From November, Muslim nurses in Singapore's public healthcare sector will be allowed to wear a tudung with their uniforms if they wish to, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (29 August).
Speaking during his National Day Rally, Lee said he met local Muslim leaders a few months ago to tell them that the government was prepared to make such an allowance.
"We are making a careful adjustment to keep our racial and religious harmony in good order. This approach has worked well for us for many years," said Lee in his speech.
Noting that the issue of allowing nurses had become a focal issue for Muslims in Singapore, Lee said that he hoped Singaporeans would take the government's chance of stance in the right spirit.
He also observed that evolving attitudes had led to a greater acceptance of the tudung in Singapore society.
"Non-Muslims have become more used to seeing Muslim women wear the tudung. Muslim women wearing tudung are generally also quite at ease interacting socially with non-Muslim men and women, in most settings," said Lee.
"Specifically in hospitals, some of the non-uniformed staff do wear the tudung, and we saw that their relationship with patients and colleagues was alright. Furthermore, younger Singaporeans are more accepting of racial and religious differences," he added.
During his meeting with the local Muslim leaders, he told them that the change in the government's stance comes after years of monitoring the situation.
"I thanked them for their help managing this sensitive issue all these years. I told them we were now ready. We would prepare the ground, and tee up for a decision by the National Day Rally," he added.
Lee also pointed out how attitudes towards the tudung issue among local Muslims have changed over the years.
"Wearing the tudung has become increasingly important for the Muslim community. It reflects a general trend of stronger religiosity in Islam, around the world, in South-east Asia, and in Singapore.
"For many Muslim women, it's become an important part of their faith, and an expression of a deeply felt identity," said Lee. He noted that the last few decades have seen more Muslim women in Singapore wearing the tudung, both in social settings and workplaces.
"Year to year, the change is gradual but over a generation, the shift is quite obvious. The government fully understands the desire of more Muslim women to wear the tudung," said Lee.
At the same time, however, the government has also been cautious about how non-Muslims would react to such visible change and if this would affect inter-community relations.
"Will it be seen as more 'inclusive', or will it highlight and accentuate differences?" he asked.
Recalling the intense public discussion on the issue in 2014, Lee said he held a closed door meeting with Muslim leaders during which he listened to their concerns and explained the government's position.
"In national schools, all students wear the same uniforms whether they are rich or poor, and regardless of race or religion. We need to emphasise their similarities and minimise their differences," he said.
Lee also explained that for the Singapore Armed Forces, Home Team and other uniformed services, there were "different important reasons" for not allowing the tudung to be worn.
"They are impartial and secular arms of the state. They wield armed force, and enforce the laws of Singapore. They must always be seen to be doing so without fear or favour. Therefore, everyone wears the same uniform," said Lee.
When it came to nurses, however, he noted that the opposing considerations – between the Muslim community's desires and the government's concerns – are more "finely balanced".
Given the importance of patients seeing all nurses as the same and of nurses treating all patients equally regardless of race or religion, Lee said that the government wanted to avoid having any visible distinctions in nurses' attire be a stumbling block in maintaining these priorities.
He added, however, that he told the Muslim leaders then that the government's policy on tudung in the healthcare sector was "not set in stone" and that the situation would be monitored. /agencies