Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021
Mdm Deputy Speaker, my speech today is about women. I want to focus on four main areas: sexual violence, female genital cutting, polygamy and the hijab.
Last month, I spoke about Sexuality Education. I shared that underaged cases made up 37 percent of sexual violence cases between 2017 and 2019, yet, our sexuality education programmes only teach consent explicitly at the university level, and sexuality education at lower levels happens just once or twice a year. Without consent-focused sexuality education from a young age, our children remain vulnerable to sexual violence—a trauma that can hurt a person for a lifetime.
Sexuality education is a lifelong journey that starts at home and in school. Open, non-judgmental discussions about consent and respect under a standardised and compulsory national curriculum are essential, as are safe spaces and bystander training from an early age. This will help our children grow up to be responsible, aware adults, and make Singapore a safe and nurturing home for all.
The PAP Women’s Wing and Young PAP released a joint paper last week on Women’s Development that includes a review of Sexuality Education. I am glad to see this consensus on our need to update sexuality
education, and look forward to more conversations on such updates.
Persons with intellectual disabilities too, have often been victims of sexual violence. In the US, a study on sex crimes data found that persons with intellectual disabilities of all genders were victims of sexual assault at rates over seven times higher than those for persons without intellectual hdisabilities. Closer to home, a man was charged in November last year for sexually assaulting his 17-year-old intellectually disabled daughter when her mother was not home.
This March, a woman was jailed for sexually assaulting her daughter’s intellectually disabled schoolmate on several occasions. These cases surfaced as the first victim’s teacher had noticed something was amiss, and the second victim had reported the incidents to social workers. As with all sexual assault cases, it is likely that many more go unreported.
I would like to ask the Minister for Home Affairs, out of the total number of sexual assault cases reported and prosecuted in the past five years, how many cases involved individuals with intellectual disabilities? I hope that studies can be done on this issue so we can better protect our Singaporeans with intellectual disabilities from sexual violence and its
Where possible, we should also seek to improve training for teachers, social workers, and others who may interact with these vulnerable individuals, to help them better identify potential cases of sexual violence.
As we improve our policies targeted at preventing sexual violence, it is just as important for us to improve support for survivors. The suicide of a South Korean female air force officer three months after she had been sexually assaulted and pressured to cover it up is a powerful reminder of the cost of turning a blind eye to survivors’ needs and trauma. In the case of Nicholas Lim, who filmed a fellow female student while she was showering, the survivor shared with the public that she didn’t receive much support.
While many institutions have since moved to improve their support structures for survivors of sexual violence, this has likely varied among institutions. It’s incredible to see the emergence of more ground-up initiatives, including safe spaces and support groups for victims of sexual assault. Could the Minister for Social and Family Development share on current work done by the Ministry and other government agencies to offer robust and accessible survivor support in the medium to longer term, including but
not limited to psychologists, therapists, and support group linkages?
In my line of work, I’ve accompanied people to police stations to make reports on sexual violence. It is already incredibly difficult for survivors to feel comfortable making a report in the first place, but sometimes the responses from those called to protect us can be disheartening. Three years ago, I accompanied a 25-year-old survivor to make a police report against a rape committed against her. She came out crying—the police officer had allegedly made comments about her dressing and the fact that she had been drinking.*
We need better treatment of survivors of sexual assault and sexual harrassment by law enforcement. In recent years, we have seen training rolled out for judges and regulations for how lawyers argue sexual assault cases, all steps in the right direction to prevent re-victimisation. I would like to call on the Ministry of Home Affairs to provide more police officers with specific sexual violence training to handle sexual assault and harassment cases with sensitivity and care towards victims during the reporting and investigation process. Survivor centered care is a crucial step in addressing sexual violence, and our police officers can also be supported by counsellors or trained mental-health
professionals at police stations other than the Onesafe Centre in Police Cantonment Complex.
Assuring survivors that they will be taken seriously and not blamed for the horrors they have experienced is an important part of making our law enforcement
system more just. This will help build confidence in the sensitivity and capacity of law enforcement to handle difficult issues delicately, and will encourage more victims of sexual violence to come forward. While I acknowledge that providing more victim support and increased reporting will require more resources on the part of law enforcement, I believe that this is something we must commit to.
No victim should ever feel like those with the power to safeguard them have disregarded their needs.
Female Genital Cutting
I move on to the topic of female genital cutting, defined by UNICEF as the injury, partial, or total removal of the external female genital organs for non medical reasons.
This practice—Sunat Perempuan, as it is known in Malay—continues in Singapore, quiet though it may be. It has not escaped the notice of the foreign press,
such as Reuters and the BBC, or even local activists working on this issue. Many of my friends in the Malay-Muslim community have gone through this practice, themselves.
While there are many facets to this complex issue, I wish today to solely focus on the medical and health implications of the practice.
As recently as 20 years ago, FGC was performed by traditional midwives in homes with no sterilisation or anaesthesia. Today, I understand that the procedure is mostly performed by doctors in private clinics. The cut ranges from a symbolic placement of scissors or
a penknife on the intended organ, or a nick, but the most common form of cutting in Singapore still involves some removal of genital tissue.
