The Government's position on the tudung is not static, but Singapore cannot take actions precipitously that can have unintended consequences, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a two-hour dialogue with over 100 leaders and representatives from the Malay community over the Muslim headscarf.
He reiterated the Government's stance in remarks made after the dialogue at the Old Police Academy, which is that it must balance the needs of all communities in Singapore to keep the country multi-racial and multi-religious.
"If we are going to have anything happen which can change the status quo, we want to make sure that the change takes place gradually and for the better. We do not want to make precipitous moves, which can lead to either a push back from other communities, which can lead to further demands from the other communities, which can lead to a weakening of our multi-racial ties, which will mean a much unhappier society," he said.
While he said he understood the position of those who want the tudung to be able to be worn by women who are in the frontline in the public service, or uniform personnel, the issue is broader than the tudung itself, and is about "what sort of society do we want to build in Singapore".
"It is a question which we faced right from independence. In fact it is the reason we became independent. That is, we are in Singapore to build a multi-racial society, where everyone has full and equal opportunities, where the minority community can live its own way of life, practice its faith to the maximum way possible and not be oppressed, or marginalised, by the majority," he said. "That is why we became Singapore, and that is what the Government is trying to achieve."
As such, Singapore will move in a "broad and informal way" and not take it issue by issue and by rights and entitlements.
It is an approach that has worked for the country, he added, and Singapore is more integrated than it was in the past and also compared to many societies.
This is the first such dialogue the Prime Minister has held with the Malay community on the issue, which has generated much debate since September last year. The discussion was sparked after a lecturer asked at a forum why nurses were barred from wearing tudungs.
Mr Lee said the issue over the tudung is an old one, but noted that "there has been more desire amongst the community for women to wear the tudung at work and in various contexts".
He added: "So when the issue became hot on the internet recently, I decided it best we have a candid, heart-to-heart discussion with community leaders."