Women’s Motion – Speech by He Ting Ru

Mr Speaker

When moving the Motion on empowering women last year, I spoke about how we stand on the shoulders of those who forged the way before us, and how we must continue to build on the progress that women have made to get us to where we are today. I spoke about how society and the economy at large have benefited from greater equality for women. Finally, I talked about the personal: how just two generations prior, my grandmother had to fight hard just to be allowed to go back to school for a meagre two more years, before she was once again shut up at home and wait to be married off. I also shared my hopes that my sons will grow up in a fairer society and to do their part to ensure that women and girls are not only given equal opportunities to forge their chosen paths in life, but that they will also be respected as equals and see outcomes that are on par with those for boys and men.

All these remain relevant today with the release last week of the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development. The Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development were launched in September 2020, with sessions taking place through the year that followed. 2021 was also designated the Year of Celebrating SG Women, with its attendant events and activities.  

Yet, despite being over a year in the making, the White Paper was released barely a week ago, leaving Singaporeans with precious little time to go through the White Paper and consider its recommendations before the issues contained within are debated here in Parliament. There was just not enough time for my residents to provide feedback over 100 pages of its contents. 

Contrast this with the no less consequential population white paper which was released on 9 January 2013. That 41 page long paper was debated and passed in Parliament a month later on 9 February. The seeming haste raises questions about whether the rushed timeline is necessary, or even beneficial to public debate and understanding. An invitation for full and rigorous public scrutiny is one of the key tools for managing and countering misinformation and disinformation, and goes a long way to dispel unwarranted and unwelcome conspiracies.

That said, I am happy to see the paper acknowledging that a whole of nation approach has to be taken. The Workers’ Party supports the spirit of the motion and the White Paper’s overarching goal of achieving a fairer and more inclusive society. However, we believe improvements can be made. My colleagues and I will address some of these during the course of today’s debate. 

To start, the White Paper specifically targets Singapore women. I feel we can do better: the principles and aspirations contained within the Paper should form a blueprint of what we as a society stand for and what we value, no matter who you are. Additionally, the protections and aims should apply to ALL women in Singapore, regardless of nationality or status. My colleague Leon Perera will elaborate further on these issues. 

Moving on to the gender wage gap, the latest publicly available study conducted in 2018 and published in 2020 by MOM showed that there was still an adjusted wage gap. The White Paper mentions that the adjusted rate has dropped further to 4.3% in 2020, with the unadjusted median gender pay gap being 14.4%. While this pay gap is on the decline, it nonetheless still exists, and I hope that we will go beyond points suggested in the White Paper to close this gap. Our efforts at reducing this pay gap must persist, until women in Singapore achieve equal pay to their male counterparts for equal work.

We also need to ask about what the adverse effect the pandemic and our recovery from it has had on the gender wage gap, and the effect of the chronic under-valuing and under-paying of jobs that are traditionally the preserve of women. These include nursing, caring, and teaching. Millions of us in lockdown around the globe found out first-hand how critical these workers are for the functioning and well-being of our economies, societies and families. The real gender wage gap also should take into account the number of women who do not ‘lean in’ to seek higher paying jobs, promotions or careers, due to reasons such as a lack of confidence, familiarity or just plain discomfort with what is seen as ‘too male’ environments. My colleague Jamus Lim will speak more on this. 

Additionally, the 2020 MOM study asks but does not answer why such segregation exists. It mentions data from two years with a 16-year gap–2002 and 2018. This does not give us a good picture of the problem. We therefore repeat the call from our manifesto that employers with 10 or more employees should be required to report to MOM the gender pay gap for the same job description. This information must be made publicly available, in aggregate form.

Only with such publicly available basic data on a regular basis could we have a better idea of the problem, and move to close the gender wage gap. This will help employers increase access to a wider talent pool, enhance the diversity of their workforce, and better attract and retain capable workers.

Unfortunately, the adverse impact on women’s purchasing power does not stop at the gender pay gap. There has been more attention in recent years given to the study of the phenomenon of the ‘pink tax’, loosely defined as producers and providers charging more for the same products and services once these are marketed at women. A study commissioned in 2015 by New York City found that women’s products cost 7% more than similar products for men and that women paid more in every industry studied. Back home, a study by the Sunday Times of ten retailers found women paying more for half of them. It appears that such gender-based pricing penalises women for, well, being women. The scope of this phenomenon and whether it is justified, warrants further study in Singapore.

