Thursday, 6 April 2017

Wearing of tudung at work: Masagos questions Faisal Manap's motives for raising divisive issues in Parliament

Masagos criticises Faisal for raising divisive issues
By Charissa Yong, The Straits Times, 5 Apr 2017

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.

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?"


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.


Championing divisive issues publicly could damage Singapore's harmony: PM Lee
Channel NewsAsia, 5 Apr 2017

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." 

Religion's place in Parliament, politics and policy

By Mohammad Alami Musa, Published The Straits Times, 12 May 2017

The crossing of swords in Parliament last month between Minister Masagos Zulkifli and opposition MP Faisal Manap on a religious issue (wearing of tudung by nurses and uniformed officers) provides an opportunity to reflect on the appropriateness of bringing religion into parliamentary debates.

"Mr Masagos pointed to his (Mr Faisal's) practice of subtly and frequently bringing issues that are sensitive to the community, knowing (they are) not easy to resolve and cleverly turning them into state-versus-religion issues… He (Mr Faisal) 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." (The Straits Times, April 5).

The question to deal with is whether issues of religion can be raised in Parliament, which is the apex political institution that defends the secular nature of the Singapore state.

The above question seems easy to answer but it is not so. This is due to the complexities of Singaporean society that is religious in character. Eighty-three per cent of the populace have religious affiliations and the remaining 17 per cent have moral sensibilities, although they do not profess any religion. Religion is central in the lives of a majority of Singaporeans; it is intertwined with many aspects of life and cannot be ignored even within the secular setting.

One response is to address the above question from the perspective of politics and policy. In his National Day Rally speech of 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the 2Ps of politics and policy and reiterated that the Government must get them right to secure people's trust and confidence.

One important way to ensure that Singapore gets its politics right is to ensure that there is strictly no mixing of politics with religion. Raising issues of religion in Parliament for the sake of winning political support or gaining political mileage is politicising religion and this is against secularism.

Nevertheless, secularism is more than the simple separation of politics from religion or the neutrality of state towards religion. Secularism is essential because it is only with a secular state ideology that tolerance of differences in beliefs and persuasions can exist. Furthermore, a state that does not show any favour to a religion or belief can better arbitrate among the many contending interests, wants and needs of various groups in a religiously diverse society.

The nature of politics is that it is likely to be contentious. Its mix with religion will make politics even more contentious. Politics is the exercise of power, and the pursuit of religious demands or goals through politics in Parliament will give rise to a clash of interests and conflict among diverse religious groups. This can lead to disharmony and disunity.


However, it is recognised that religion is important to Singaporeans. In a religiously diverse country experiencing rising religiosity, the Government cannot be indifferent to religions. It has to assume stewardship over religion with regard to the social and political implications of rising religiosity. The Government does this through the lever of policy to ensure that the religious practices of any community do not contravene public order, public hygiene, national security, public safety and good governance requirements. Examples include the practice of ritual slaughter, playing of musical instruments during a street procession and the soliciting of public donations for religious purposes. The state must regulate these and many other aspects of religious life to the extent that they affect the general well- being of Singaporean society. As the state is involved in these matters, issues of religion will find their way into Parliament, either as policy pronouncements by the Government or as points of debate among parliamentarians.

The state's commitment is to secure the overall well-being of society through maintenance of public order, social stability, defence against external threats, enforcement of contracts and long-term economic prosperity. The Government has to be fully in charge to deliver all these "public-interest goods". This means that all institutions and groups - temporal and spiritual - need to accept the reality that they have to be subordinated to the state. Nevertheless, the Constitution upholds the freedom of practice of religion and beliefs.

Singapore's secularism is unique in many ways. While it curtails the encroachment of religion into politics, as institutionalised within the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the state accommodates the need for religion to assume a public presence to a certain extent. As many aspects of religious life have implications for society, the Government needs to be in charge through the instrument of policy to ensure the well-being of all citizens, regardless of faith or persuasion.

The main argument for religious communities to leave to the Government of the day judgment calls on specific requests is that only the Government is in a position to decide which of these would not cause a pushback or adverse reactions from other religious communities. This is a delicate matter as each community has its own expectations that its requests be fulfilled.

The state has been judicious in maintaining an "equidistant" position in relation to all religious groups and not showing favouritism to any particular group. In this regard, the state adopts a number of approaches, including that of accommodating all religious groups. For example, the state accommodates the request for space for places of worship for many groups by allocating parcels of land for religious purposes. Another approach is equal recognition of needs. This is illustrated in the equal recognition of religious celebrations and the declaration of public holidays for them. At the same time, as the third approach, the state had also in the past turned down requests but it did so with fairness, as illustrated in the refusal to allow religious groups to broadcast religious programmes over national television.

Hence, the Government adopts an even-handed approach to all religious groups and it will decide how and when requests of various religious communities can be acceded to. In this way, the Government maintains its neutrality towards religion to secure the trust and seek the buy-in of all stakeholders. There is no benefit for religious communities to pressure the Government directly or indirectly, through proxy in or outside Parliament. To do so is to politicise these religious requests and it may result in an impasse. The ultimate loser will be the religious community concerned.

The writer is Head of Studies in the Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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