Gender Equality Motion – Speech by He Ting Ru

Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021

That this House affirms that gender equality requires a whole of society effort to empower every woman to freely realise her full potential and participation in society.

I beg to move that this House affirms that gender equality requires a whole of society effort to empower every woman to freely realise her full potential and participation in society.

As a little girl, I remember listening to stories told by my maternal grandmother about how she moved with her mother to ‘Nanyang’, a term used to describe Southeast Asia by the Chinese diaspora. As the eldest child and being a daughter, her childhood was often a battle between herself and her parents, who felt that it was unseemly for girls to not only be seen running around outdoors, but for them to be educated. She was allowed to start primary school, but was pulled out two years later when it was deemed this was more than enough education a girl would need. The next three years were a battle, which she obviously won, as she was allowed to attend another two years of school, before being banished to the upper floor of their house to look after the household and her younger siblings. I would imagine how she would sneak books upstairs and hide in dark corners pouring through them as she painstakingly taught herself how to read. This learning was to be a lifelong journey for her, for even into her 90s she would carry around a battered old dictionary with her which she would use to look up words she came across in the newspapers that she did not know.

I now know that it was a bitter regret of Popo’s that she was born a girl, and that she was not allowed to further her education as a result. But by the time she passed away five years ago, aged 99, her nine granddaughters have led hugely different lives — from being the first

Singaporean woman on Everest, authoring bestselling cookbooks, studying, living, and working on five continents, and speaking here today in this House. She would also marvel at how Singapore’s legislative chamber now comprises 30% women, and that there would even be a year officially dedicated to women.

But while we applaud the efforts of all that have made progress for women possible, true gender equality is yet to be obtained. It is something that we still have to work towards, and we must make sure that the strides that we have taken do not suffer any reversals, as is indeed threatening to be the case in a post-Covid world. Some of the issues faced by my grandmother may seem extreme to us with modern eyes, but I believe we women still feel the vestiges of such issues, whether it is the promotion or pay raise being held off because we have taken or are about to take maternity leave, or the perception that men should continue to play a secondary role in caring for our loved ones.

Just after the General Election last year, the Government announced that 2021 would be designated as the Year to Celebrate SG Women. I note that the Government is due to publish its White Paper imminently to review women’s issues, and has been carrying out a series of feedback and recommendation sessions through its various organisations ranging from the NTUC Women Committee to the People’s Association Women Integration Network and many more. I also noticed that eight days after the notice for this Motion was filed, the PAP Women’s Wing and Youth Wing released its joint paper on women’s development. I am heartened to see that this flurry of activity indicates that we are not alone in believing that much remains to be done to advance gender equality and to remove barriers to empowering women.

Coming back to the reasons for filing this Motion, we at the Workers’ Party also believe that it is more important than ever that we talk about the lived experiences of our Singaporean women, to identify the areas for improvement, and to have a discussion about empowering women to carve out our own roles in Singapore and the world. It is why our manifesto for the 2020 General Election contains concrete proposals that address issues relating to improving gender equality. The ideas and topics we will bring up today represents the Workers’ Party’s contribution to the discussion, based on our own policy proposals, lived experiences and our engagement with fellow Singaporeans and our constituents over the years. It is with this in mind, that my colleagues and I will today share our thoughts and vision for gender equality in Singapore.

We believe it is a good thing that the Government has, over the last 12 months, put in much time and effort into understanding the issues relating to gender equality. This Private Member’s Motion is our contribution to this national discourse. We look forward to seeing the results of the consultations and conversations held, and hope to see substantive legislative action taken to fully enshrine the change we want to see into law.

The UN Human Development Report in 2020 ranked Singapore 12th in the world for the gender inequality index, behind countries such as Switzerland, Denmark and South Korea. Clearly we can and must do more to improve gender equality in Singapore. The promise of a society in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality, where all legal, social and economic barriers to empowerment have been removed, remains unfulfilled.

When speaking about gender equality, I am often asked — as someone who only has sons — why is this an issue which I feel is important? Why would I want to disadvantage my sons by speaking about empowering women and girls to achieve equality with their male peers?

My answer is simple: gender equality benefits ALL of society. We MUST stop thinking about gender equality as being gender wars. This is especially the case in Singapore, where we have been told since a tender age, that our people are our only natural resource. Women and girls represent half our population, and any form of gender inequality means that we, as a society, are not able to fulfil our full potential. My sons, along with other boys and men, will and should not be threatened by a more gender equal society. Instead, I believe that they too will benefit when we remove all barriers for both sexes to achieve their full potential, and to freely decide whatever role in society each of us chooses to play.

