Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021
Madam Deputy Speaker, it’s my honour to rise in support of this motion. Madam, this motion calls for a whole-of-society effort to further gender equality. The choice of words in today’s motion, led by my Parliamentary colleague Ms He Ting Ru, is significant and deliberate. The motion refers to each woman “freely” realizing her full potential and participation in society. The word “freely” refers to how different women may choose different pathways at different stages in their lives, without facing significant disadvantages for the decisions they make.
And why does our motion speak of the need to strive for gender equality? Because obstacles bar the way to that today.
These obstacles lie in our eco-system of laws and regulations, which present challenges in terms of discrimination in the workplace and insurance premiums, for example. My Parliamentary colleagues and I from the Workers’ Party will cite more examples; and offer proposals to address these.
These obstacles also lie in cultural norms – the unspoken assumption that a woman should bear more of the burden of housework even if she has a career like her husband; or the assumption that the mother has to be the one responsible for the child’s academic progress in school and liaising with teachers more than the father.
The obstacles to gender equality also lie in our minds; in the mind of the woman who hesitates to speak up at company meetings such that her male colleagues hog the air-time; or in the mind of the man who believes he can sexually harass a female co-worker with impunity.
In debating this important motion, let us address ourselves to these three types of impediments to full gender equality – the structural, the cultural and the psychological.
All of society will gain if we succeed in that. Because every woman freely realising her full potential will mean that every woman can give of her best in the workplace and in the home, assured of an environment where she is given opportunities and support that are not less than any man; it means that every woman can strive for new heights in her professional field and contribute fully to leadership. This would mean a better, stronger society, which benefits men too.
The obstacles outlined above underscore the need for us to review the challenges facing the diversity of roles women take on in society. For this speech, I will take reference from the three most important women in my life – my wife, my mother and my daughter. It is with that reference that I shall touch on three segments of women today – the homemaker, the career women, and the young woman who is our hope for tomorrow.
Firstly, the home maker. In today’s world and with Singapore’s high cost of living, the decision to be a homemaker is not made lightly by both wife and husband.
My wife was an executive in the fields of public service, communications and academic administration before becoming a full-time home-maker, transitioning via a period of flexible working. Her day is packed as she makes many decisions, while providing a great deal of parenting attention to our teenage children.
In my wife’s case, she sacrificed a dynamic professional career in the media industry for the sake of focusing on our two young children. Many women make this choice knowing that they would have enjoyed more lucrative outcomes if they had stayed in their careers.
Retirement adequacy for home-makers
Some women who make this choice find themselves struggling economically in later life. Many women outlive their husbands – life expectancies being what they are – and many have insufficient funds in their CPF, or an sufficient inheritance from their late husbands or support from their children. Older women have 12% to 25% less in their CPF compared to older men, depending on the age bracket.
The government currently encourages husbands to voluntarily transfer funds to their wife’s CPF. 15,000 persons topped up their spouses’ CPF in 2020, up from 11,000 in 2018. But this is still a drop in the ocean and does not fully address the problem, if you consider the numbers of women who find themselves in this position.
Can quantifying the economic contribution that a home-maker makes help us design policy solutions? An ILO study from 2018 of 60 countries found that men spend 83 minutes a day on unpaid household work whereas women spend three times that, at 265 minutes. Academic studies have been conducted to attempt to quantify the commercial value of the work a home-maker does in other countries, yielding various dollar figures.
It is not fair that women who sacrifice to build a home and support their children should have to struggle later in life because of an inequitable sharing of family earnings. As a start, I would suggest that research be undertaken on the commercial value of a home-maker’s contribution and that this be used as a reference point in determining if there is a need to raise the government quantum or ceiling for dollar-for-dollar matching of husband’s CPF transfers to their wives or the tax reliefs for husbands for the same; or other policy interventions.
The Option of Flexible Work
Many women who become home-makers would like to have the choice of going into part-time, flexible work or job-sharing. Employers should strive to make more of such options available, as many more progressive employers already do. My colleague Professor Jamus Lim will speak more on this.
Rather than focusing on consulting work for companies to create more flexible work arrangements, I would urge the government to consider more schemes that financially support, during the transition period, mothers (and fathers) who want to transition from a home-maker role to part-time work, nudging people to make such a choice and thus helping us to use local talent to boost our Labour Force Participation Rate or LFPR.
As the largest employer, the public service should set an example here. In 2016, I asked a Parliamentary Question on the extent of flexible work and job sharing in the public service, revealing that there were 2,000 public officers on part-time arrangements. If the public service takes a proactive approach to designing and offering part-time jobs rather than only reactively considering applications for such from full-time officers, it could well find that it is able to tap on a broader field of talent, as well as help ex-officers transition back to full-time work at their own pace.
