Monday, 27 January 2014

Govt position on tudung 'not static'

PM Lee outlines key concerns in two-hour dialogue with Muslim community leaders
By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

The Government's position on the Islamic headscarf is not static, but Singapore cannot take actions precipitously that can have unintended consequences, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after a dialogue with leaders and representatives of the Muslim community.

There has been change over the last 10 years and more statutory boards now allow Muslim women officers to wear the tudung, or have incorporated some form of the headscarf into uniforms, he said.

But he reiterated the Government's stance, which is that it must balance the needs of all communities to keep the country multiracial and multi-religious, he told the media after the closed-door dialogue at the Old Police Academy.

"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," he said.

"We do not want to make precipitated moves, which can lead to either a push back from other communities, further demands from the other communities, a weakening of our multiracial ties, which will mean a much unhappier society."

Attended by more than 100 participants, yesterday's two-hour session was the first such dialogue Mr Lee has held with the community on the issue, which has generated a swirl of debate since last September after a lecturer asked at a forum why nurses were barred from wearing the tudung.

Community leaders including Malay MPs, the mufti, the highest religious figure, and from Muis, or the Islamic Religious Council, said that it was candid and sincere, and they appreciated Mr Lee hearing their views on the issue.

The PM noted that the issue over the tudung is an old one, with more in the community now wanting women to be able to wear the tudung at work. But when the issue became hot on the Internet, he felt it was best to have "a candid, heart-to-heart discussion with community leaders".

While he fully appreciates the desire of those who want the headscarf to be able to be worn by women more freely, the issue is broader than the tudung itself, he said.

It is about "what sort of society do we want to build in Singapore", he said. This is to build a multiracial society, "where everyone has full and equal opportunities, the minority community can live its own way of life, practise its faith to the maximum way possible and not be... marginalised by the majority".

"That is why we became Singapore, and that is what the Government is trying to achieve."

Wherever possible, the Government "leans in favour of the minority community", in order to give them extra help, and they can participate in the success of the nation and be integrated, whether through the Mosque Building Fund, self-help group Mendaki or other programmes.

To do this, the balance is managed in a "broad and informal way" and not have it taken issue by issue, by rights and entitlements, or to find a legal interpretation of the laws. 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 today.

He shared an example of how sensitive race and religion can be. When SMRT put up Chinese language announcements on the Circle Line two years ago to help older Chinese, it caused a reaction from the non-Chinese who felt discomfited by it. The announcements were dropped, despite the fact that the Chinese community felt it was a practical thing to do and that it did not hurt anybody.

On how the tudung issue might change, he told his audience that it will have to evolve as gradually people get used to different norms over time, and "we will gradually move to a new balance".

"That's the wisest thing to do, that's the way we can consolidate our multiracial harmony and make sure that Singapore has another 50 years of stable, cohesive and harmonious society."

Open, frank exchange on tudung
Muslim community leaders appreciate chance to share views candidly with PM
By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

They attended a dialogue to hear the Prime Minister explain his Government's stand on the tudung issue and while many hoped there could be movement on it eventually to allow Muslim women to wear it freely, in equal measure, many counselled patience.

These were among the key themes that emerged during the dialogue between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Muslim community leaders and representatives yesterday.

Many interviewed said they appreciated the chance to share candidly with PM Lee and members of his Cabinet on the issue, and that they understood the issue is a bigger one of maintaining Singapore's social harmony. A number of them said they recognised that there could be a pushback from the other religions if the issue hardened.

Madam Moliah Hashim, former chief executive of Mendaki, said: "As a Muslim, I wish that all Muslim women can wear the hijab in any job they are in. But I know that the issue is a very complex one and there must be more discussions around it."

She said there was an "open and frank" exchange of views. "There was a mutual understanding, appreciation and respect for the different views people have on the issue. But we were one in understanding that stability is the most important thing we want to retain in multiracial Singapore."

Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, said it is important for MPs to continue to engage the community on the issue and related matters. There were some perceptions that not being able to wear the Muslim headscarf is a matter of discrimination, she noted, and in the cases where it is real, there are platforms in which that can be addressed. "Beyond that, we need to look from a more holistic perspective that this is involving the entire society."

Singapore's highest Islamic authority, Mufti Fatris Bakaram, also expressed the hope that there would be a day when the tudung can be worn freely.

He also apologised in person to the Prime Minister for the online vitriol that came about over the tudung issue. This is because he wanted to make sure that the Government did not get the wrong impression of the Muslim community.

"I was saddened that there are members of my community, though not the majority, who were a little bit careless in making those demands by throwing harsh words against the Government, against our own leaders," he said.

"It is my obligation and my responsibility to say those words of apology on behalf of my community. It is not part of our culture and identity and I wouldn't want the Government to have a misperception that the Muslims are becoming a community that does not uphold the sanctity of morality."

The debate was sparked after a participant at a forum last September asked why nurses could not wear the tudung. The online discussions led to the use of some abusive language, including against former mufti Shaikh Syed Isa Semait.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, who was one of a number of Cabinet ministers present at the two-hour-long dialogue, said some of the people who had been active online over this issue were invited to the dialogue.

He also urged patience from the community. "The most important thing for us is that we continue to find ways and solutions that are constructive, and do not disrupt what we have achieved thus far. As a responsible member of Singapore's society, we must preserve the social cohesion and harmony we have built over the last 40 to 50 years. This will take time and I am confident our community leaders understand that."

