Singapore's position on Muslim women being allowed to wear tudungs with uniforms and for front-line government jobs will evolve “gradually and carefully”, says Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
In a Facebook post after a dialogue he had on Saturday evening with ministers, members of parliament, community and religious leaders, PM Lee said he “fully appreciate(s) their desire” for Muslim women in uniform to be able to wear a tudung (Muslim head scarf, also known as a hijab).
“But a larger issue is at stake: the sort of society we aspire to be,” he wrote. “I am also mindful how crucial it is for us to strengthen our cohesion, and maintain the relaxed confidence and trust that benefits us all, especially the minorities.”
The government’s position on the tudung issue “is not frozen”, he continued, referring to shifting attitudes and saying that “arrangements will get updated”. Noting that “many statutory boards” now allow Muslim staff to wear the tudung, PM Lee said he is “confident that we will not be in the same situation” as today in five or 10 years’ time.
“It is best that we continue evolving gradually and carefully,” he said. “The racial harmony we enjoy is not perfect, but it is more precious and more fragile than we think. Let’s work hard to strengthen it, so that all races can live happily together as one united people.”
PM Lee’s comments come months after the long-standing tudung debate was reignited last year when former NMP Zulkifli Baharudin said Muslims in Singapore need to make greater efforts to compromise and integrate themselves, instead of expecting others to accommodate them all the time.
Baharudin called for negotiation and compromise, referring to “very deep perceptions” that have to be removed first — it is not something that can be legislated one-off, he added.
The debate that followed online resulted in an anonymous petition calling for hijabs to be allowed at the workplace that was later taken down, as well as a Facebook campaign called the “Singapore Hijab Movement” which garnered significant support in early November, although its page was also taken down later on.
Another resurfaced in the middle of November, although its administrators disassociated themselves from the previous page.