(Delivered in Parliament on 3 April 2017)
Mister Deputy Speaker sir, my Party Chairman the honourable Ms Sylvia Lim is away on a Parliamentary trip in Bangladesh. But, like Sylvia, the eight male members of the Workers’ Party in the chamber today wish to affirm our strong support for the aspirations of Singapore women.
Sir, it is said that women hold up half the sky. But I think at present they hold up even more than half.
Role of Men in Society
Men need to step up and hold their fair share.
Women bear the lion’s share of home-making and child-care in our families. They are, for the most part, the most critical role models for our children during their precious formative years. Their care and their example shapes the quality of the next generation of Singaporeans, thus setting the tone and course for the future of this country.
But all too often Singapore women become the stressed tuition teacher in chief…fielding incessant almost day to day communications with their children’s school administrators and teachers, coaching the kids in the evening, managing tuition classes, ferrying children to and from these classes…Singapore mothers are at the front lines of an academic system that places a huge burden of academic content mastery on our children while layering ever more non-academic demands on top.
Women also still bear the brunt of keeping the home clean. Women who work very often have to cook and clean after they return from work. Singaporeans put in among the longest working hours in the world. The norm of long working hours – which does not equate with high impact if productivity is low – places many women in the hardest of positions. Stay longer at work, and have to work at house-keeping and coaching kids till late into the night, sacrificing sleep? Or leave the workplace early and risk that promotion? Again, Singapore women are at the front lines – this time of the issues of productivity and long working hours that Singapore is grappling with.
Can men do more at home? Yes.
In saying that, I do not downplay the contributions of the small number of stay at home fathers in Singapore. Nor do I want to downplay the role of the many, many husbands and fathers who play their part in raising the kids and keeping the home clean.
But on the whole Singapore men are no different from men all over the world. They can and should do more at home.
Men can do more to be with their children. They can do more to guide their children’s academic and character development. They can do more to form strong, close, trusting relationships with their children, relationships that will last till the ends of their lives.
For our children are among our most important companions in life’s journey. Those relationships should be immensely important part of what make our lives meaningful. And those relationships are the touchstones of emotional stability, self-mastery and character, for both parents and children.
For me, being a part of my children’s lives as they are growing up has been not only emotionally rewarding but has been a huge source of wisdom and learning.
Men can do more to keep the home clean. Domestic helpers can play their part but they can only do so much and they are another category of women who need to be treated with respect. And most Singaporeans do not employ domestic helpers. Machines like the “irobot” floor cleaner can only do so much. The work that is left over needs to be shared more equally.
Yes, Madam Speaker, men can and should do more. I myself can and should do more.
And the cornerstone of men doing more is to respect women as equal human beings.
When that respect is practised beyond lip service and words but in day to day actions and thoughts, that respect will inevitably spill over to all social institutions. That respect will help eliminate the vestiges of inequality that women still face inside and outside of the home.
Social norms are created every single day by our behaviour as individuals. We need to reflect on these behaviours, which include our speech and habits. No one should refer to a grown woman as a “girl” any more than they refer to grown men as “boys.”
Role of the Private Sector
More can be done by our companies. From corporate boardrooms to the cockpits of airlines, firms should take concrete steps to advance greater gender diversity in all roles including management.
There is a growing body of research that shows that gender diversity is not only correlated with better business performance but that there may be an actual causal connection between the two. Companies can, for example, promote mentorship programs for older and more senior female employees to coach and counsel younger female employees.
Gender diversity cuts both ways. Some professions tend to be dominated by women, like teaching, social work and nursing. More can be done in these professions to attract men and create male role models so that these industries, too, will gain the benefits of gender diversity.
Role of State Policies
Finally, the state plays a huge role and a much bigger role in Singapore than in most developed countries relative to civil society and the private sector. The role of the state in Singapore is crucial in fostering the kind of gender equality of opportunity, choices and respect that should characterise Singapore.
Is there more that the state can do? Yes.
While progress has been made, the state can do more to promote greater flexibility in part-time work, job sharing and re-entry into the workforce for women who have taken a break for child-care.
In this regard, I note the reply to my Parliamentary question on job sharing and part-time work in the civil service, that those on such arrangements increased from around 1,500 in 2011 to 2,000 in 2015. This is still a small number and I suspect that even more civil servants would take this option if there was better assurance that career prospects would not be set back from a spell of part-time work and that it is easy to transition back to full-time work. Singapore’s civil service is not only Singapore’s biggest employer but an employer that often sets labour market norms by the power of its example. Having more civil servants on part-time and job sharing would set a powerful example to the private sector. This could in turn enable more women to join the workforce and also exit and re-enter more readily.
The state should also step up efforts to root out discrimination based on gender. My colleague Mr Faisal Manap last year called for a voluntary Fair Employment Contribution Fund to be created to promote fair employment practices as a precursor to possibly legislating anti-discrimination laws under a broader National Employment Framework. I repeat this call here.
The time has come to regularly survey and publish perceptions of discrimination and seek to find patterns that can be addressed by MOM and TAFEP to ensure a fair workplace. As a society, we are mature enough to have these conversations.
One area that needs to be addressed is whether women are being paid less for doing the same work as men. The published data is inconclusive and further study should be done.
The state can do more to facilitate women re-entering the workforce. I would like to suggest a program that enables home-makers to stay in touch with the industry they have left. MOM could work with the TACs in various industries to allow home-makers to keep abreast of industry developments and attend ad hoc events and trainings, through email newsletters and online resources. This would better prepare women who choose to re-enter the workforce at some point.
The state should also catalyse mentorship programs for women in large companies, as I referred to earlier. A good place to start would be the civil service.
Would MOE consider a structured system for inviting women from different professions to give talks at schools about what they have accomplished? Role models make a huge difference in life. Female students need more tangible examples that whatever obstacles they face in their future workplace can be overcome.
Sexist attitudes can be formed and hardened during National Service. By the same token National Service can be a powerful platform to reinforce positive ideas. Can MINDEF organize talks and programs to educate National Servicemen about the evils of domestic violence and sexual harassment?
Lastly, if women hold up more than half the sky, a single parent, man or woman, is holding together the entire world for their family. More can still be done to enhance benefits and in particular access to housing for single parents including unwed mothers, as Workers’ Party MPs have long argued for.
It is time for us to stop brushing aside this idea with the broom of the moral hazard argument. Hardly anyone chooses to become a single parent as a lifestyle choice.
Granting more equal benefits will not provoke a rash of people wanting to become single parents with all the financial and emotional challenges that that entails. Once we recognize just how outrageous this idea is, we start to see that there are no sound objections to equalizing benefits to single parents and thus not punishing their children.
In conclusion, when more is done on all these fronts, what is the end game? What are the aspirations of Singapore women that we will be affirming and advancing?
As a man I am in no position to speak for women. I can only share my view.
Which is that Singapore women should have what all human beings should have – choices. The choice to strike the balance they want to in the workplace and in the home. The choice to strive and achieve their dreams in any line of work they apply themselves to. The choice to be an amazing homemaker who enables her family to fulfil their deep potential and in so doing enables herself to do the same.
To make Singapore a home where all women have these choices we need institutional equality of opportunity and here the state and private sector can and should do more. We need men to step up and play a greater role at home.
And most of all we need to continually reinforce that glue that binds men and women together in families, in the community and as a nation – and that glue is, quite simply, respect.