Next, many home-makers these days are experimenting with being home-based entrepreneurs, working flexibly and often using digital platforms like Youtube videos, virtual meeting providers and e-commerce enabling platforms. Some have become quite good at this.
I hope that such home-based entrepreneurs can obtain the same access to start-up grants as other kinds of start-ups. I would urge our social enterprises and Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) to support such micro-entrepreneurship and publicise good case studies. Supporting home-based micro-businesses enriches the eco-system of options that women – and, indeed, men – have.
As I think back to my wife, I would want her to live in a society which respects and recognises the work she does and gives her many meaningful choices for her future.
Secondly, I turn to working women. My lode-star when I think about working women is my mother, who was an excellent, recognised primary school teacher in a neighbourhood school; and who held up more than her fair share of the work at home.
Many women, like my mother did, toil in the workplace and also bear an unequal share of housework and parenting work at home. Many also face a non-level playing field at work. How can we make things better?
Madam, we do continue to hear stories of women who feel they have been denied promotions or pay raises because of their maternity leave; or the expectation of the same; or worse.
According to the answer to a PQ I filed in March this year, TAFEP handled an average of around 400 discrimination cases each year for the past three years, about a third of which related to gender or age discrimination. In about 50 cases each year, or 13% of cases, the employers were found to be in breach of the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices and had their foreign work pass privileges suspended.
These numbers seem small. However, surveys show that perceptions of discrimination are not small. From the reply to a PQ I filed in Feb 2020 and a report released in Nov 2020, the percentage who perceived discrimination during their job search process has increased from 10% in 2014 to 15% in 2018. This 15% figure does not seem to me to gel with only 400 discrimination cases a year and only 13% of those leading to actual findings of discrimination.
There could be under-reporting by those who have concerns about confidentiality; or are unclear about what is discrimination; or are pessimistic of the odds of success. In fact, some of my constituents have shared such concerns with the current discrimination complaints handling regime.
Currently, from my experience, there is a perception among firms that TAFEP guidelines are not sufficiently clear as to what constitutes a breach. There is also a perception among potential complainants that the burden of proof is on them and the odds of success are not high – which the 13% figure seems to be consistent with.
The advantage of anti-discrimination laws, which the Workers’ Party called for in its 2020 GE Manifesto, is that there is necessarily clarity on what constitutes an offence; and a clear line of
investigative and prosecutorial responsibility for enforcing the law against offenders. Also, the prospect of an offence by a company would have a stronger deterrent effect than that of merely being found in breach of non-mandatory guidelines and, if you’re in the 13%, merely being subject to curtailment of work pass privileges, which is not a publicly known demerit, as it were. Moreover, not every company would be equally dependent on foreign work passes, so that lever of control would have variable efficacy and deterrent effects.
There is an argument that anti-discrimination laws would deter investment into Singapore and be anti-business. I disagree. In fact, many companies would benefit from the greater clarity and stronger penalties that such laws provide, as it would enable them to pressure their middle managers more effectively to stop discriminatory practices and thus protect their companies from reputational risk, like if an ex-employee takes to social media to allege discrimination.
A 2007 UNESCO study found that much talent is being wasted as women turn away from science and technology careers as a result of discrimination.1 A World Bank study also found that gender gaps in education and employment considerably reduce economic growth in countries.2
Madam, a few days ago, in this House, the government said that it would review the viability of anti-discrimination laws, a shift in the position that it had previously held and defended inside and
outside this House. We in the Workers’ Party welcome this change and look forward to the outcome of this review.
Miscellaneous points on working women
There is more that companies can do to level the playing field for working women – for example, promoting shared paternity and maternity leave, another Workers’ Party Manifesto point which my colleague Mr Louis Chua will expand on; countering sexual harassment in the workplace which my colleague Ms Raeesah Khan will speak on; and making available pump rooms and enabling parents to bring children to work under certain circumstances, where practicable.
It’s important for us to remember what is at stake in ensuring a level playing field for women. A fairer workplace will bring more women into the workforce and enhance our labour force participation rate. It promises to unlock female talent.
Ultimately, giving women a fair deal in the workplace is not just about the workplace. It’s about ensuring that women have a fair deal at home. Which brings me to the third and last part of my speech, on young women and how we bring about a change in culture and mindsets.
Instilling Gender Equality principles in the Young
I speak passionately about this because I am thinking about my daughter. She loves debate, literature, current affairs…she is the only extrovert in the family. She has far more friends than I had at her age. We have raised her to choose her own path freely and to never feel less than anyone else
because of her gender or the colour of her skin; and I’m proud that she lives and breathes those values.
