Malay/Muslim groups, MPs welcome shift in position on letting nurses wear tudung at work

Proponents say identity markers including gender and religion do not impact the quality of work.
Proponents say identity markers including gender and religion do not impact the quality of work.ST PHOTO: YONG LI XUAN

SINGAPORE - The oldest Muslim women's group here has applauded the likely change in stance on nurses wearing the tudung at work, saying it looks forward to continuing engagement with the Government and community to encourage understanding and acceptance.

"A supportive ecosystem is fundamental in creating an equitable society for women - one in which diversity and inclusion are cultivated in shared social spaces, including workplaces," said the president of the Singapore Muslim Women's Association (PPIS), Madam Hazlina Abdul Halim, on Wednesday (March 24).

"Identity markers including gender and religion do not impact the quality of work. Professionals must be respected for their expertise and skills while performance appraisal should be based on merit," she added.

She also said that the conversation has to go on, "because together, we can do more to eradicate stereotypes which lead to unfair employment practices".

PPIS was among several Muslim groups that commended the shift in the Government's position to consider allowing nurses to wear the tudung as part of their uniform, which was disclosed by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday (March 23).

In a Facebook post, the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) said that it was heartened by the "positive development" on the matter.

The group thanked the Government for taking the step to review the rules, following discussions with religious leaders and religious teachers.

"We will continue our efforts in serving the Muslim community to our best ability and we stand united and firm in upholding our religious harmony," it said.

Its president, Ustaz Hasbi Hassan, had earlier said discussions on the issue had been held among asatizah, or religious teachers, but they were not made public to respect the closed-door nature of these engagements.

Mr Shanmugam's comments on Tuesday, at a dialogue with senior Islamic religious leaders, reiterated what he had told a previous closed-door dialogue in August last year. He said the Government could see good reasons to make the change, was discussing this internally, and consulting the community and other groups.

"Our view is there is likely to be a change," the minister said, adding that discussions will take a few more months, after which a decision would be announced. Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli also made similar comments on Tuesday.

Their latest statements come two weeks after remarks in Parliament by Mr Masagos and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman on the subject sparked a critical reaction among some in the community, even as they said they empathised with nurses who wished to wear the tudung at work.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Dr Maliki said of his colleagues' latest statements: "This is how we progress on sensitive/delicate issues - this is the Singapore way - in a calm and considerate manner, through deliberate dialogues and consultations with the community. This is how the Malay/Muslim community has been approaching such issues."

He also said that in his speech, he assured the community that Malay/Muslim leaders take this matter seriously.

He wrote: "At the heart of our approach was our desire to protect the harmony we have built with our communities, and that this did not mean that our position was cast in stone, and had in fact signalled flexibility."

He noted that in closed-door engagements with fellow Singaporeans, they candidly discussed the different sensitivities and trade-offs.

"There is broad recognition that even as more diversity and inclusivity is allowed at workplaces, the country's racial and religious harmony should not be compromised," he added.

"We need to continue to consult, and see how best to carefully make this shift. I hope my fellow Singaporeans will participate actively when called upon in the spirit of racial and religious harmony," said Dr Maliki.

Several Malay/Muslim MPs also applauded the shift in position, but underscored the sensitive nature of the issue and the need to be careful when discussing it.

Chua Chu Kang MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim said the updates were the result of careful deliberations and discussions with religious and community leaders.

"As a father of two daughters, I also dream of a future where the opportunities for our children are aplenty, limited only by their potential or abilities, regardless of their race, beliefs or what they choose to wear," he wrote on Facebook.

"I also agree and acknowledge that given our multiracial and religious society, this issue is sensitive and should be addressed carefully and away from public glare. As we await the Government's decision on this issue, let us as a society continue to be united in our collective efforts to find the best resolution."

Jalan Besar GRC MP Wan Rizal Wan Zakariah noted that the decision to review the policy was not an easy one, as it is a sensitive issue in Singapore's multicultural and multi-religious context.

"We want to sustain the harmonious living that we have here. At the same time, we need to be rational and flexible when it comes to policies which affect employment," he wrote.

"I am sure that a lot of us welcome this decision."

But not all reactions have been positive. On Wednesday, religious teacher Ustaz Zahid Zin shared a photo on Facebook of what appeared to be a yellow envelope with a derogatory term written on it. He said it was placed on his car while he was having breakfast.

Ustaz Zahid had, the day before, posted about the importance of closed-door discussions for sensitive issues, and shared a photo of one engagement with Mr Masagos.

"This is precisely why discussions were held (behind) closed doors. Issues raised are close to the heart," he said on Wednesday. "People have strong emotional attachment to it but not many have the strength to discuss it gently and diligently."