Dialogue over tudung best way forward

The simple Muslim headscarf is such a fixture of everyday life in multi-religious Singapore that it would be wrong to turn it into a political issue.

Non-Muslims are comfortable with Muslim women donning it on the streets, on public transport and at workplaces. Indeed, the tudung is worn in Parliament too. It is a matter of anguish, therefore, that the question of nurses not being allowed to wear it has generated so much controversy, with some turning abusive towards those with differing views expressed in online discussions.

The tudung issue surfaced in 2002 over primary schoolgirls not being allowed to wear the headscarf in school. This time, it is over the usage by front-line public officers in general and nurses in particular.

The form of workplace attire depends on the nature of the job and the organisation. If it is a uniform, then, as the name suggests, it has to be uniform for practical and other purposes.

Uniforms are visual representations of the organisation people belong to. Thus, the uniformed services present a "face" of the state in which members are objective and not distinguished by the wearing or display of conspicuous religious symbols.

Any big departure from such sartorial norms could affect the character and culture of the profession, and would be justified only if widely accepted.

Clearly, the military and the police are professions where rigorous rules on uniforms should continue to uphold the reality and the image of Singapore as a secular state. Whether nursing is a profession where the rules could be relaxed is worthy of discussion, keeping in mind the need to ensure that all segments of society understand the reason for change and are comfortable with it.

What will not help is an atmosphere in which communal demands are presented as a zero-sum game, with groups using the social media to push culturally sensitive issues.

This could become an invitation to other groups to advance their own interests and, perhaps, extreme attire or body markings. Such assertions could get out of hand. Politicising the problem is no less dangerous when key issues get obscured in the desire to score partisan points.

Hence, dialogue is the best way forward in the search for a constructive solution based on multi-religious understanding and accommodation.

Such a dialogue needs to be set in the wider context of the many equally important challenges facing ethnic communities, without becoming overly seized by any one of them.

While celebrating cultural differences, what is critical for the nation is the ability of all communities to find more things, rather than fewer, in common with one another in important spheres of public interaction.

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