Women’s Motion – Leon Perera

Mr Speaker Sir, like MP for Sengkang Ms He Ting Ru and my Workers’ Party colleagues in the House, I support the motion. We all share the goal of a gender-equal society. For us in The Workers’ Party it is a very important goal, which is why Ms He and I moved a motion in this House on gender equality last year.

Personally, what keeps me invested in this ideal is when I think about my family members – my wife, my mother, my daughter and also my son – and how I want them to live in a society where every individual is judged not by their gender but solely by the content of their character, to paraphrase something said by Dr Martin Luther King Jr in the context of race.

While we broadly agree on the end goal, we have some differences in our approaches to define and  ultimately achieve that goal. Which is why, in our speeches in this debate, we  are focusing on where we see gaps in the white paper and where we have different views on policies.

In my speech today, I shall focus on four topics related to the goal of moving towards a truly gender equal society.

  1. Changing mindsets to strive against sexism and towards gender equality in every day behaviours and shared culture
  2. Policy responses to the problem of sexual harassment
  3. A transparent, time-based structure of rules to enable foreign spouses of Singaporean children, who are mostly women, to move towards PR status and citizenship – and, extending that point, a more predictable and transparent points based immigration regime
  4. Lastly and in the spirit of gender equality, changes to our laws on spousal maintenance to be fairer to house husbands and men who have less income and assets than their wives in the event of a divorce

Changing mindsets to embrace gender equality

Firstly, on changing mindsets and culture. In my motion speech last year, I spoke about the challenge facing us on this front. Online, we do still see views from some quarters stating that moves towards gender equality and fairness for women reflect “misandry” or the hatred of men.

Mr Speaker sir, just last month, the South Korean Presidential election was won by a candidate who had, among other things, campaigned on a platform that some described as “anti-feminist.” He had reportedly called for the abolition of Korea’s Gender Equality Ministry and had blamed the country’s low birth-rate on “feminism.”[1] This is a sobering turn of events, though it should be noted that the victory was by the narrowest of margins, with some Korean gender equality activists suggesting that the result showed that the momentum was on their side. 

Mr Speaker sir, I want to be absolutely clear. I cite this example NOT to argue that we should not go too far or too fast so as not to provoke a backlash from those with different views. On the contrary, my WP colleagues and I argue that we should be bold and ambitious in out gender equality strides. A great deal is at stake, including the empowerment to lead full lives and contribute back to society of half the population.

I bring up the Korean example to emphasize the importance of having conversations with Singaporean men – and perhaps some women who may not fully buy into the vision of gender equality as well – to convince them that society moving in this direction is fair, right and not a threat to them. We have to carry all Singaporeans on this journey. We must not allow anti-gender equality sentiments to fester and brew into something more bitter and more sinister.

Sir, in the last speech I made on this, I put forward some suggestions on how to change mindsets. I would like to put forward another suggestion here – the government can support NGOs and think tanks in conducting rigorous, regular research (and publishing the results) about the areas in life where women face inequality – from the unequal burden of housework and domestic violence to sexist discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace and on campus. All of us in this House can and should help publicise such data, as should other stake-holders like NGOs, trade associations and chambers and student groups. Such data being widely accepted can help individual Singaporeans have informed conversations with other Singaporeans to move the needle on mindsets.

In truth, the battle for mindsets was never mainly about policies. It is about us as a people keeping an open mind to new facts, research and trends, being willing to relook at established conventions and winning people over one person at a time. We all have a role to play in this journey.

If every person who believes in gender equality can change the mind of just one person who harbours sexist thinking, whether man or woman, a revolution in our culture and thinking will be achievable within this generation.

Sexual Harassment

Next, I would like to talk about the issue of sexual harassment. Here I am not referring to violent or physical abuse such as rape or molest which are addressable under existing laws, but to verbal abuse and inappropriate behaviour – lewd and derogatory comments or instructions given in the workplace or on campuses, for example.

To cite an AWARE report on gender equality released in July 2021, “According to the results of a 2020 Ipsos-AWARE national survey, two in five workers in Singapore have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years, including being on the receiving end of crude sexual and sexist remarks and being touched physically in ways that made them feel distressed or alarmed.”[2] So this is not an insignificant problem.