Madam, gender equality is more than the sum of government policies. It has to be rooted in our culture and our mind-sets.
Too many men – and women – still feel that the man should be the dominant partner at home; that men have the right to dominate the air-time and the rewards at work; and that “men will be men” socially and standing up to sexual harassment is futile, or worse.
What we need is a culture where men, and women, openly acknowledge and shift social mores against non-gender-neutral policies, practices, behaviours and assumptions.
How do we change mindsets on gender equality? Education
In an adjournment motion, my colleague Ms Raeesah Khan spoke about the need for the education system to teach the notion of consent. I would urge the government to also ensure that secondary school students are taught the principles of gender equality: what it is, why it’s important and what laws and provisions buttress this principle in Singapore. I would like to ask if this is being consistently done through the social studies curriculum in secondary schools; and whether this curriculum has been updated to reflect the general understanding of harassment that has evolved since the #metoo movement emerged in 2017.
How do we change mindsets on gender equality? The role of men
Lastly, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to speak about men. Men need to reflect on our own mindset towards gender equality. From my experience, I do not believe that most men want their wives, mothers, daughters and female friends to live in a gender-unequal society. Having said that, some men continue to harbour sexist attitudes when it comes to the notion of consent and when it comes to parenting and housekeeping at home. We need to continue to shine the light on this.
Whole-of-society efforts – from government, business, NGOs, schools and ordinary citizens – are needed to banish these attitudes into the rubbish bin of history. We cannot adopt the dangerous assumption that these anachronistic attitudes will naturally disappear over time. They won’t. The process needs nudging and accelerating.
I wonder whether National Service can be a platform to convey training, in an engaging way, about how sexist attitudes and behaviour, including domestic violence and harassment, harm everyone. This should be looked into. I made a similar argument when speaking on the aspirations of Singapore women motion in 2017. Efforts should be made to ensure that most batches of NSFs train under at least one or a few female instructors.
I would also like to address the concerns of some men who have opined that too much talk about sexism against women is in itself sexist and equivalent to misandry or the hatred of men. Madam, it saddened me to see some such comments on the social media platforms of the Workers’ Party, Ms He Ting Ru and myself after we announced the filing of this motion.
The argument used here is that men are placed at a disadvantage due to having to serve National Service and reservist duty and due to the effect of the Women’s Charter on events like divorce.
I do not disagree that there are men who need help and face unequal treatment in certain contexts. Some men experience abuse from the women in their lives; or, as stay-at-home fathers, may face difficulties collecting alimony, for example. Many men struggle to balance reservist obligations with the demands of their career. The Workers’ Party will always stand up for workers that are facing problems with unequal treatment, whether male or female.
But I would urge men to reflect on the fact that, while there has been progress, sexism and gender inequality also harms men. Diminished opportunities or discrimination at work mean that men have to step up and bear more of the income-earning burden in the household. Sexist expectations in the workplace and at home can deprive men of the opportunity to be equal co-parents with their wives. Gender stereotypes also hurt men – for example, the societal stigma against men who earn less, who are carers, and who make non-mainstream career choices
Moreover, women still face unequal challenges on the whole. Sexist discrimination at work still exists; sexual harassment and assault against women by men still exists; the unequal effect of Covid on women exists; a gender wage gap and unequal Careshield Life premiums still exist; working women bearing an unequal burden of housework and parenting and losing out in their career still happens; along with many other aspects of the gender equality problem that we shall touch on.
Bridging the gap on these issues help the mother, daughters, and wife of every man. A shift in the perception of these issues would also signal to men that they have the freedom not to conform to existing stereotypes and expectations placed on them. Therefore, remedying these issues is ultimately in the interest of every man.
My wife and I are doing our best to raise our 13 year old son to deeply internalise these values. The progress he has made thus far gives me cause for pride.
In conclusion Madam Deputy Speaker, usually for most policy outcomes we have quantifiable measures and hard targets we want to achieve. This is a good way to measure the success of any policy we adopt. But I would like to add that in the case of gender equality, the biggest indicator of success will be when we as a society stop boxing women into long held stereotypes.
When we think of engineers and scientists, will we be gender-blind? Instead of the term “girl boss”, why not just boss?
Instead of struggling between being a stay-at-home mum and giving up one’s career or being a working mum and losing out while facing “mom guilt”, is it too much of an ideal to expect that one day, women will, by and large, have the tools and means to combine both roles comfortably?
Achieving that balance will go far in benefitting not just women, but the progress of Singapore as a whole.