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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

News Reports

Regardful of race and religion

As a rule, I do not like “closed door discussions’’. They smack of conspiracy and secrecy, attended by the selected.  More and more things are done and said behind closed doors these days.  Sometimes, they  end with a sanitized briefing on what was said for the media. The more trendy way is to put out a Facebook post, and ignore the questions posed later.

But I am beginning to like the idea of shutting up on matters or race and religion, because you have to be so careful with words to not offend anyone. Or in case you inadvertently give ammunition to those who want to. Therein lies this problem: If a person says only the “right things’’ which are politically correct, is it a reflection of the truth? 

In Singapore, talk of race and religion tends to be Government-led. That is why impromptu questions in Parliament have been swept away as treading on dangerous ground. Ask Workers’ Party MP Faisal Manap. 

The Government wants to have its answer worked out in advance, lest it be attacked by one group or other. This strategy didn’t work the last time when Muslim ministers spoke on the issue of nurses wearing the tudung in Parliament. Their position was perceived as a lot more hardline than what non-Muslim ministers like Mr K Shanmugam and the Prime Minister later said. 

So it looks like that there will be a change for Muslim women – they can opt to wear the tudung if they want. Doubtless, hospital administrators are quickly working on the design of the tudung, to fit in with the uniform. (It’s funny how there hasn’t been a single news report asking women Muslim nurses what they think)

PM Lee Hsien Loong was careful not to go into specifics of the “limits’’ and “unintended consequences’’ of making a decision. We all pussyfoot around the issue because we know it will not make everyone happy and worse, might even make things worse. 

For example, I couldn’t wrap my head around Mr Zulkifli Masagos’ point about how non-Muslims patients might reject being served by a tudung-covered nurse. Is he saying that non-Muslims are intolerant or that there will always be the religiously intolerant or irrationally frightened? Of course, he could have said it differently : that there might be (hopefully) the few who would not welcome the move and, hence, the hesitation. And that the few would do well to re-examine their prejudices. 

Even so, you can get into a whole new argument about how many is “few” and whether they should be educated otherwise or forced to accept the new status quo, or whether even the “few’’ is one too many to safeguard what exactly? Law and order? Social harmony? Secular public services?

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As far as I was concerned, it doesn’t matter what race or religion the nurse belongs to so long as I can understand what she says and she does her job. But even saying this can get me into trouble. One ST letter-writer, a Chinese, said he wished nurses would use English, which is the working language, instead of assuming he could understand Mandarin. He was, in turn, described by the Chinese-speaking as a member of the “privileged’’ Chinese majority who could speak English. 

I have one question that I would like to ask of Muslims meekly (or should I close the door?): Is it true that wearing the tudung also dictates changes to behavior towards others, like a greater reserve towards the other races and to men? 

Then comes the issue about what being a secular State means. Various ministers have tried to define the boundaries, with the caveat that it would intervene to prevent race and religious matters from becoming a flash point. And so it has. The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was revised to make it easier for the G to clamp down on controversial words and acts emanating from a religious group. So far, touch wood, like its previous iteration, it has yet to be used. 

Unlike France, Singapore is both a secular State and a multi-religious society. There will be tensions between State and society, which is again made up of disparate groups. Imagine what would happen if people start demanding services only from their own race or religion. They can turn to self-help groups now. But what if this privilege morphs into a right or some sort of identity politics? Too far-fetched?

The G’s narrative needs some bolstering. Some history lessons also bear repeating. What does being “even-handed’’ mean? How is the “common space’’ defined? In the case of the tudung, is the G’s decision based on the degree of society acceptance for tudung-clad nurses or an acknowledgment that Muslim women should have an option? If the latter, then how will it justify a hard line being drawn on no tudung in mainstream schools and uniformed services? Does it then come back to what is the “common space’’?

I think the reality is that on race and religion, the G can only move as far as the majority (Chinese and/or religious conservatives of all stripes) would be comfortable. After all, it rises or falls based on election results. 

But what is the benchmark? 

On the issue of nurses wearing the tudung, I would stick my neck out and say that the vast majority wouldn’t see this as a problem. Yes, it’s an extremely visible marker of religion compared to wearing a crucifix around the neck or prayer beads  around the wrist, but most of us have got used to the garb. It could have moved on it earlier methinks. 

(In the same vein, I do not think that most people would mind if the President or Prime Minister is a non-Chinese. We have got used to non-Chinese leaders. The minority races are even over-represented in Parliament. In fact, on the matter of the President at least, the common defining factor linking all races on the choice of President is merit.)

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On race and religion, the G is in a pickle. Don’t forget that it has pro-active ethnic policies like Group Representation Constituencies (still needed?) to defend as well. It’s got to get all its race and religion policies lined up right, including old hoary chestnuts like why only the Muslims have a Minister and why Thaipusam isn’t a public holiday. It needs a coherent narrative, maybe even a new one to accommodate changes to adapt to social and religious mores.

As a society, we’re in a pickle too. Proponents and advocates for change have the bigger voice and pursue their course vigorously. I also believe that many people have views but hold back for fear of being cancelled or described as a bigot or racist. I am more concerned about those who say nothing but nurse feelings of grievance at changes to the status quo or believe they have been ”neglected”. Hopefully, there is no Donald Trump here to galvanise them.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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