Victims of sexual harassment can go to TAFEP but the role of TAFEP currently would appear to be limited to interceding with the victim’s employer to put in place better anti-sexual harassment policies and to deploy its own disciplinary and internal dispute handling procedures as a company. Victims can also pursue recourse through the POHA court, filing a Magistrate’s complaint or through litigation, but this is costly and time-consuming, which would deter many victims, especially since victims may often be disadvantaged in terms of power or socio-economic status vis-a-vis male perpetrators. Moreover, in the absence of any legislation defining sexual harassment or the employers’ liability for the same, the outcome of such legal action is uncertain.

Other countries have used legislative tools to tackle this issue. This can be found in the UK Equality Act[3] and the US. Malaysia amended its Employment Act to specifically define and criminalize acts of sexual harassment in 2014. Malaysian law defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal, visual, gestural or physical, directed at a person which is offensive, humiliating or a threat to their well-being”. Under this law, both men and women can commit acts of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a complex issue and it can cause a great deal of discomfort to men who are confused as to how social mores have changed and where to draw the line, a point that will be alluded to by my colleague Sengkang MP Professor Jamus Lim.

I do not suggest a rush to legislate right now but would make three suggestions here as steps to consider taking before considering the issue of legislation.

Firstly, the government should consider how best to nudge employers to adopt, in their respective corporate handbooks, guidelines on workplace sexual harassment, based on existing TAFEP guidelines or international best practices. For example, can this not be a requirement or a plus point when awarding certain large government contracts and economic incentives.

Secondly, can the government conduct and publish more research on the subject of workplace and campus sexual harassment, so as to quantify the impact of better guidelines and other factors on the problem.

Thirdly, can the MOE be more prescriptive in requiring IHLs to adhere to certain baseline minimal standards of compliance with respect to sexual harassment. These would include implementing a national code of conduct for IHLs as well as ensuring comprehensive sexuality education that includes the concepts of respect and consent. In Taiwan for example, as cited in the AWARE report, the government has enacted the Gender Equity Education Act which specifically addresses the problem of gender-based bullying, which is referred to as “sexual bullying” under the Act.

Immigration status of foreign spouses

I would now like to move onto the third topic in my speech, which is the immigration status of foreign spouses.

Sir, I will not need to remind members of this House about the problem of foreign spouses who are mothers of Singaporean children and who sometimes grapple with the insecurity caused by their uncertain immigration status in Singapore, having to renew LTVP or social visit passes at regular intervals with no assurance of success and with uncertain prospects of achieving PR or citizenship status in the longer-term, in spite of their role as parents in families with Singaporean kids. All of us – I am quite sure I can say this – have dealt with such cases among constituents.

I dealt with one such case recently in the Serangoon ward of Aljunied GRC and I would like to share it. Olivia, not her real name of course, is a foreign national on LTVP. She was married to a Singaporean husband. They are parents to a Singaporean girl, Anna, also not her real name. Anna is in Primary 4 at one of our schools. She struck me as being just like my daughter at that age. Unfortunately, the father passed. At his wake, I met both Olivia and Anna. I took down their details, so as to write appeals in respect of Olivia’s continued LTVP status, since she does not have a living husband as a sponsor any longer; and in respect of their continued stay at a HDB public rental flat, since the family is of very low income – and in fact now has no income at all, as Olivia does not work, though she would now want to and need to.

I feel very emotional thinking of both of them – Olivia, who will have to start working even though she faces uncertainty as to her immigration status and ability to work in future, as renewals of permits are never assured even though she is the mother of a Singaporean child;  and Anna, who is part of a family unit with her mother and whose mother faces all of this uncertainty while having to raise her single-handedly.

Sir, one in four marriages involving at least one Singapore citizen or SC are between an SC and a non-resident foreigner, meaning that the spouse is not a PR or an SC.[4] 70% of such spouses are women so this issue has a gender dimension.