Women also bear a disproportionate share of unpaid labour, both tangible, and “invisible” in the form of the mental load, because it is still usually the woman who is expected to oversee the smooth running of our households, the burden is on her shoulders to ensure that the children are watered and fed, and that she not only has to coordinate the household schedule, but is also expected to take time off work to attend to medical and other appointments with their dependants. The Member for Aljunied Mr Gerald Giam will speak more on what we can do to ensure that our unpaid caregivers – both women and men – are recognised and supported.

It is no wonder that there is also increasing recognition and data showing that women are disproportionately affected globally by rising costs of living – because they start from a weaker economic position that is exacerbated by all the factors mentioned above. We have in this House spoken at length about climate change and its effect on Singapore, yet I note that in an article earlier this year, UN Women wrote that – QUOTE – the climate crisis is not “gender neutral”. Women and girls experience the greatest impacts of climate change, which amplifies existing gender inequalities and poses unique threats to their livelihoods, health, and safety – UNQUOTE Such climate-driven inequalities do not affect only developing nations, but also high-income ones, such as Singapore.

I also cannot help but notice that most of the jobs in the traditional energy sectors are almost entirely male-dominated. The green transition therefore represents a chance for us to ensure that women are well and justly represented in these new “green jobs”, and we must work to ensure that the gender gap in STEM skills does not prove to be a barrier to greater gender equality in a low-carbon future.

The White Paper too would like us to challenge these stereotypes, to push women to take on leadership roles, and to support entrepreneurship. Indeed, removing barriers to female entrepreneurship will not only drive national economic growth, but also contribute to empowering women to be financially self-sufficient. The establishment of the Singapore Women Entrepreneurs Network by SBF last September is a welcome step to create a community of support for existing female entrepreneurs. Would this initiative be expanded to support budding, prospective female entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on women in traditionally male-dominated industries such as energy and STEM? Would there also be any special emphasis on Femtech? What about women who own micro businesses who have different concerns?

And while I am on this topic, and since we are discussing mindset shifts today, perhaps it is also time to do away with gendered terms like “mumtrepreneurs” and “girl bosses”, which to me seems to suggest that there is something out of the ordinary about women or mothers taking a lead in business.

When it comes to representation at the top, having more women in decision-making leadership roles has many benefits and gives young women role models to look up to. A resident also pointed out to me that the multi-ministerial task force to fight Covid was an all-male affair when it came to the co-chairs and other public-facing figures – which surely causes some dissonance given that the paper itself acknowledges that women are disproportionately more affected by the pandemic. While it is undoubtedly true that we cannot make progress without ‘allies’, I hope we do better at giving women a public leadership voice when we ‘build back better’ coming out of Covid’s long, long shadow. My colleague Sylvia Lim spoke about this extensively last year, and I’d like to repeat her call for change to make it conducive for women to step up to the political forefront. 

Turning to anti-discrimination legislation, I am happy to hear that anti-discrimination legislation will be introduced in Singapore. This move has long been called for by members in this House, and indeed is one of the proposals contained in our 2020 manifesto, where we called for anti-discrimination legislation to be formally instituted to prohibit against employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, and against Singapore citizens. After all, legislating against discrimination would make such practices illegal, and presumably will come with attendent penalties for non-compliance. It would also give our businesses clarity to know what discriminatory practices are, and to introduce internal processes to protect their employees from discrimination.

It is also notable that discrimination and discriminatory practices persist despite the guidance and counselling offered through the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment Practices (TAFEP). It is why we are even still talking about the issue today, and the White Paper includes tackling discrimination. The guidance approach is just not good enough. We need legislation and policies that actually work. While mediation is an option, there needs to be proper mechanisms for monitoring, investigation, adjudication, and deterrence in place. I hope that we will take reference to other jurisdictions to see how thoughtful legislation outlawing such discriminatory behaviour can benefit women and other vulnerable groups.

I would like to now turn to a major role that many women play: becoming a mother. When I was pregnant with my youngest, his eldest brother, who was only aged 4 at the time, came up to me at bedtime and told me, “Mama, I am glad I am not a woman.” When I asked him why, he told me very seriously that it was because “it’s so hard to be pregnant”.

