SINGAPORE - Muslim leaders were told some six months ago that the Government is considering allowing nurses to wear the tudung at work, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Tuesday (March 23).
He had said then the Government was discussing this internally as it could see good reasons to make this change, he disclosed. He added that the Government would announce the outcome after consulting the community and other groups.
"Our view is there is likely to be a change," the minister said at a dialogue with senior Muslim religious leaders at the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang Road.
Three of the leaders at the meeting last August - Ustaz Mohamad Hasbi Hassan, president of the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas), as well as Pergas' elders council members Ustaz Ali Mohamed and Ustaz Pasuni Maulan - were also present on Tuesday and confirmed that he had delivered those remarks then.
Ustaz Hasbi told reporters the update was welcome and a positive step, saying: "We did not raise the matter publicly because the discussions were closed door."
Mr Shanmugam said that discussions are ongoing and will take a few more months.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will also meet community leaders.
The minister's comments come two weeks after two Malay/Muslim ministers' speeches in Parliament on the issue drew a reaction from some in the community.
On Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam made clear that at a previous closed-door dialogue he had at the same mosque on Aug 31 last year, Ustaz Hasbi had asked him about the issue of nurses wearing the tudung, or headscarf.
The minister replied at the time that the Government can see good reasons to allow nurses to don the tudung if they choose to do so - a point he reiterated on Tuesday.
He said the Government was consulting the community before making a change, and had discussed the matter with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) and taken into account its views, which were helpful.
On Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam also said that this position on the issue is consistent with what Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli and Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Maliki Osman told Parliament on March 8.
Mr Masagos had said the Government empathises with nurses who wish to wear the tudung as part of their uniform, and the matter was being discussed. He also said they had been engaging the nurses, as well as union leaders, religious teachers and others.
Dr Maliki also told Parliament then there is consensus that the issue is a sensitive one and best discussed behind closed doors.
Mr Shanmugam said that as Mr Masagos was making his remarks in public, he was more careful. Mr Masagos' response meant that the Government understands the feelings of those who wish nurses to be allowed to wear the tudung.
"It is to signal flexibility," he said. "He did not say no. Unfortunately, (there's been) lots of misunderstanding about what ministers Masagos and Maliki have said."
"The clearest indication of our position is what I said to you six months ago. Minister Masagos and I were both stating the Government's position. But because he was speaking in public, in Parliament, he had to be more general, whereas I could be more direct with you, in private."
Mr Shanmugam added that in his remarks to the senior religious leaders last year, he had spoken of how women wear the tudung in many government departments, and in most areas in healthcare.
"Our President wears tudung. In Parliament, MPs wear tudung," he said. "I also said: If you only look at that one point, nurses wearing tudung, it would not be an issue. The rules would have been changed long ago. But it was connected to other factors, so we had to make careful considerations."
He did not elaborate on Tuesday.
But the minister said the Government had to weigh the different considerations against each other, and reach a judgment.
"We spoke frankly, behind closed doors. In private, I was able to share with you candidly our position, and the sensitivities and difficulties that we worry about," Mr Shanmugam said. "In public, we are careful about how all of this is discussed."
In a separate statement on Tuesday, Minister Masagos noted that Malay/Muslim MPs have relayed views from the Malay/Muslim community on the issue to the Cabinet, and spoken to different groups for some time.
"These conversations are mostly held behind closed-doors, and we discussed frankly the different trade-offs. Most understood why some give and take is needed as we live in a multi-religious country where the preservation of common secular spaces should be a priority," he said.
"The Government can see good reasons why Muslim nurses can be given more flexibility to wear the tudung if they choose to do so. We came to this view some time ago, and were likely to change the current position. But the issue is connected to other factors, so it has to be carefully considered."