To quote from the July 2021 AWARE report once again, “The latest publicly available data shows that from 2012 to 2016, 13,900 migrant spouses of Singaporean citizens were granted a Long-Term Visit Pass (LTVP), out of 16,600 applications. [A] national study on cross-national families found that 55% of the 655 foreign-born mothers interviewed had attained permanent residency and 26% had become Singapore citizens, after an average of eight years of marriage, but 17% of them still held LTVP/+. This suggests that many such couples have to deal with the stresses and difficulties arising from uncertain residency status for almost a decade before the migrant spouse acquires PR or citizenship. For female migrant spouses in particular, this means years of insecurity, compounding their vulnerability to family violence.”

According to an earlier PQ reply in this House, 98% of LTVP renewals sponsored by non-spouses are approved[5] but this still leaves uncertainty on the part of the spouse who loses a SC spouse or whose Singaporean spouse no longer wants to sponsor her LTVP application. Moreover, LTVP is not a stable status and does not amount to residency, subject as it is to regular renewal after short time intervals.

The time taken for foreign spouses to become citizens and the uncertainty surrounding this has implications for their-

– stress and mental well-being, as uncertainty clouds their ability to plan their lives; this may also affect the well-being of their Singaporean children

– access to housing options open to SCs and PRs (though rental housing can be granted to non-citizens but the perception and usually the reality is that it is harder for such cases)

– access to legal employment, which may lead them to take up cash-based forms of employment that are do not have a legal basis, which would leave them vulnerable to exploitation with no legal recourse. Not all foreign spouses have LTVP+/MOM approval to work. Would it not be beneficial to tap on this pool of manpower for our economy, since these individuals are living in Singapore anyway?

– access to certain forms of social welfare assistance reserved for SCs and PRs (as with housing)

  • access to subsidies for primary healthcare, which may inhibit behaviours such as seeking medical treatment and going for health screening, and which may have impacts for the health of the wider community if LTVP holders succumb to communicable diseases, for example
  • enhanced vulnerability to domestic violence, since the perception remains that it is harder to get renewal of LTVP without spousal sponsorship. AWARE has cited evidence of cases where the husband threatens to cancel the LTVP if wife reports domestic violence.

This is why in its GE2020 manifesto, The Workers’ Party called for a clear, transparent and time-based “fast track” path to citizenship for foreign spouses who are parents of Singaporean children. I repeat this call here.

I would like to extend this into a more general point and call for a more transparent regime in evaluating applications for citizenship.

In a previous PQ reply the government outlined its rationale for not instituting a more transparent system for evaluating citizenship applications. Two reasons were given – not wanting people to “game the system” and not wanting foreign nationals to accuse the government publicly of unfairness. [6]

It is true that most countries do not grant immigration rights “automatically” to foreign spouses of citizens. However, many other countries publish transparent criteria for such decisions. The criteria for a U.K. spouse visa, for instance, states that the applicant and spouse must have a combined income of at least £18,600 a year (among other requirements). The subsequent application for permanent residency, includes a “Life in the U.K.” test to demonstrate good knowledge of the country’s language and lifestyle. In Germany, the criteria include specific language proficiency levels and the passing of a citizenship test.

New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the UK are examples of countries with transparent criteria and a points-based immigration system. The criteria typically cover age, level of education, appropriate skills and work experience, a job offer and proficiency in the local language. In New Zealand, having close family members is also one of the criterion that is taken into account.[7]

Sir, on the argument that we don’t want people to game the system, if we have a points-based system that prioritises those with a clearly better claim to be citizens, won’t that attract and encourage the right applicants exhibiting the right qualifications and behaviours that we want?

For example, we can institute more points for skill sets in short supply in our economy. To revisit a subject I have previously spoken about at some length in this House, to get more Singaporeans into good, redesigned trades jobs like carpentry and plumbing for example, one approach (not the only one by any means) is to convert experienced foreign craftsmen and trades experts into citizens.

As for the argument that foreigners should not be able to stir up anti-Singapore sentiments, if there is no systemic national bias in granting citizenship, as one assumes there is not, this should not be an issue with a transparent point-based system. Opacity can just as easily fuel such sentiments.

