SINGAPORE: Members of Parliament (MP) on Wednesday (Sep 2) called for greater social inclusion, gender equality at the workplace, support for caregivers and to foster an environment for more open political discussions.
These were among the issues raised in Parliament on the third day of the debate on the President’s Address.
Sharing examples of people who have faced bias when applying for jobs because they are a woman or a mother, MP for Nee Soon GRC Louis Ng called for legislation to make it illegal for employers to ask interviewees and employees about their marital status and plans to have children.
Adding that women “will face unique struggles” looking for jobs in this economy, he also called for legislation to give employees rights to access flexible work arrangements.
According to figures from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), women earn S$342 less than men on average for similar work, and the female labour force participation rate has stagnated for the past five years, he noted.
“I know MOM is working hard to address this problem. But one of the main causes of this problem is the assumption that women are supposed to take care of children,” said Mr Ng.
“Our TAFEP guidelines are clear and state that questions related to marital status and family responsibilities should not be asked during an interview. But these guidelines are clearly not being followed.”
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Nee Soon GRC MP Carrie Tan, describing herself as a "self-confessed millennial woman guilty of not choosing marriage and childbirth", echoed Mr Ng’s sentiments on gender equality.
Adding that her mother was a “tireless and self-sacrificing” full-time homemaker, she said: "As a 38-year-old woman with a career I find immense fulfilment in, there is no way I could see myself being a mother the same way mine was while continuing to advance in my personal and professional aspirations.”
Even though more women are graduating with university degrees, they still face the “pressures and penalties that come with being a wife and mother”, said Ms Tan, calling on Parliament to consider the “root causes” of women’s decision to delay marriage and childbirth - lack of caregiving support, career opportunity costs and increased stress.
She also urged the Government to consider valuing unpaid care work of women, legislating workplace policies to support working caregivers and facilitate easier re-entry to work. She also suggested "reducing the burden of care on women with upstream gender and care education in our schools".
“We need to ensure that the complex interconnections among employment, care-giving, domestic labour, healthcare and retirement adequacy are considered holistically from a woman’s life journey approach,” added Ms Tan.
MP for Sembawang Poh Li San suggested a review of potentially unfair or discriminatory human resources practices, such as reducing the gender wage gap, to ensure that all companies are more gender neutral.
Noting that “many talented and capable Singaporean women have traded off careers for their young families and children”, she said: “These women do have the requisite skill sets, experience and maturity to contribute and lead in the workplace. They just need to be given that opportunity to rejoin the workforce. We should increase accessibility for these women to return to the workplace, especially after their children have grown up.”
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To attract and retain women in the workplace, the work environment must also transform, said Ms Poh, adding that COVID-19 has made flexible work arrangements workable and acceptable. “We should make these structural shifts in the workplace permanent.”
‘THE LOTTERY OF BIRTH’
Other MPs addressed the need for more policies to strengthen support for individuals who may not have had a good start.
“The Government has rolled out measures in recent years to mitigate the lottery of birth," said Minister of State for the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry for Trade and Industry Alvin Tan said.
"And yet too far often we hear concerns that our system penalises people too heavily for the setbacks of their past where grades from your O-Levels or A-Levels disproportionately dictate your career path, where we congratulate people for defying the odds without questioning why the odds were put there in the first place.”
Mr Tan recalled that he had to submit his PSLE, O-Level and A-Level grades when applying for mid-career government jobs years ago, while private sector firms did not require this information and instead valued his experience in the army and his volunteer work.
“Failure will have consequences. Be must not and should not bind people to their past failures, denying them the chance to learn from them and shape their futures differently. Embracing failure and giving second chances will help strengthen our social mobility,” he said.
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“At the same time, it will encourage people to be bold enough to try new things and potentially fail or innovate. Most importantly, it will make us an even more inclusive society.”
Workers’ Party (WP) MP for Sengkang GRC He Ting Ru said it was “a good start” that Singapore is “finally recognising the limits, and even failure of meritocracy”.
“We must not let blind reliance on what meritocracy can achieve turn us into a harsh and unforgiving society where the vulnerable are blamed for their plight for not being hardworking or talented enough to strive for a better life for themselves and their families,” she said, adding that the expansion of programmes such as KidSTART, as well as the increase in the number Ministry of Education (MOE) kindergartens are good first steps.
“However many programmes and task forces that we have, I believe that the real danger facing us now is the perception of lack of social mobility and the presence of elitism,” Ms He continued.
When encouraging students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to top universities, she found that it was often “a lack of belief and confidence” that held many of these students back.
“Often they show a great potential, but would never cross their minds to even put in an application as they felt they stood no chance. Even for those who do apply and succeed, this perception can also persist,” added Ms He.
Existing university students and members of professions should be encouraged to actively speak to and mentor the next generation of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, she suggested.
SUPPORT FOR CAREGIVERS
Changing social fabric and demographics have accentuated challenges facing Singapore’s care infrastructure, especially in a post-pandemic world, said Ms He.
“We must ensure that our care systems keep pace with evolving demands, and that carers, especially those who undertake unpaid care and domestic work, are more visible and supported.”
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The Government should also consider informal caregivers and integrate them into the care delivery system, Ms He said.
“We must therefore measure unpaid work to make it visible," she added. "Such an approach immediately recognises this work as being of tremendous value to our society, and will be a first step in changing how we think about such work, and then understanding the profile of these workers.”
MP for Jurong GRC Xie Yao Quan said Singapore needs more healthcare professionals, especially nurses, as care “remains a high-touch, highly human endeavour”.