Gender equality should be an aim for all of us, and as we will see during today’s debate, men are an integral part of the conversation, and must do their part to bring it about. But before we get carried away slapping ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves for managing to recruit many ‘allies’, we also should pause and ask whether it is helpful to conflate this with the attitude that women need ‘champions’ and ‘rescuing’ by some white knight in shining armor, or if women can be empowered to choose for ourselves the best path forward, noting that my best path may or may not be what the next woman needs or desires.

Of course we must not forget that there are vulnerable groups of women who do need the protection of the law and wider society, and our suggested approach does not take anything away from that protection. Our concern is when we approach gender equality with preconceived ideas of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for ‘a woman’s place in society’ and ‘how we can help them’. This is not helpful, because women are not victims, and to treat us as such only continues to reinforce some of the patriarchal prejudices which have held women back from achieving our fullest potential for too long.

Another question we get is why are we focusing so much on this topic while the country is battling a new wave of Covid, and there are bigger issues which we need to contend with instead of opening a debate on gender equality. Again, the answer is that across all societies, women make up the bulk of those in the caring professions such as nursing and social care who have been stretched to their limits in the last 18 months, and at home it is often mothers who have taken on the burden as we juggled home-based work, home-schooling, childcare and housework. It is only right that we address this issue now as we emerge into a post-pandemic world, to ensure that we do not fall behind in the progress made thus far.

And for those who feel that gender equality is a largely philosophical exercise, perhaps speak to a woman who is denied a pay increment or job offer because of her gender or status as a mother. For us, it does not get any closer to bread and butter issues than this.

How to achieve gender equality is a wide topic that comprises many areas, ranging from the gendered impact of ageing, care responsibilities,

and our economic and social contributions. My colleagues and I will today elaborate on each of these and share our thoughts on how we can remove barriers to gender equality, and what support and infrastructure we feel is necessary to better empower women to fulfil their potential.

I would like to focus on a few topics today:

First, the systemic and cultural impediments to gender equality, and what can be done about it.

Second, the adverse effects that the Covid pandemic has brought to women in particular.

Third, the challenges faced by women as we age.

Starting with the biggest impediment to gender equality, it is our view that if we persist in thinking of ‘women’s issues’ and ‘women’s success and progress’ through the lens of traditional measures such as climbing the career ladder and economic earning power, gender equality will be hard to obtain. Work traditionally done by women — such as caring, running households, and looking after our families — continue to be seen as being inferior or merely ancillary to the ‘real work’ of earning wages. Ask parents of young children during lockdown whether they truly understood how essential and difficult the job of teaching and caring for children is, and we will tell you we do not understand why such crucial labour is generally seen as being low status and is not well paid.

Conversely, the issue cuts both ways: it is a shame that the worth of a man is also often based so much on his ability to earn wages to support his family, with little acknowledgement given to his wish to also participate in the unpaid labour of the household and the care of his loved ones should he choose to do so.

We should also strive to respect choices that women make, and leave room for women to choose non-conventional paths in life. A woman should not be defined by her relationship status, nor should we judge her for deciding not to have children. Instead of jumping to conclusions and assuming there must be something wrong if someone — especially a woman — is unmarried or does not have children. Perhaps it is time we accept these as one of life’s outcomes and move on, instead of constantly questioning what went wrong to lead to it. This approach would also mean much to women — and men — who may be single or childless not by choice, but because of the hand that life has dealt them.

In this, our media needs to also play its part. Notably, in a CNA article dated 30 June this year, which attempted to explore the trend of highly educated women remaining single, the questions asked were, I quote, “Are they too picky, too busy, too independent, too intimidating?” Unquote. I am just not sure if we will ever see questions being asked of a highly educated unmarried man in his 40s.

Now that we have laid out the problem, what can we do about it? There have been many studies that have shown that having enough female leaders is important for any society or organisation to ensure that female perspectives are taken into account, and to give rise to a diversity of views and experiences.

As women, we too need to lead by example in accepting and supporting other women and to show how this can be done, regardless of the choices we wish to make in life. These range from striving to be corporate or political leaders, to deciding to take time off work to

concentrate on starting a family or other interests. Easily accessible and widely-known support and mentorship networks need to be continued to be built up along with formal mentorship programmes (with both female and male mentors) at various levels to support women.

