SINGAPORE: Championing divisive issues publicly, to pressure the Government and win communal votes, will only stir up emotions and damage Singapore's multi-racial harmony, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said late Tuesday (Apr 4).
Mr Lee was commenting on an exchange in Parliament between Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament Faisal Manap and Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli on the issue of Muslim women not being allowed to wear headscarves in uniformed services.
The exchange on Tuesday, took place during the debate in parliament on the proposal to express support for women in Singapore.
“Parliament is the forum for serious discussion on important issues. This Parliament has not shied away from discussing difficult or contentious matters,” Mr Lee wrote on Facebook, citing vigorous debate on changes to the Elected Presidency. But he said 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,” he said.
MP Faisal Manap, in his speech during the debate, noted that many Members of Parliament had called for unanimous support for the motion to affirm the role of Singaporean women in fulfilling their career and familial aspirations.
Mr Faisal said he hoped they would not exclude Singaporean Muslim women who also want to fulfill their career aspirations in line with their religious obligations "which is in allowing the wearing of the headscarf in the nursing and uniform vocations such as in the Home Team and armed forces."
The WP MP was then asked by MP Tan Wu Meng whether the tudung issue is the most important faced by Muslim women today and for his personal and his party's views.
"As a Muslim husband, and father to a daughter, yes it is obligation for Muslim women to don a hijab in whatever circumstances,” Mr Faisal replied. “In terms of the party stand on this, Workers' Party had actually issued a statement in November 2013, where the gist of the statement is that WP does not oppose wearing of the tudung, but we call for more dialogues among stakeholders, as well as larger community and it should be based on mutual understanding.”
Mr Masagos labelled Mr Faisal’s approach “worrisome”. “He has used this motion, which is focused on the aspirations of all women in Singapore to raise again the issue of the tudung, 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 to inspire them,” he said.
He also said the WP MP has used many occasions to raise “politically discordant” issues in the House.
“I sat and listened to him many times, champion divisive issues many times - like the need for Halal kitchens in our naval ships, and his perceived discrimination of the Malays in the army. Is it his or his party's position that these issues are the top concerns of the community? There are real socio-economic problems we have to deal with in our community -education, housing, jobs,” Mr Masagos said.
Government leaders and community leaders of all races and religions have been actively discussing sensitive and deeply emotive matters in a number of closed-door platforms, he said. “I caution the member against making this a state versus religion issue," he stated.
Mr Faisal defended his move, pointing to the sensitive issues of race being touched on in parliamentary debates on changes to the Elected Presidency. “If not, where else can I as an elected MP voice out the concerns of the community?"
In response, Mr Masagos said he personally has spoken about the issue as far back as 2002 and was involved in discussions with the Government on similar issues about uniforms in schools. “Did I have a platform? Yes I do. Did I have to go out and try to wreak havoc? I did not.”
He continued: “Finally, the outcome of that episode was one that the Mufti - knowing very well what is the priority of our community - made a statement to tell us that knowledge is important for us to pursue, and not just covering of heads.”
The community moved on because community leaders came together to calm the situation down, Mr Masagos said. “I bet you a similar situation elsewhere will not happen. It will continue to rile the community, it will continue to make the community upset because nobody will cede what is their right."