Tudung, Chinese privilege, and more: Singapore unpacks PM Lee’s rally speech

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his speech last night. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office/YouTube
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during his speech last night. Photo: Prime Minister’s Office/YouTube

There was a lot to unpack from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech last night, and not surprisingly, it’s drawing all sorts of reactions from Singaporeans, with some overjoyed by his approving nurses to wear head coverings, and others criticizing his rejection of Chinese privilege.  

In his most important address of the year, Lee announced that Muslim nurses would be able to don the tudung in the workplace come November, that all race-related laws would be consolidated into one act, while at the same time dismissed the existence of “Chinese privilege” in the Mandarin portion of his speech. 

“Just a wonderful leader and speaker .. he is addressing the really sensitive issues with such grace and elegance. Great!,” Sandeep K Chandak reacted to the three-part speech, delivered in Malay, Chinese, and English on Facebook.  

Lee said that the new Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act would take a gentler approach by giving offenders a chance to make amends before facing punishment. He did not give any specifics about how the act would be used, and some saw it as just another law being added to Singapore’s already thick book of codes. 

“Seem[s] like law can solve everything. Next time, they need to build not [HDBs] but prisons,” Ali Lim wrote in response to this. 

Lee’s Mandarin speech, catered to the Chinese community, was probably the most controversial of all. 

According to him, the community had made “concessions” to maintain racial harmony, such as having to learn English. He also recognized that it was more difficult to be a part of the minority and said the community needed to be more open to other races, especially when renting property. But then he went on to quash that idea that Chinese privilege ever existed in Singapore, saying that it was a “baseless” observation since the government treats all races “equally.”

“The PM making a statement like that is totally out of line. Disrespecting all the problems that our minority races have gone through all these decades and refusing even to acknowledge it. It’s like [T]rump saying that there is no white privilege,” John Wall reacted on Facebook.

“[I]t’s okay if we as a nation are not ready to acknowledge the reality of Chinese privilege or discuss it openly. BUT to claim that it’s ‘entirely baseless’ invalidates all our painful experiences in one swift stroke! That’s not fair! Not when you’ve never ever walked a single step in our shoes,” Narj Es wrote.

Lee also addressed the long-running debate over donning head scarves in the workplace. From November onward, Muslim nurses working in public health care will be allowed to wear a tudung after years of discussion with Muslim leaders. The tudung will still not be allowed in other uniformed professions such as the police force, which he said should remain “secular” entities. 

Singaporeans mostly appreciated the change, but hoped it would not pressure Muslim nurses into wearing the tudung.

“As a Singaporean who wears the tudung, thank you very much. This means a lot to us. One simple positive action, but means a lot to some of us, will only bring about more peace, abundance and prosperity to Singapore,” Haifa Salman Baladram wrote.

“[H]ope that those [M]alay-muslims who do not wish to wear it are free to continue doing so, and are not pressured/expected to wear it by the rest of the community,” Redditor Shimmynywimminy wrote.

Other much-discussed points raised included Lee’s concerns about the lack of protection for delivery workers, the number of Malays renting instead of owning homes, and his approval of a minimum wage – something many recalled was introduced by the opposition. 

As for the preponderance of Malay renters, Lee said that it was a “worrying trend.” But some wondered why it was an issue since all public housing flats are under 99-year leases. 

“The ‘house’ we buy don’t even belong to us forever or can be inherited, right?” Rais Ismail said in the Malay community Facebook group Suara Melayu Singapura. Lee’s concern about employment protection for delivery workers, including their retirement, was largely welcomed. 

Watch the prime minister’s speech here:

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