Gender Equality Motion – Speech by Sylvia Lim

Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021


The Motion calls for a whole-of-society approach to remove barriers that impede women from free participation in society. I would like to focus on my speech on female participation in political leadership.

How does Singapore fare right now in women political leadership?

I believe we all accept that women must be a big part of this House. The mover of this Motion, MP for Sengkang He Ting Ru, has already outlined why having significant participation of women in Parliament is important to society, from more holistic

policy-making to greater engagement of women voters, which make up half the electorate.

Women must not just be a big part of this House; women should hold leadership positions in government and in political parties. Over the years, this House has seen progress. For decades before 1984, the House was all male. After the 1984 General Elections, three women were elected on the ruling party ticket – Dr Aline Wong, Dr Dixie Tan and Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon. They made up about 3% of the total number of MPs. Today, the House is touching 30% women, a ten-fold increase. We have female Ministers; we had a female Speaker, and continue to have female Leaders of the House.

How are we doing if we compare ourselves globally? The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) puts out a country ranking of the % of females in national legislatures. Singapore, with its nearly 30% female MPs, is at rank 54 in the world. When one looks at the countries above Singapore, they are an incredibly diverse mix of countries at different stages of development. Singapore lags significantly behind the Nordic countries as well as Rwanda and the UAE who have between 40 to 61% of women legislatures.  We are doing slightly better than the USA at 27%, and about on par with Germany and Australia who are at 31%.

Numbers matter but What Matters More is Influence

When one looks at the list of countries with high proportions of women legislators, one will notice that certain countries who are not known for gender equality seem to be high on the list. Therefore, while the numbers matter, we should not have women fill places in Parliaments for its own sake, if they do not play a meaningful role. Let me take an analogy from the corporate world. The Singapore government has been advocating that boards of companies should aim to have 30% of women directors. In order to reach 30%, some family-run companies may be tempted to appoint female family members, but that would not be meaningful if these women did not exercise independent decision-making.

To that end, it is somewhat reassuring to see that in Singapore politics, there is an increased presence of women playing influential roles. There are more female Ministers in Cabinet than ever before, helming Ministries. But we want to see more. There are also more female opposition MPs than ever before. We want to see more of them too.

Impediments to Free Choice

But what will it take to increase the pool of able and willing female Singaporeans entering the forefront of politics? Any political leader in Singapore will know that it is more difficult to find women to stand as candidates in Parliamentary elections.

I count myself fortunate that I did not face any family or societal pressures when I decided to join the Workers’ Party twenty years ago. Not having a spouse or children, I did not need to agonise over how the family would cope without me at home at night, or how their lives and morale would be affected by nasty media headlines and the testy exchanges that take place in this House from time to time. As for my parents, they are persons of great fortitude. My mother is a retired nurse who has seen life and death emergencies. As for my late father, he simply laughed it off on learning that I had joined the Workers’ Party, saying: “Congratulations – you are one step closer to the prison”.           I consider myself fortunate.

Other women are not so free. Time and time again, we find potential female candidates who are unable to freely decide whether to stand as candidates, compared to males who seem to have fewer inhibitions. I believe the Workers’ Party is not unique in this experience. Women, especially those with young children, are burdened with worry and even guilt, wanting to be there for their families at key moments of their children’s development. The expectations of family members, particularly parents and parents-in-law, add more pressure to mothers. Employers, too, may doubt a working mother’s ability to cope with her work and political responsibilities as well. I do not notice such pressure and apprehension in my dealings with potential male candidates.

I should clarify, at this point, that I am not saying that a woman who decides that her family is the most important thing to her is somehow under-achieving or

under-contributing. Far from it. What I am saying is that we should empower women to freely make these choices. Women should be confident that in their eco-system, family responsibilities are shared. They should be confident that their contributions to the wider society are cheered and supported, and not seen as derelictions of their duties as mothers, daughters and daughters-in-law.

Do quotas and targets work?

Some countries have tried to boost female participation in their legislatures through the imposition of legal quotas. I am personally very wary of going down this route, which

has led to some perverse outcomes elsewhere. I learned of this a few years ago when I was part of a Commonwealth delegation observing a national election on the African continent. Several female politicians shared that their experience with legal quotas had not been good. Their national elections had proportional representation systems of affirmative action for women: political parties would put up lists of female candidates, who would be assured of entering Parliament depending on their party’s overall vote share at the polls. Unfortunately, in some instances, women who wished to be prioritized on the list were subjugated to the whimsical decision-making of their male party leaders, including acceding to humiliating demands. We should not go down this route of legal quotas.

On the other hand, more countries seem to have had sustainable success with soft targets or aspirational quotas. These voluntary targets serve as benchmarks to aim towards, without being overly rigid in application. Some countries saw their political parties voluntarily setting party quotas, promising the electorate that they would field at least a certain percentage of women candidates. This happened due to political competition, as political parties jostled to gain support from a more demanding electorate and especially, from female voters.

