PM Lee meets MPs over headscarf issue

SINGAPORE - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday met People's Action Party (PAP) Malay-Muslim Members of Parliament to discuss the Government's response to recent calls for Muslim women to freely don the hijab or headscarf in all workplaces.

The MPs were glad Mr Lee understood that the hijab issue was important to many Muslims, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim later said in a Facebook post.

"PM stressed that his aim was to create an environment where Muslims and other faiths can practise their religions freely and peacefully. But he also explained why we must manage and balance the diverse needs of our multi-racial and multi-religious society. Hence the need for accommodation and compromise by all parties," Dr Yaacob wrote.

Also present were Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, together with six Malay-Muslims MPs. Three MPs were unable to attend.

Currently, Muslim women in public-sector professions that require uniforms, such as nursing, cannot don the hijab. The police force and military service also do not allow the wearing or display of conspicuous religious symbols on uniforms or faces.

Last month, a polytechnic lecturer asked at a forum why nurses were barred from wearing the tudung. The Suara Musyawarah committee, tasked to collect feedback on Malay/Muslim community concerns, also raised the issue in July.

The Singapore Hijab Movement, launched this week on Facebook, has garnered more than 18,000 likes. The Fellowship of Muslim Students Association wants the issue to be discussed further.

On Tuesday, Mr Teo issued a statement saying that Dr Yaacob and the Malay-Muslim MPs had raised the hijab issue on a number of occasions and the Government supported the aspirations Dr Yaacob had expressed earlier.

But it also "has the responsibility to balance all these different community requirements, and keep in mind what we need to maintain overall social harmony", Mr Teo said.

He added: "Every community, when it presses for its own concerns, must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it. That is the reality of living in a multi- racial, multi-religious society that we all have to internalise."

PAP MP Zainal Sapari said he did not believe that Mr Teo's statement meant there would be no change to the hijab policy.

"The PAP Malay MPs will continue to push this agenda... If the societal climate is right, then a change in policy is possible," he said.

Dr Yaacob, who also met leaders of Malay-Muslim organisations last night, said government leaders and Malay-Muslim MPs yesterday agreed that they must continually work towards better mutual understanding.

He stressed that constructive dialogue was the best way forward, adding: "It will take time but we will find practical solutions if we continue to engage with goodwill."

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