While halal-certified kitchens can be provided on military camps, this is not possible on board naval ships, where space is a premium and has to be prioritised for operational needs.
But provisions are made for servicemen - whether Muslim or those with other dietary requirements - so they have food options, Senior Minister of State for Defence Maliki Osman told Parliament yesterday.
Dr Maliki said this practice is similar to that in French and American navies, whose ships do not have separate halal kitchens.
"SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) will accommodate where we can, but the SAF's operational priorities come before individual needs. Our servicemen and women understand and accept this," he added.
During the debate on the Defence Ministry's budget yesterday, Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) had called for navy vessels to be equipped with halal-certified kitchens. This was a "practical issue" which he said should be resolved promptly, so as not to deprive Muslim Singaporeans the opportunity to serve on board ships.
In reply, Dr Maliki said provisions are made for Muslim naval servicemen through options such as seafood, chicken and vegetables.
But having a halal-certified kitchen was not possible, he said, as space has to be maximised for operational requirements such as ammunition and combat systems.
In military camps, halal kitchens are built wherever there is space, but otherwise, food is also brought in from centralised kitchens, said Dr Maliki. Halal and vegetarian combat rations are also available during operations.
Dr Maliki said the SAF operated like "society at large", where, rather than encourage one religious group to push fully for its own strict requirements, Singapore's approach has been - as far as practicable - to accommodate the needs of different devotees, while maintaining a common space and goals for all.
"I would like to remind Mr Faisal that Singapore is a secular state and all Singaporeans enjoy the right to practise their religion under our Constitution," said Dr Maliki.
In a clarification, however, Mr Faisal reiterated his call for halal kitchens on ships.
"I'm a strong believer of an inclusive and open SAF, and I don't think that I need the Senior Minister of State to remind me that Singapore is a multiracial and multi-religious society," he said.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen rose to rebut him: "Mr Faisal Manap says he doesn't need to be reminded we are a multiracial, multi-religious society, but he is only championing in his speech for Muslims."
He said that there are other groups with religious observances apart from Muslims, and the SAF can accommodate such needs wherever possible.
But the "overriding principle must be that SAF operational concerns must come first and individual needs sometimes must subsume under that," he said.