SINGAPORE: The Government should prepare to allow Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniform, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday (Apr 10).
Speaking to reporters after a closed-door dialogue with Malay Muslim community and religious leaders on Saturday, Mr Lee said: “I told them that I had concluded that we should prepare to make such a move for nurses because people's attitudes have changed, because in social and work settings, the tudung is now more common.
"And on its own, we can see the merits of allowing ... Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniform if they wish.”
He added that the community leaders knew that the Government has been considering allowing Muslim nurses to wear the tudung for “quite some time”, because the Government has been “engaging and consulting them quietly”.
"PREPARE THE GROUND": PM LEE
But before the change is made, the Government will need to “prepare the ground”, said the Prime Minister.
“We have to make sure that everybody understands this is a careful adjustment. Not a wholesale change, and we want people to realise what the limits are, as we make these changes,” Mr Lee added.
“And we must make sure that Singaporeans, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are ready to accept the move.”
The process will “take a bit of time”, and Mr Lee has asked the community leaders to help the Government with the process over the next few months.
“I hope that by the National Day Rally, which will be at the end of August, we should be ready to make a decision, and I shall have something to report,” said the Prime Minister.
The closed-door dialogue with Malay Muslim community and religious leaders was the Prime Minister’s first such dialogue since 2014, when the subject of wearing the tudung was also raised.
“Today we had a candid and sincere discussion, focusing more specifically on tudung for nurses. But, of course, going beyond that too,” said Mr Lee.
He thanked them for “walking with the Government on this complex journey” and for helping them to manage an important issue.
“We are a multiracial and multireligious country. It's a delicate balance, but we are fully committed to preserving our harmony, and to maintaining our common space,” he said.
“We want to avoid creating unintended consequences … when we make well intentioned moves.”
"CANNOT RUSH TO A DECISION": MASAGOS
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said the dialogue was “constructive and candid” and that the community leaders got to hear what the Government’s position and considerations are.
He added that there was a common understanding that this issue must be approached carefully because it involves racial and religious sensitivities.
"Therefore, we cannot rush to a decision. At the heart of the matter is how we strike a good balance in allowing our nurses to put on the tudung with their uniform, so that this decision can win the support of all communities, preserve common space and at the same time strengthen our social cohesion," he said.
READ: Government appreciates growing significance of tudung to Muslims, considering how nurses can wear it with uniforms: PM Lee
He added that in doing so, the Government hoped it can support the request by nurses to don the tudung with their uniform.
“We know, we empathise that they want to lead meaningful religious lives daily, because this is also their religious identity,” said Mr Masagos.
“Our racial and religious harmony is precious and the Malay Muslim community will safeguard these together with the rest of Singaporeans. We’ll continue to engage Singaporeans on this matter.
“I hope to seek everyone's support as we deliberate on this issue, and work towards an outcome that’s acceptable to all Singaporeans.”
Mr Masagos added that the Government has “always empathised” with the request by nurses to put on their tudung with their uniform.
“But we have to be very careful, because it is not just about the Muslim request alone. Any move, any change in our society must be (carried) very carefully, because it involves interaction with other people,” he added.
He said it is a “whole-of-government” approach and that they are reaching out to “every stakeholder” on this issue.
Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam in March signalled a likely change in the Government's stance on nurses wearing the tudung, and said they were consulting the community.
READ: Likely change in stance on nurses wearing the tudung; issue discussed with Muslim religious leaders in August: Shanmugam
READ: Government’s secular stand on issue of wearing tudungs with public service uniforms has been ‘consistently clear’: Masagos
MP Faisal Manap (WP-Aljunied) had raised the issue in Parliament earlier this year. Mr Masagos answered on Mar 8 that the Government would continue to have discussions and consultations with the community behind closed doors.
BALANCING RELIGIOUS NEEDS: MUFTI
Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir said on Saturday the tudung issue is about balancing the religious needs of communities.
"For example, in this case, the needs of Muslim nurses who choose to put on the tudung, while maintaining a high level of trust and confidence between communities," he said.
"So conversations between Government and community leaders and religious leaders are very important for us to consider the full range of perspectives, as well as context for the considerations involved before moving to shift the policy."
He said it is very important that they “should not make a move that may undermine” Singapore's social cohesion, but instead to continue to strengthen it and "enlarge our common spaces".
"I think due to the hard work of our communities in forging greater trust and confidence, we are in a better position now to move on with such a change, and I hope that we will continue to give the support, working together with the relevant agencies to ensure that this policy shift will only result in a stronger and more united society," he said.
Madam Rahayu Mohamad, a MUIS council member and former president of the Singapore Muslim Women's Association (PPIS), said Muslim women who wish to "observe their religious prescription" would welcome the move.
"The women that we actually talked to are educated and they're well informed, and the reason why they are still in these sectors is because they understand and (understand) very well in terms of the decision and the choices that they're making," she said.