Govt’s stance on tudung issue evolving, says PM Lee
He adds that S’pore cannot make any precipitous changes on the matter, as this can lead to misunderstandings
By Amir Hussain, TODAY, 25 Jan 2014

The fundamental and much broader issue underpinning the debate about whether women should be allowed to wear the Muslim headscarf in frontline public service roles is about "what sort of society do we want to build in Singapore," said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong today.

"It's a question which we faced right from Independence, in fact it's the reason why we became independent," Mr Lee said.

Speaking to reporters after a two-hour closed door dialogue with some 100 leaders and representatives from the Malay-Muslim community, Mr Lee reiterated that the Government's policy since Independence has been to build a multiracial society in which everyone has full and equal opportunities, and minority communities can live their way of life as well as practise their faith to the maximum extent possible, and not be oppressed or marginalised by the majority.

Mr Lee said he understood the Malay-Muslim community's perspective on the tudung. He also noted that the Government's position has not been static, with more statutory boards having corporate officers wearing the tudung.

But Singapore cannot take any precipitous changes, "especially in the aftermath of a hot and angry discussion", as this can lead to misunderstandings, he said.

Changes to the status quo should evolve gradually and in a broad and informal way, as attitudes and expectations change in society, and as people get used to new norms - instead of being pushed for in terms of rights and entitlements and to the detriment of the overall progress of harmony between the communities, Mr Lee said.

Asked how the Government could tell when it will be ready to allow Malay-Muslim women to wear the tudung in public service frontline roles, Mr Lee reiterated that the change needs to be evolved. "You never arrive. Over the last ten years we have gradually moved. Nobody has really noticed. I think that's really the way to go," he said.

"This is not the sort of thing where you want to put all your attention on this item and measure the progress of either racial relations or the progress of the Muslim community based on this one item," he added.

The issue has cropped up several times over the years. The public debate re-emerged in September last year after a polytechnic lecturer had asked at a forum on race why nurses were barred from wearing the Muslim headscarf. Prior to this, the tudung issue last surfaced in the public sphere in 2002 over primary schoogirls not being allowed to wear the headscarf in school.

This evening's dialogue was the first which Mr Lee had held with the Malay-Muslim community on the tudung issue since the public debate was re-ignited. Mr Lee said that he wanted to have a candid and heart-to-heart discussion with community leaders and representatives.

The session was also attended by Malay-Muslim MPs and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, as well as several other Cabinet members — Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong — and other political officeholders including Senior Ministers of State Masagoes Zulkifli, Amy Khor and Indranee Rajah.

Echoing Mr Lee's point, Dr Yaacob, who is also the Minister for Communication and Information, said in response to reporters' question that the timing of when society will accept the wearing of tudung in public service frontline roles was not something that could be pinpointed. It is about "people's comfort level" and there is no "formula" for it, he added.

While Dr Yaacob noted that the aspiration of the Malay-Muslim community is clear - it wants to allow Muslim women to have the choice to wear the tudung at work - he said that the community leaders understand that the matter has to be seen within a wider context, instead of just as a single issue.

Mufti of Singapore Fatris Bakaram said that he hopes the day will come when everyone would be comfortable with Malay-Muslim frontline officers wearing the tudung. Asked whether he was convinced that society was not at that point yet, Dr Fatris said the Government has to "make the best decision at the moment that will not disrupt harmony". The Malay-Muslim community has to work hard to build a higher level of comfort with other communities, he added.

During the dialogue, Dr Fatris had apologised to Mr Lee on behalf of some members of the Malay-Muslim community, who had used harsh words online to attack community leaders and to "demonise" the Government, as the Mufti put it.

Dr Fatris told reporters: "I don't think that is part of our culture and identity. I wouldn't want the Government to have a misconception or misperception that the Muslims are becoming a community that do not uphold the sanctity of morality."

Moliah Hashim, Chief Executive Officer of Malay-Muslim self-help group Mendaki, said she also hoped that all Muslim women would be able to wear the headscarf at work one day. She added that there should be more discussions on the issue so that the community's aspiration could be met over time and there will be greater understanding all round on the matter. 

Ang Mo Kio GRC Member of Parliament Intan Azura Mokhtar said that Malay-Muslim MPs like herself need to continue to engage the community as well as the broader society, over concerns and issues related to the headscarf, "so that we understand one another better".

PM thanks Malay community leaders for tudung dialogue
By Robin Chan, The Sunday Times, 4 Feb 2014

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong has written to Malay-Muslim community leaders and representatives to thank them for attending a closed-door dialogue on the Muslim headscarf, or tudung, last month.

In a Facebook post last night, he said one of the oldest to attend was Ustaz Ibrahim Kassim, an 87-year-old religious leader, who turned up although he was not well.

"Ustaz Ibrahim is a learned and respected religious leader. He teaches at mosques and Malay/Muslim organisations, counsels couples and prisoners, and is active in the Religious Rehabilitation Group. He is also a hakam (arbitrator) at the Syariah Court," wrote Mr Lee.

He added that "Ustaz's commitment to the community is deeply inspiring" and that he looks forward "to working with him and like-minded community leaders to build an inclusive and harmonious Singapore".

The closed-door dialogue with more than 100 Malay community leaders was arranged after the question of whether the tudung can be worn by nurses, and other public officers in uniform was raised last year and created a swirl of debate.

In his letter, which he posted on Facebook, PM Lee reiterated that while he fully appreciates the aspirations of the Malay community on the tudung, it is a "delicate matter in a multi-racial, multi-religious society".

"We want to manage it in a way which is overall positive for Muslim Singaporeans and which strengthens the cohesion and harmony between the different communities," he said.

"That is why I believe it is best to let our practices evolve gradually at a pace that all Singaporeans are comfortable with."

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