Open, frank exchange on tudung

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 on Saturday.

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."

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