And indeed while parenthood brings much joy and growth, I do distinctly recall how lost and bewildered I felt the day we brought my him home from the hospital. Having gone through 26 hours of labour and finally giving birth to an almost 4 kilo baby, I was exhausted, in a huge amount of pain, and just felt as if I had been run over by a bus, multiple times. Baby’s constant wails and demands for food also left me frantically trying to find answers from my phone – with my husband being equally panicked. My mother, from a generation who were told that “formula was more nutritious”, was also unable to help with the challenging task of breastfeeding. 

Despite this rocky start, I was extremely fortunate. For a village quickly grew up around me: aside from my parents assiduously ensuring that I had all the food and nutrients needed to recover in the immediate postpartum period, cousins and friends who were themselves young parents also offered all kinds of assistance. These ranged from offers for respite care in various shapes or forms, helpful recommendations, and also late night conversations on WhatsApp as we together stayed awake nursing or rocking fussy babies into the wee hours of the morning. One such conversation which shall always remain with me is a comment made by a cousin that she found being a mother was actually harder than summiting Mount Everest!

This difficulty is why the development of a Child and Maternal Health and Well-being Strategy is so important if we are to support women in their motherhood journey. Our focus must move beyond just medical care. It is good to see that efforts announced during COS this year will provide care for maternal mental health and to encourage support for them at the workplace and in the community. 

For new mums who do not have a village growing up around them, it is vital that they are given the right care and support in the vulnerable weeks and months that follow childbirth. They should also have easy access to non-judgemental advice and education about dealing with common issues ranging from lactation support, baby sleep advice, and the change in relationship with their partners and families with a new baby. I hope that the task force will look at instituting practices such as having specially trained health visitors to routinely call on new mums just before delivery and during confinement to answer questions and provide reassurance at home in a more relaxed, non-clinical environment as part of the norm. We also should learn from traditional practices like doing confinement and jamu, and retain those practices which promote post-partum recovery and well-being, as these contain the wisdom of generations of mothers who came before us. Beyond the early days and months, issues such as mum guilt – where mums feel guilty for having to leave their children with a carer while pursuing a career – and bearing a disproportionately larger share of the mental load must also be addressed.

The task force must also consider how to support new fathers. It is not uncommon to hear that fathers often feel at a loss of how to support their wives and that they can feel alienated during the pregnancy and post-partum journey, all the while wondering how to bond with their newborns. This can have an adverse impact on them playing a greater role in bringing up their babies.

More attention must also be paid to closing any gender health gaps that may exist. International studies show that in many areas of healthcare, women experience poorer outcomes. The UK’s House of Lords had a debate last year on improving women’s health outcomes, and whether there is a gender health gap. Some societies have seen situations where women have longer life expectancies, but spend a longer period of time in ill health.  Many studies show too that women and ethnic minorities tend to experience bias when being treated for pain, and note that generally speaking, healthcare systems and research have been built around men, leaving women chronically misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed. There is also concern that historically, women were left out of medical research, which is concerning, as recent research is shining a spotlight on how there is a gender impact on health and illness, and that males and females respond differently to treatment.

In Singapore, I note that a panel led by SMS Amy Khor to advise HPB on women’s health was set up in 2012, and that work has been done to promote women’s health. It is heartening that there is targeted support for women’s health outcomes, and progress has definitely been made, but I believe we have not enough information publicly about how the concerns I raised above are being addressed in the Singapore context. We must go beyond just promoting women’s health, but also need to play our part to address any biases and in ensuring that the research gap when it comes to medical and health issues that affect women is addressed.

Mr Speaker, I have covered a wide variety of topics and my colleagues will continue to speak on the other areas that need strengthening and improvement. Before I close, I would like to make one final point about the “deep mindset shifts” required of us, and the comprehensive societal education necessary to bring about much-needed change. We have to go beyond the planned CCE changes to ensure that our curriculum and education in general make a conscious effort to challenge gender stereotypes. For example, we should not see house and care work as being the preserve of women, and must be mindful of ensuring equal male and female role models are well represented. The rest of us must also do our part and be aware that our words and deeds matter. What we say and do are a reflection of our beliefs. It is as my grandmother used to say: sim hor, sia hor, ta hor – have a good heart, think good things, say good things.

I support the motion. 

Thank you.