Policy-makers can help, and should work together with employers and other stakeholders to put in place the right policies. For example, we must remove barriers to women who wish to re-enter the workforce by targeted job matching and paid re-entry schemes. Our 2020 manifesto’s specific proposal was for tax reliefs to be granted to employers who run successful re-entry programmes for mothers and informal carers who have taken time off to fulfil their caring responsibilities. These schemes could range from mentorships to skills updating, and should offer a permanent position at their completion. Participants would benefit from not having to accept a lower paid or lower skilled position. This is also a proposal which I spoke on during the 2015 General Election campaign. It is also one which the Workers’ Party has had in our manifesto since at least 2015.

Beyond this, I am happy to see that there have been calls from all sides for the introduction of anti-discrimination laws to better protect women, especially in the workplace. This is a crucial yet missing part of our legislative framework. Mandating the obligation of a harassment-free workplace that is imposed on employers, sends a strong message to our business community that we as a society will not accept discriminatory practices against any of our workers. The current TAFEP regime does not go far enough in providing a framework for accountability for perpetrators, and neglects the nuances of such situations by placing the burden of reporting the incident on the victim. It has been more than 50

years since the Women’s Charter was passed in Singapore. Surely, we must have made more progress since?

Likewise, when we consider that not all women tread or should be expected to tread the same path in life, we should consider the aspirations of women and their partners of when and how to start a family. It is why we have, in our last manifesto, called for the formation of a not-for-profit National Fertility Centre, to provide assisted conception procedures along with advice. This centre should also look to offering preservation of eggs and sperm to benefit married couples for whom this option may be necessary. There should also be a wider conversation about re-looking the laws that currently ban egg freezing for non-medical reasons, with any proposed amendments or solutions bearing in mind not only the concerns raised by some of us, but also consider whether such procedures will be accessible to different socio-economic groups.

More generally, considering the gender angle for any policy being proposed or implemented should also become second nature, and perhaps a national gender scorecard can be created and published in this regard. This scorecard would track progress (or not, as the case may be) that we have made for matters such as the gender wage gap and contain a regular time use study which quantifies the amount of unpaid work being performed in Singapore on an annual basis — particularly as the bulk of care work is undertaken by women. The scorecard can also profile companies that are leading the way in efforts to increase women’s participation in leadership positions and decision-making processes to encourage greater adoption of these best practices.

Another partner in our quest to change mindsets relating to prejudice and stereotypes would be our schools. Education is a key way for us to encourage a change in prejudicial mindsets from an early age. Teachers should be empowered to host frank discussions on gender inequality, the impact of discrimination, and a re-think of gender roles and expectations. An independent review of our school curriculum should also be held, as it can help to propose measures to be applied consistently across all schools to make progress on our gender equality efforts.

Moving on to why we need to take action now – why must we act immediately to put in place the appropriate policies and any legislative amendments while Singapore is still ‘feeling its way’ out of the pandemic? It has been found that while men are more likely to suffer ill effects from Covid-19 infection, women across different societies around the world have been disproportionately affected — economically, mentally, and physically — by the changes and disruption brought about by Covid-19. For instance, a study by IPSOS in May this year here in Singapore found that household and care responsibilities were sources of stress for more than half of mothers, with similar figures reporting not having the time to look after their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. The adverse impact on women stretches across all spheres in a woman’s life, from the workplace to the home, and has been found across all socio-economic classes and societies.

On the economic front, women in the labour market have suffered more than men in the economic slump that has followed the pandemic. A Politico article published last month cited expert opinions that women in low-wage jobs are most at risk of leaving the workforce permanently, which in turn would have a detrimental effect on our economy. Singapore

too is no exception. A study published in the European Societies Journal in September 2020 included women in Singapore in their data and found that across the board, change in working status to unemployment, reductions in working hours and transitions to working from home have been more frequent for women than for men. The consequent loss to income or adverse impact on careers could be irreversible for us who have been so affected.

And for women who do manage to hold on to our employment status despite the ever-changing, challenging environment, study after study has found that the transition to alternative working arrangements and the shutting off of schools and care support structures have affected women more than men. In fact, UN Women has estimated that while women were doing three times as much unpaid work as men before the pandemic, the figure has at least doubled since the pandemic hit. Warnings were also sounded that any gains of the last 25 years could be wiped out, and there are also many concerns about the impact on the well-being of women who already bear so much mental load of running households.

