right way to discuss this," he said. "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."
In contrast, championing issues "in a higher-profile way like the member always does once in a while, using them to score political points, will not strengthen trust".
"It will only raise the temperature and actually make the problems harder to solve," Mr Masagos said.
He cited an old social media post by Mr Faisal, in which he posed for a photo during the Wear White campaign in 2014 with Zulfikar Shariff, who was arrested under the Internal Security Act last year for his support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Mr Masagos said: "It makes us wonder whether it is Mr Faisal who is supporting Mr Zulfikar or Mr Zulfikar supporting Mr Faisal, or are they together in this because of a common cause."
Mr Faisal replied that he was there to support only Wear White, which opposes homosexuality. "I'm not so sure what's behind (the) minister's mind when he tried to link me to Zulfikar, and I'm a bit distraught by his effort to paint me negatively."
He disagreed he was sowing discord and said that as an elected MP, he had the right to voice the concerns of his community in Parliament.
Mr Masagos said Mr Faisal was "not repentant or apologetic", and "insists his strident approach is the correct way", although it puts Singapore's racial harmony at risk.
"If each community pushes its own claims aggressively, there will be pushback, there will be animosity," said the minister.
Citing the case of the imam who was on Monday found guilty of offensive remarks on Christians and Jews and fined, and the ensuing calm reaction all round, he added that this was because Singapore had tended to its racial and religious harmony fastidiously.
Mr Faisal replied that all he had been asking since he was elected was for the Government to address the issue: "How does that cause divisiveness and discord?"
Mr Masagos pointed to his "practice of subtly and frequently bringing 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. I actually wonder whether the WP and its leadership are committed to the racial and religious harmony which underpins the security of this country," he added.
"Do you want to go back to the politics of race and religion of the 1960s, the politics we wanted to avoid when we left Malaysia? If we don't want that, why do we let a member constantly raise these issues to stir the community?"