The effects of FGC are wide-ranging. Anecdotal experiences reveal an over-cutting or laceration of other parts of the vulva. Considering that the typical size of a baby girl’s vulva is 1.5cm, this may lead to a disproportionate loss of nerve endings and the creation of scar tissue. Additionally, as with any invasive medical procedure, there is always a chance of infection.
Female genital cutting may also hurt a baby’s attachment to her caregiver. A study by the
Washington University School of Medicine found that a common defense mechanism of the nervous system to pain is to shut down (lethargy or falling asleep immediately afterwards), which negatively affects interactions with the caregiver. A second potential negative mental health impact is on childhood brain development. Exposure to acute pain in babies and children activates biological stress responses, which may hinder optimal development.
In essence, babies feel pain. Even if they process it differently from adults, babies still face the risk of long-term physical and mental health implications— as well as strained bonds with their parents—with female genital cutting.
In a reply to the BBC article, a representative of MUIS said it “does not condone any procedures which bring harm to the individual”, adding that the council has “always held the position that female genital cutting should be avoided”. Noting the pain that such acts can bring to females undergoing such practices, I strongly urge the Ministry of Health to conduct a thorough review of female genital cutting procedures done in private clinics. We should aim to standardise and make transparent the amount of skin cut during the procedure, or enforce that the practice should be purely symbolic, ensure that the proper instrumentation is used, and, as with similar types of
medical procedures, require medical counseling for those seeking to carry it out.
The counselling process will allow for doctors to first assess if a baby is medically fit to undergo the procedure, as well as to educate parents on the potential risks. The counselling can also serve to make sure neither parent is being coerced to comply with the practice, either by their spouse, relatives, or other external parties. After the counselling, there should be a mandatory 48-hour waiting period, after which, if the parents still wish to proceed with the cutting, they can arrange another appointment.
The decision to proceed should be unanimous; and there should be measures in place to ensure that the procedure is being done with the knowledge of both parents.
Finally, I hope that the Ministry can commission a study to find out the prevalence of the practice and evaluate the accompanying medical risks that may follow. This will help us understand the potential medical risks faced by those who undergo this procedure.
In Singapore, only in marriages under the Registry of Muslim Marriages are men allowed to marry more
than one wife, and even up to four wives at one time. Our regulations stipulate that each application is rigorously reviewed by the ROMM, and that it is only approved if “there’s an urgent reason or necessity” or a “good reason” for the subsequent marriages.
Recently, a community initiative called LepakConversations did a survey on multiple issues pertaining to gender equality. Their survey found that even though regulations here may be stricter than in other countries, many men marry their subsequent wives abroad, ignoring the need for an approval letter from the state. In 2014, it was reported that more than 100 Singaporean men underwent a second, unregistered marriage in Indonesia.
Growing up, I remember having a conversation with one of my classmates in primary school about how her father had decided to marry another wife in Batam against her mother’s wishes. This caused a huge financial strain on her family, and her home environment grew increasingly tense and unstable. She would come to school crying, and found it difficult to concentrate on her studies.
Polygamy doesn’t only affect the man in the relationship—it also affects women and children. In Islam, the desired outcome of teachings are generally
for us to bring good to society. However, we see that some effects of polygamy are clearly negative. While the government cannot do much about individuals who leave Singapore to marry additional wives, the fact that polygamy is allowed under the law reinforces its cultural acceptance, serving as a justification for those who skirt the regulations.
In Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Tunisia and turkey, polygamy is banned. But if banning polygamy outright is too much for now, perhaps we can begin with some first steps. We can make the consent of the existing wife mandatory for second marriages, as is done in Indonesia. Measures must be taken to ensure that this consent is given willingly rather than under coercion. Alternatively, we can adopt a rebuttable legal presumption that an applicant cannot
be fair and/or provide equally for both his existing and potential wives. This leaves the law in place, but ends polygamy in practice. Another option is to include an additional clause in the “automatic” standard and printed clauses in the Marriage Certificate, stipulating in the marriage contract that a husband cannot take another wife.
In these ways, the government can discourage the practice more intentionally before prohibiting it completely. On top of this, measures should be put in place that discourage men from attempting to skirt the
law by registering additional marriages abroad.
There are many contributors to Gender Equality, and one of them is financial liberation. How do we ensure that gender does not hamper each of us from being able to support ourselves? The lack of inclusive workplaces, especially for women who wear the hijab, remains a powerful barrier to this today. The hijab, to many women, is sacred and represents a deeply personal relationship that they have with their religion. Though there are many schools of thought in Islam on the necessity of various degrees of modesty, for some, covering the head is an essential part of their Muslim identity and practice.
Earlier this year, in this house, my colleague Mr. Faisal Manap brought up the very important point that COVID-19 has made it a tough time for many. People have lost their jobs or have difficulty finding employment, especially women who wear the hijab.
Ms. He Ting Ru rightly points out that women are disproportionately affected by this pandemic.
