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Nurses likely to be allowed to wear tudung; religious leaders informed of Govt's position over six months ago: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE — Nurses who wish to wear a tudung or headscarf at work will likely be allowed to do so once the Government wraps up discussions with the Malay-Muslim community in a few months, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.

A woman wearing a tudung, seen on March 23, 2021.

A woman wearing a tudung, seen on March 23, 2021.

  • Mr Shanmugam said this was the Government’s position.
  • This was relayed during a closed-door discussion with senior religious leaders six months ago
  • The Government is consulting with the community before making an announcement
  • He added that there were “a lot of misunderstandings” about what two ministers had said about the issue in Parliament this month


SINGAPORE — Nurses who wish to wear a tudung or headscarf at work will likely be allowed to do so once the Government wraps up discussions with the Malay-Muslim community in a few months, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said.

This had been relayed during a closed-door discussion with senior religious leaders and members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) more than six months ago, he added.

At an engagement session on Tuesday (March 23) with senior Muslim religious leaders held at the Khadijah Mosque in Geylang, Mr Shanmugam recalled what he had said at the Aug 31 meeting last year: “I told you very frankly: We can see good reasons why nurses should be allowed to wear tudung if they choose to do so. I said this was being discussed internally. 

“And after that, our view is, there is likely to be a change and we are also consulting with the community before we make a change.”

He added: “That is the Government’s position. We have also discussed with Muis (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), and taken into account views given by Muis, which have been very helpful.”

Ustaz Mohd Hasbi Hassan, co-chairman of the RRG, had asked at the dialogue if the minister may give an update on the outcome of the Government’s consultations.

Mr Shanmugam said that discussions with the community are ongoing and will take a few more months, adding that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will also meet with Muslim community leaders.

“When the discussions are completed, the Government will announce its decision.”

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking at an engagement session at Khadijah Mosque on March 23, 2021. Photo: CNA

About two weeks before Mr Shanmugam spoke to the religious leaders on Aug 31 last year, TODAY reported that a part-time promoter at a pop-up booth in Tangs department store was allegedly told to remove her hijab or tudung — a headscarf covering the head and chest — in order to be allowed to work on its premises.

The issue then made headlines again earlier this month when Workers’ Party Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap asked in Parliament whether the Government would relook its position to allow Muslim women to don the headgear while working in uniformed services such as nursing.

He added that the rule barring them from doing so has deterred many Muslim women from taking up such roles.

During the Committee of Supply debate, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, who is the Minister-in-charge for Muslim Affairs, noted that this is not the first time the matter has been raised, stressing that the Government’s secular stance has been consistently clear in policymaking.

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 the service is rendered equally regardless of race or religion.

Recounting the closed-door discussions he had with members of the RRG, Mr Shanmugam said that they spoke about how women wear a tudung in many parts of the public sector and in most areas of the healthcare sector.

President Halimah Yacob and some MPs also wear a tudung.

Mr Shanmugam said: “I also said that if you only look at that one point — nurses wearing a tudung — it would not be an issue. Rules would have been changed long ago.

“But it was connected to other factors so we had to make careful considerations. I explained what I meant in private and we have to weigh the different considerations against each other and reach a judgement. We spoke frankly, behind closed doors.” 

During the discussion on Tuesday, Mr Shanmugam said that there were “a lot of misunderstandings” about what Mr Masagos and Dr Maliki Osman, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Education and Foreign Affairs, said during the parliamentary debate. 

Dr Maliki had said that the Government has the support of religious scholars and community leaders who understand that these issues, especially those that involve racial and religious sensitivities, are complex and have to be discussed away from the glare of the public. 

Mr Shanmugam said that in his previous engagements with the RRG and religious leaders, he was able to share the Government’s position candidly behind closed doors on a variety of issues such as terrorism, religious issues and the wearing of the tudung. 

“In public, we are careful of how all of this is discussed. So, on tudung, Mr Masagos said in Parliament that the Government is empathetic, and the matter is being discussed. What does he mean when he says the Government is empathetic?

“It is that we understand the feelings of those who wish that nurses be allowed to wear the tudung. It is to signal flexibility. He didn’t say 'no',” he added.

"The clearest indications of our position is what I said to you six months ago. Mr Masagos and I were both stating the Government’s position. But because he was speaking in Parliament, in public, he had to be more general, whereas I could be more direct with you, in private."


Mr Masagos, on the sidelines of a separate event on Tuesday, reiterated that the Government has come to the view some time ago that it will likely change its position. 

But the issue was connected to other factors so it has to be carefully considered. 

Referring to the Government’s consultation with the community and stakeholders, Mr Masagos said: “We wanted to assure Malay-Muslim leaders that the Government was taking their views seriously and considering how we can make adjustments.

“In my Committee of Supply speech (in Parliament), I was reminding ourselves that we must proceed on this issue in a measured and considered way. We will need a few more months to work out how to move ahead," he added. 

"The Government will announce the decision when the discussions are completed."

Speaking to reporters after the engagement session, Ustaz Hasbi said that the Government’s willingness to change its stance is a positive development since the matter has been “discussed for a long time”.

He added that follow-up discussions may be done to get a more concrete view from the Malay-Muslim community

“Our message to the community is to be patient. To wait for good results, (we) must be patient.”

Related topics

tudung hijab religion Religious Rehabilitation Group Muslim K Shanmugam

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