SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes a decision on the wearing of the tudung by Muslim nurses who wish to do so while in uniform can be announced by the National Day Rally at the end of August.
PM Lee told reporters this on Saturday (April 10) after a closed-door dialogue with about 70 Malay/Muslim community and religious leaders on the issue at the Civil Service Club in Tessensohn Road.
He said he told participants that the Government should prepare to make such a move, as people's attitudes have changed and the tudung is now more common in social and work settings, but more work had to be done given the sensitivities of the issue in a multiracial, multi-religious society.
"On its own, we can see the merits of allowing Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniform if they wish," he said.
"But before we actually make the change, we have to prepare the ground. We have to make sure that everybody understands this is a careful adjustment and not a wholesale change. We want people to realise what the limits are, as we make these changes, and we must make sure that Singaporeans, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are ready to accept the move."
PM Lee said this was because Singapore is a multiracial and multi-religious country. "It is a delicate balance, but we are fully committed to preserving our harmony and to maintaining our common space.
"We want to avoid creating unintended consequences when we make well-intentioned moves."
The change for Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniforms can be done, said PM Lee.
"We want to do it but it will take a bit of time. I've discussed the issue with the community leaders and asked them to help us in this 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," he added.
In his remarks in Malay, PM Lee also said he told dialogue participants the Government has continued to monitor the issue closely and it understands the aspirations of the Malay/Muslim community on this issue. "We want the Malay/Muslim community to be able to practise their religion and culture as best as they can."
He said the last time he had such a dialogue on the same issue was in 2014, and that Saturday's session was candid and sincere.
It comes shortly after Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam disclosed on March 23 at a dialogue with senior Muslim leaders that the Government was considering allowing nurses to wear the tudung at work.
He also said he had made this point at a similar closed-door dialogue last August.
At last month's dialogue, the minister said that discussions were ongoing and would take a few more months, adding that the Government's view was likely to change.
His comments had come two weeks after two Malay/Muslim ministers' speeches in Parliament on the issue drew a reaction from some in the community.
Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Masagos Zulkifli had told Parliament on March 8 that the Government empathised with nurses who wish to wear the tudung in uniform and the matter was best discussed behind closed doors given the sensitivities involved.
But he also stressed that the public service policy on uniforms cannot be tilted towards any particular religious belief.
"Allowing tudungs would introduce a very visible religious marker that identifies every tudung-wearing female nurse or uniformed officer as a Muslim," he said then.
This was in response to Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap, who had asked whether nurses and those in uniformed services can be allowed to wear the tudung.
On Saturday, Mr Masagos said the latest dialogue was constructive and candid, and both the Government and the community left it understanding each other much better.
"There was common understanding that this issue must be approached carefully, because it involves racial and religious sensitivities and, therefore, we cannot rush into a decision," he told reporters.
He said Singapore's racial and religious harmony was precious, and the Malay/Muslim community will safeguard this together with other Singaporeans.
"We will continue to engage Singaporeans on this matter. We hope to receive everyone's support as we deliberate on this issue, and work towards an outcome that is acceptable to all Singaporeans."
Asked for details on how the Government's thinking on the issue has evolved, Mr Masagos said the Government has always empathised with the request by nurses to put on the tudung in uniform.
"But we have to be very careful, because it is not just about the Muslim requests alone," he added.
"Any move, any change in our society must be calibrated... because it involves interaction with other people."
Over time, the PM as well as Cabinet ministers have decided it is time to make such a move, he said.
"But there are still matters that need to be resolved. Therefore we need a little more time to implement this so that, like I said in Parliament, those who will be impacted will be least affected.
"Our community leaders who spoke at the dialogue understood this, and support the prime minister in the way we are implementing this and the time that we need for this process," he added.