Indeed, one resident, a nurse, approached me sharing that she felt torn that she had to choose between her efforts to commit to her beliefs and providing for her family.
I am glad to hear that the government will be
reviewing their position on nurses donning the hijab. There are many other workplaces that still discriminate against the hijab, such as other uniformed public service roles. Recently, New Zealand’s police force introduced the hijab as part of its uniform. In the Royal Derby Hospital in the UK, staff receive disposable sterile headscarves, and the US army made hijabs part of its uniform in 2017. I’d like to ask the minister when the ruling on hijabs in these spaces will be reviewed.
Why is the government’s stance on this so important? The government of the day sets the tone on acceptance and tolerance at times. If our uniformed services do not pledge to create inclusive spaces, it shows Singaporeans, especially those in the private sector, that they too can discriminate. Indeed, we have evidence of this happening, such as the Tangs employee who was asked to remove her hijab to be able to work as a promoter.
I understand that for some Singaporeans, the hijab may be a divisive topic. To combat this, we need to educate our society on the various forms of religious expression. Instead of hiding or pushing them aside, we must encourage Singaporeans to embrace our differences. We must interrogate our preconceived notions and stereotypes against minority races, so that we do not judge each other superficially. Only this will truly lead to the unity in diversity that we
strive for as a multicultural nation.
Mdm deputy Speaker, in malay please
Pada bulan lepas, saya telah bicara tentang dua golongan yang membentuk sebahagian daripada mangsa-mangsa keganasan seksual yang perlu diberi perhatian iaitu kanak-kanak bawah umur dan golongan kurang daya intelektual.
Bagi kanak-kanak, saya meng usul kan sebuah kurikulum kebangsaan yang mengajar pendidikan seksual di peringkat pra-sekolah supaya kanak-kanak dilengkapi dengan pengetahuan asas tentang seks dan keizinan. Bagi golongan kurang daya intelektual pula, saya mencadangkan agar
mem per tingkat kan latihan untuk pihak-pihak yang berinteraksi dengan golongan ini agar mereka dapat mengesan keganasan seksual dengan lebih baik.
Selain daripada langkah-langkah ini, saya juga telah mene kan kan untuk men ingkat kan sokongan bagi mangsa-mangsa keganasan seksual dengan menawarkan bantuan pakar psikologi, terapi, dan kumpulan sokongan.
Saya juga bicara tiga isu baharu berkenaan wanita iaitu: hijab, poligami dan sunat perempuan. Saya mengalu-alukan langkah pemerintah membolehkan pemakaian hijab untuk para jururawat dan saya menanti pengumuman tentang langkah-langkah yang
lebih terperinci daripada pemerintah. Dalam hal isu kedua pula iaitu poligami, saya telah membangkitkan tentang amalan poligami yang masih berterusan oleh lelaki Muslim di Singapura, dan bagaimana amalan ini telah menyebabkan kemudaratan dari segi emosi dan kewangan bagi sesetengah wanita Muslim. disebabkan kurangnya perlindungan undang-undang dan penguatkuasaan bagi perempuan-perempuan dalam perkahwinan poligami. saya telah mencadangkan agar dua perubahan dilakukan iaitu: mewajibkan keizinan isteri pertama untuk seorang suami nikah lagi, dan penambahan fasal pada sijil perkahwinan agar seorang suami tidak boleh kahwhin lagi. Akhir sekali, saya membicarakan tentang isu sunat perempuan di mana ia menyebabkan kesakitan kepada bayi perempuan dan kemudian boleh pula menyebabkan masalah kesihatan kepada wanita.
Oleh itu, saya menuntut Kementerian Kesihatan untuk
menyiasat amalan ini dan menyediakan peraturan yang konsisten berkenaan amalan sunat perempuan di Singapura.
I wish to conclude with a story that touched me while on one of my house visits. I met a young 5 year old girl, being cared for by her grandmother whilst her parents got a much needed break. The grandmother invited me in and made me some delicious bandung, while the girl chatted away to me, sharing with me her many interests, including her obsession with planes!
She told me that one day she would like to be a pilot, and fly planes high in the sky.
When I think about Gender Equality I think about her and the barriers being broken down even now. Not so long ago, female pilots were non existent, and even now they are rare. But how wonderful is it to think that we have the opportunity to continue breaking down these barriers, so girls like her too can have limitless dreams.
This is what I feel is the crux of this motion. I call on all of us in this House to work towards fulfilling the aspirations of Singapore women. I support this motion.
* Ms Raeesah Khan subsequently referred this sentence in a clarification made to Parliament on the same day.
“Mdm Dy Speaker, my speech earlier should not be construed as casting aspersions on the Police. That was not my intention and should not be interpreted as such. The Police is part of the solution, not problem. I raised the example because it was my
experience with a survivor. The episode I raised in my speech took place three years ago and I have been unsuccessful in getting in touch with her. I believe that given the topic at hand, consent is imperative not least to avoid re-victimization. I will communicate directly with MHA on any episode in future where a survivor believes she has been processed inappropriately by the Police, even as I will try my best to maintain my relationship of confidentiality with the victim.”