Having myself come through the circuit breaker last year with a very active three and two year old cooped up at home, locking my study door so that I could answer emails and get on Zoom calls while nursing first trimester morning exhaustion and morning sickness, with our usual main support network in my parents cut off, I often wonder how I managed to survive, and I know that I only managed to juggle my full-time job due to an extremely understanding boss. I can only imagine how much worse this would have been for other women such as single mothers, and families who do not have access to help at home or a support network.

These challenges are further exacerbated by how gender-based violence too has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Indeed the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) also reported increases of 137 per cent. in the number of family violence calls during our lockdown last year.

These developments are worrying, and tell us that addressing gender equality must be done even as we continue to tackle the effects of Covid-19. What is equally alarming, is that there appears to be a limited number of Singapore-specific studies available, which leaves us in the dark as to the true impact of Covid in women. I therefore believe that the Government has to study and publish its data and statistics to measure the adverse impact Covid has had on women, and also to carry out longitudinal studies to measure the different spheres in which women have been adversely affected, and to catch any trends before these reverses become hard-baked into our economy and society.

The fragility of progress in gender equality itself is also a matter for consideration, as we build further policies to ensure that future shocks to society do not result in such reversals in the future. My colleagues will continue to set out our proposals to address this.

Finally, to conclude, I would like to touch on the issues that women face when we age. Singapore is ageing, and by 2030, 25% of our population is expected to be aged 65 and above. This means that more Singaporeans would need help to perform day-to-day tasks and will cease to be active members of the workforce. The informal caring burden will grow. It is therefore essential that we put in place sustainable policies to address these concerns. As a first step, we repeat our

previous call for better recognition of those that carry out these informal caring responsibilities, and it is only by measuring the contributions of unpaid workers and publishing it as a supplement to our GDP data that we can start developing policies to guard against these workers — who tend to be overwhelmingly female — from becoming destitute in what should be their golden years.

To add to the challenges women face, the life expectancy at birth in 2020 for women was 86.1, compared with 81.5 for men. Yet women are more likely to take on a disproportionate role in providing informal care — be it for their children, husbands or elders — often at an economic cost as we often have to scale back on the type or amount of paid employment taken on. Coupled with the gender wage gap, this is something that has serious implications on women’s financial resources, and in particular, retirement adequacy.

Indeed it was found that women have more difficulty than men when it comes to meeting the Basic Retirement Sum in their CPF accounts, with only 56% of women meeting the amount compared with 67% for men in 2018. Clearly the various top-up schemes available have still not addressed this gap between the genders, hence our call to relax rules on the transfer of CPF funds before the age of 55 (after the Minimum Sum has been met), to allow transfers to older relatives. While I note that there are now top-up schemes available, it is not clear yet about the impact these have on women’s retirement adequacy.

We need to continue to question gender norms that view informing caring as primarily a job for women, and instead encourage a more equal distribution of such responsibilities. But the problem will of course

not be solved overnight. At the same time, it is also key that the women who currently shoulder the responsibility of informal care do not end up being further penalised by our policies.

In this regard, the Workers’ Party has spoken up against the Government’s current policy of requiring higher Careshield premiums to be paid by women, as this at best causes a double penalty on many women who are already struggling to deal with a gender wage gap and taking on less paid work due to their caring responsibilities. In 2018 when Careshield was introduced, my colleagues Sylvia Lim and Pritam Singh, the members for Aljunied GRC, pointed out not only the devastating impact this would have on women’s participation in the labour force, but also fundamentally, how this difference in treatment along gender lines directly contradicts the scheme’s intended features of ‘universality’ and ‘risk-pooling’.

Apart from being unfair on women, this sets a dangerous precedent where we differentiate policy application within society. For example, if life expectancy differs between races and socio-economic groups, would different premiums then be justifiable between these different groups, depending on how we splice the population?

Creating this heavier burden on women therefore does not move us in the right direction. National policies such as CareShield Life should pool risk across differences and instead share the burden of care, especially as our population ages.

To conclude, yes, we can be proud of the progress that we have made for gender equality so far. But as has already been acknowledged by

many in this House, much work remains to be done. We should not get so carried away by our perceived successes and with patting ourselves on our backs that we miss this key moment to effect sustainable change for gender equality. I have outlined some of the key areas of concern in this speech, and my colleagues at the Workers’ Party will continue to do so. I also believe that all of us here do want to ensure that we work together to engender a whole of society effort to empower every woman to freely realise her full potential and participation in society.

And in that spirit, I look forward to a collegial, frank and honest debate on the Motion.