Although political parties in Singapore have not announced any voluntary quotas of women candidates, my observation is that the parties are indeed conscious of the need to field at least a minimum proportion of women. Let me cite some numbers. If we look at the last General Election, on the ruling party side, nearly 27% of candidates were women, while on the Workers’ Party side, nearly 24% were women. After Polling Day, female PAP MPs formed about 29% of PAP MPs, while female WP MPs formed 30% of WP MPs. As for the Progress Singapore Party, they fielded about 21% of female candidates, and after Polling Day, two Non-Constituency MPs were elected, 1 man and 1 woman.

At the decision-making levels of the parties, the Central Executive Committees of both the PAP and the WP are still male-dominated, but to different degrees at the moment. The PAP has 3 female CEC members out of 18, making up about 17%. The WP CEC currently has 4 women out of 14, making up 29%; though this is a vast improvement from the 14% we had previously, I am most mindful that this gain is precarious and can easily unravel. The PSP has 5 women out of a 14 member CEC, a healthy 36%. Finally, when it comes to the Cabinet, we see three female Ministers out of 20, which is 15%. It seems to me that all political parties need to put in even more effort to try to raise the levels of female participation in leadership.

I am cautiously optimistic that we may not need to adopt even voluntary quotas to improve the situation. As has happened in other countries, the element of competition amongst political parties in Singapore will also result in the need for parties to field more women candidates and promote women leadership. The electorate will be watching us.

However, given the social context, it will not be an easy slog unless the

whole-of-society embraces policies which make it conducive for women to step up to the political forefront. I now turn to the relevance of gender equality in society to fostering increased female participation in politics.

The relevance of gender equality to women in politics

The Motion posits that there is a link between gender equality and the empowerment of women to freely realise their full potential. It is thus relevant to ask whether a society that nurtures a gender-neutral culture will organically see more women in politics.

Gender equality assessments across countries are regularly done, and there are reports and rankings of gender gaps worldwide. For instance, in March this year, the World Bank published the Global Gender Gap Report 2021. This report assesses gender gaps in countries across four fields – political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health and survival. Of all the four fields assessment, political empowerment is the one with the largest gender gap worldwide. If one looks at the top 10 countries deemed to be the most gender neutral, one sees that 8 out of these 10 are also in the top 25 for female representation in their Parliaments. These include the usual suspects such as the Nordic countries, as well as New Zealand, Namibia and Rwanda. According to this gender gap assessment, Singapore was 54th globally – coincidentally the same ranking we received on the percentage of female representation in Parliament.

An academic study of 36 European countries was published last year attempted to test certain hypotheses as to why countries might have higher or lower percentages of women in their Parliaments. The study tested two hypotheses – the first was whether higher percentages of women parliamentarians were found in richer countries measured by GDP per capita; the second was whether the proportion of women parliamentarians was co-related with the country’s character as measured on a Masculinity index. The Masculinity index was determined based on a variety of factors such as: the importance of money, high economic growth as a priority, men earning more than women, and traditional family structures. Such Masculine traits were to be contrasted with the Femininity Index which valued caring for others and the quality of life. The study found that a higher proportion of women in Parliament was strongly

co-related with a country’s wealth but also with a low score on the Masculinity Index. Three Nordic countries – Norway, Finland and Sweden, exemplify this. (Henrik, J. and Vera, A.M.  (2020).  “Gender Equality in Parliaments”.  God. XXXIII, BR. 1/2020.  83-99.)

It stands to reason that a society with a culture of gender equality will be more conducive to women being empowered to make free choices, including the choice to devote oneself to political service. For instance, more equal sharing of childcare and eldercare responsibilities will ease decision-making for women. Wage levels should

be comparable for equivalent work, so that it may make economic sense for husbands to decide to work part-time or not at all. Flexible work arrangements will unlock possibilities. The list goes on.

Singapore should continue in this direction if we wish to see sustained streams of women contributing to their full potential, including those who will step forward to serve as political candidates, MPs and Ministers.


In order to attract more women into political leadership, we need all segments of society to work together to build a gender-equal ecosystem. Government, employers, employees, business and family must buy-in to this vision, in order that our wives, mothers and daughters can fulfil their aspirations and contribute to public life if they wish to.

Over the weekend, some of us might have been fixated with watching world-class athletes compete at the Tokyo Olympics. One of the moments that moved me greatly was the victory ceremony for a relatively new event in swimming – the 4 X 100m mixed medley relay. It was so refreshing to see the teams of four swimmers at the victory podium – two men and two women – showing the world the glory that their combined effort had brought to their countries. Each of them, man and woman, was equally critical in achieving the team’s success. That is the spirit in which the whole of society can collaborate in the national interest.

I support the Motion.