SINGAPORE: The public service's policy on uniforms cannot be tilted towards any particular religious beliefs, said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli on Monday (Mar 8) as he responded to a suggestion by MP Faisal Manap (WP-Aljunied) to allow Muslim nurses to wear the tudung as part of their uniform.
Mr Faisal had raised the issue during his Budget debate speech on Feb 24, saying that the rule barring Muslim women from wearing the headscarf with their uniform has deterred some from taking up nursing.
On Monday, Mr Masagos noted the contributions of Muslim women to the nation and society, but said the Government's secular stand has been “consistently clear” when it comes to policymaking.
“This is our approach when dealing even-handedly with requests from different religious groups, especially when it affects our common spaces,” he said in Parliament.
Explaining why the uniform policy in the public service cannot be tilted towards any religious belief, Mr Masagos said that in services that play a critical role in society, the uniform is a "visible sign that service is rendered equally regardless of race or religion".
"Allowing tudungs will raise a very visible religious marker that identifies every tudung-wearing female nurse or uniform officer as a Muslim. This has significant implications," he added.
"We don't want patients to prefer or not prefer to be served by a Muslim nurse, nor do we want people to think that public security is being enforced by a Muslim or non-Muslim officer.
"This is what makes the decision difficult and sensitive."
Any government concession to religious pressure could cause other groups to adopt a similar aggressive posture, and race and religion will become increasingly polarising, Mr Masagos said.
“This will harm all of us, especially the minority community," he added.
This is why the People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs and the Government have, after discussion, decided to take the approach of “careful closed-door discussions”, as they understand the “complexity and sensitivity” of the issue, said Mr Masagos, who is also Minister for Social and Family Development.
He added that the Government previously engaged unions, religious teachers and “respected members of the community”, who “understand why (the Government) has adopted (its) current approach” on uniforms in the public service.
While expressing his empathy for Muslim women torn between their religious and professional duties, Mr Masagos said: "However, workplaces are an important part of the common experience that we share with Singaporeans, and we must not withdraw from them.
"As a community, we have been adept at making adaptations and adjustments, while at the same time being able to practise our religion."
Acknowledging that Mr Faisal might not agree with this approach, Mr Masagos said that the heart of the Government’s approach is to “protect the precious harmony” built in Singapore over the years.
“This desire to protect racial and religious harmony is aligned with Islamic teaching … Hence, we must be respectful of the secular nature of our state and maintain our common space, even as we look for outcomes that will fulfil the aspirations of our community,” he said.