Transcript of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks to the media after closed-door dialogue with Malay/Muslim community, 25 January 2014

25 January 2014

We have had a very good discussion with the Malay community on the tudung issue, which is something which has been simmering for some time.  It’s an old issue, in fact goes back many years, and as customs have changed, expectations have changed, there has been more desire amongst the community for the women folk to wear the tudung at work and various contexts.  So when the issue became hot on the Internet recently, I decided it is best we have a candid, heart-to-heart discussion with the community leaders.  And we have been preparing for this for some time, so today when we came, we came prepared.  They came prepared, and we came prepared.

As I told them, the issue fundamentally is not the tudung per se, and certainly not nurses’ tudung as a narrow question, because it’s a much broader question and that is, what sort of society do we want to build in Singapore.  It’s a question which we faced right from Independence.  In fact it’s a reason why we became independent, and that is, we are in Singapore to build a multi-racial society, where everybody has full and equal opportunities, where the minority community can live its own life, its own way of life, practice its faith to the maximum extent possible, and not be oppressed or to be marginalised by the majority community.  Multi-racial, regardless of race, language and religion – that’s why we became Singapore, and that’s what the Government wants to achieve.  In fact, wherever possible, we lean in favour of the minority communities in order to give them an extra help, in order that they can participate in the success of the nation and to be integrated.  So whether it is education with Mendaki, whether it is mosque building programme, whether it is through other social programmes which we have, where many of the beneficiaries are Malay Muslims, this is what the Government has done.

But if we are going to do this, we have to do this in a broad and informal way.  We cannot take it issue by issue; we cannot take it in terms of rights and entitlements. We cannot go on basis of what is either the rules or the instruction manuals, or the laws or the Constitution, and try to find a legal interpretation on that issue and press that regardless, and to the possibility of detriment to the overall progress of the communities; of our harmony and of the overall space we have been able to carve out for the minority communities in Singapore, and create for the minority communities in Singapore.  It’s an approach which has worked for us.  We are much more integrated than we were.  I think compared to many other societies, we are doing much better.  But it is an approach which we have to continue to work at maintaining.  And 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. 

You do not want to make precipitated changes, moves which can lead to either a push back from the 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 really, a much unhappier society and I think the minorities will be considerably the losers.  Because in a society like ours, it is most critical that we are comfortable with one another, then we can interact, we can work together – same work places, live together – same HDB estates, same school, serve together.  And that’s the way we have the maximum space for the minorities, so we must not take actions precipitously which can lead to unintended and unhappy consequences.

So I explained that the tudung in itself, from the Malay/Muslim point of view, is completely understandable and I fully appreciate the desire – good Muslims want to do this, although there are a range of views on what are the exact requirements.  But we also have to take into account the overall context and how this can interact and lead to different outcomes.  And I gave the example of how sensitive things are from the other side.  For example, two years ago when we had (station) announcements in Chinese on the Circle Line MRT trains, quite a number of non-Chinese took note and were not that enamoured of the idea and reacted to the idea because they felt that their space was intruded upon.  From the Chinese point of view, this was an entirely reasonable thing because many of the older Chinese don’t know English – they want to go around, they need to know what is happening.  They felt this was a practical requirement.  It was also a symbolic move, and a symbolic move which I think caused the minority communities to feel my space has been restricted a little bit, the common space is not as comfortable as what it was.  So we talked to the SMRT.  They thought it over; they decided to revert to the status quo.  And I think many in the Chinese community did not like this, because they felt it is a practical thing, it doesn’t hurt anybody, well, why do we have to not do this?  But I think what happened, the ultimate position was wise.  I gave that as an example.  It shows how sensitive things can be.  So when you put it the other side, and supposing you have a sudden change in the rules and you find all of the sudden many Malay nurses are wearing the tudung, well, from the Muslim point of point, it is completely reasonable.  From the overall society point of view, I am not sure how people will react.

So therefore, if you look back over the last 10 years, the position has not been static.  We have had more statutory boards, for example, have now quite commonly got the officers in uniform and the uniform has incorporated some form of the tudung.  But I don’t think that we should make any precipitated changes and in particular we must not make any precipitated changes in the aftermath of a hot and angry discussion which can lead to all kinds of misunderstanding.  So it’s best that we evolve as we go forward, take it gradually, step by step.

Our society will change, attitudes will change, expectations, people get used to different norms.  Over time, I think we will gradually move to a new balance.  That’s the most wise; that’s the wisest thing to do; that’s the way I think we can consolidate our multi-racial harmony and make sure that Singapore has another 50 years of stable, cohesive and harmonious society.  So that’s the gist of what we discussed today.