Some may say that more transparency may encourage foreigners to marry Singaporeans in an exploitative and cynical fashion, solely to gain an assured pathway to citizenship. But not having transparency does not appear to have deterred Singaporeans from marrying foreigners and having children and very significant numbers. All the current regime does is create uncertainty for the foreign spouse and mother of Singaporean children and hence for the family and the children. Sir, I would argue that non-transparency does not curb the phenomenon of Singaporeans marrying foreign spouses. It only makes things worse for everyone after the fact.

The advantages of a points-based immigration system include the following:

– creating predictability and a perception of fairness and transparency, better enabling participants in our national life to make decisions

– attracting and encouraging the right applicants – for example those with skills in short supply

– creating a dynamic system that can be adjusted eg based on labour market needs, with those adjustments being publicly signalled and hence influencing citizenship application behaviour in a positive way

– within such a system, foreign spouses of Singaporean children can be given clear, transparent, time-based pathways to PR status and citizenship via a points system, without having to depend on a “black box” evaluation process which breeds uncertainty and an inability to plan ahead

Sir, the arguments used against a transparent points-based system for immigration could also be used against instituting such a system for Employment Passes. But with the advent of COMPAS, we have taken a major step in that direction for the Employment Pass regime. There is no reason why we should not do the same for our immigration regime.

Making Spousal Maintenance Laws fairer to some men

Lastly, and in the spirit of gender equality, I would like to call for changes to our spousal maintenance laws to foster more fairness to certain types of men who may be at a disadvantage under S69 of the Women’s Charter in the event of divorce.

In the Women’s Charter debate earlier this year, the Government said it has considered the possibility of allowing maintenance applications to be made for husbands without the condition of incapacity. Its position on Section 69[8] was that there was no need for such gender-neutral legislation because there is a higher chance of women giving up their careers to get involved in care work while the partner continues working.[9]

I would like to revisit this point because it ties back to our argument that while progress is being made to empower the majority of women in Singapore, there are whole groups of people being left behind, and this includes non-citizen women living in Singapore but also men who are doing exactly the same type of unpaid care work which many MPs spoke about today.

The example was cited in this House of a 2014 media report on a man who was ordered to pay $70,000 in maintenance despite the fact that he was a retiree, the ex-wife earned more than him and he paid the mortgage of their home.

In developed countries, approaches to spousal maintenance vary, with some countries like England giving generous maintenance to the financially weaker party and others focusing on time-limited maintenance so the spouse can get back into the workforce. I recognise that the specifics will continue to be debated more fully at some point in time, but one common idea I support is that regardless of sex, a spouse must be able to file for maintenance without the requirement for incapacitation.[10]

Why do this?

One, it shouldn’t be the case that we decide this law on what tends to happen, but rather what can happen, especially as the current cohort of young adults has reached a point where a higher proportion of women than men have post-secondary qualifications.[11] It will not be a rare situation going forward that couples decide that the husband should be giving up their job to take on care work as they earn less, or for any other reason.

Second, at the very least we should not bind the Courts in granting maintenance.

And my third point here also concludes my speech: if we agree today that in principle we want to expand recognition, legal support and improving autonomy in care work, then in the name of fairness we must ensure that this is also so when things go poorly, that we provide a route for compensation for all care work, be it the contributions of men and non-citizen women.

Thank you.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/south-korea-gender-equality-anti-feminist-president-yoon-suk-yeol

[2] https://www.aware.org.sg/2021/07/aware-launches-historic-omnibus-report-gender-equality-all-stages-womens-lives/ Pg 154

[3] AWARE report Pg 159

[4] AWARE report, Pg 71

[5] https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=written-answer-na-7433

[6] https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=written-answer-na-372

[7] https://www.blog.y-axis.com/points-based-immigration-system-countries/

[8] https://sso.agc.gov.sg/Act/WC1961?ProvIds=P18-#pr69-

[9] https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/sprs3topic?reportid=bill-554

[10] https://www.penningtonslaw.com/media/861076/international-family-law-report.pdf

[11] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/spore-population-better-educated-across-age-ethnicity-women-make-greater-strides