“We will need more nurses going forward, and it is key that we maintain a strong Singaporean core. To this end, we have intensified recruitment and reviewed salaries, training and career pathways for Singaporeans. But we also need to complement our nursing workforce with foreign nurses,” he added.
Suggesting a review of the Dependency Ratio Ceiling and other manpower strategies for the healthcare sector, especially in immediate and long-term care, he also urged the Government to enhance financial support for full-time caregivers.
Introducing parent-care leave entitlements and working with families would send an “important signal” to workers and employers, Mr Xie added. He also urged the Government to work with families and caregivers to increase the uptake of Lasting Power of Attorney and Advance Care Planning arrangements among seniors.
SUPPORTING LOCAL WORKERS
Support for local workers, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, remained a recurring topic on the third day of the debate on the President’s Address.
Progress Singapore Party Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa urged the Government to review the Job Support Scheme (JSS), which gives companies wage subsidies to retain jobs.
“It is a blanket measure that also pays companies that do not require any wage subsidy,” said Ms Poa.
Rather than giving subsidies to still-profitable companies and firms that pay million-dollar executive salaries, the resources should be re-channelled to “where they are more needed, like unemployment support”, she said.
Mr Poa added that the Government should differentiate JSS for Singaporeans and permanent residents to “underline the difference in the Government’s duty and obligations to these two groups”.
She also suggested enhancing the COVID Support Grant to offer financial assistance for a long period of time, and also to allow Central Provident Fund (CPF) members who have lost their jobs to borrow from their own CPF accounts.
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As working remotely becomes the new norm, people around the world would be able to apply for jobs in Singapore and vice versa, said Mr Alvin Tan. As such, Singapore must prepare its people to “compete on the global platform and take on these emerging jobs”, he said.
He recalled how he previously helped Institute of Technical Education students showcase their skills on their digital resumes, so that machine learning algorithms can help notify them of potential job matches in and outside of Singapore.
"I look forward to working SkillsFuture and MyCareersFuture teams to prepare and to better prepare but also promote our people so that they can better compete for jobs in Singapore and beyond," he said.
“So we must continue to support Singaporeans young and old transform themselves out of this crisis. The choice is clear. We either reinvent ourselves to meet the demands of the future, or be relegated to the footnotes of the past.”
Older workers too, need support, said Ang Mo Kio GRC MP Ng Ling Ling.
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“As a society, we must make every effort to continually support a more mature workforce in meaningful and dignifying work. What’s even more important is for us to respect the emotional journey they are going through as they cope with the rapidly changing job market,” she said.
While there are current schemes to assist older workers, Singapore will have to systematically redesign jobs, change workplace culture and HR policies for a mature workforce, she said.
"We need to help them overcome the workplace barriers which may stand in the way of maximising their potential," she added.
While the Government supports displaced workers, companies must be willing to change their approach and make changes in a "challenging job market", said Paris-Ris Punggol MP Sharael Taha, adding that Singapore as a society has to ensure that companies abide by fair hiring practices.
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While he supports Government schemes which improve employability for mid-career professionals, seniors and people with disabilities, government agencies can only go so far without support from organisations willing to change, added Mr Sharael.
“I believe that we should not come to the point where we must legislate minimum employment quotes for seniors and the less able to move towards a more inclusive society. Government, businesses and citizens must work together to create equal opportunities for all,” he said.
ENGAGING SINGAPOREANS POLITICALLY
MPs emphasised the importance of political engagement and being open to alternative political views.
Recounting her experience of joining an alternative political party, Ms Poa noted that her environment became “decidedly more critical of Government all of a sudden”, as people with anti-establishment views sought her out.
“It took great effort to maintain my perspective, to remember that the world has not really changed all that much all of a sudden, but simply that people are telling me what they think I am interested in hearing,” she said. As such, “everyone needs to recognise the bias of one’s echo chamber”.
With Singaporeans now valuing engagement with the community and the emergence of a “more discerning electorate”, Ms He said she often finds herself asked “challenging questions” about the WP’s work and policy proposals.
Singaporeans also ask "deeper, more thought-provoking questions" of the party, society and Government policies, she added.
"These two trends taken together mean that we must step up our own engagement with all levels of our community and keep discussing with and involving everyone in deciding Singapore's future.
"We must recognise that everyone has something to add to the conversation," said Ms He.
Other than “highly structured” Singapore conversations, Emerging Singapore conversations and government-mandated or approved schemes, the Government can look to informal forums, like coffee shop walks done by the WP, she added.
“We have found that the informal nature of these have a frankness, directness and intimacy which has been invaluable in shaping our understanding of the issues,” she said, adding that ground-up project could also begin without the People's Association and "designated enablers".
"The Government too must play its part in fostering an environment which enables a more engaged Singapore, from other youth, workers and enterprises.
“Instead of solely thinking about competition between groups, we must learn how to come together to find shared interests and resources, but also at the same time learning to disagree respectfully when differences arise,” she said.
Meanwhile, Bukit Batok MP Murali Pillai proposed several changes to parliamentary proceedings to hold MPs accountable for their views.
For instance, the first reading of any Bill, which Mr Murali said is “currently rather formulaic”, can be “put to better use” by the minister to give members of the House a non-specialist understanding of the issues, how they affect Singaporeans’ lives and how the Bill plans to address the concerns.
And rather than MPs reading their speeches when their turn comes, Parliament should “make available the option of lodging our speeches to be taken as read” and make public, said Mr Murali, as it enables other MPs to consider what other parliamentarians have said, and allows for public scrutiny of their speeches.
“Having done this, time in this House should be spent on genuine debate and points of clarification or disagreement. We will be able to avoid repetition of points that waste valuable time. The minister should feel free to berate members who try to debate without having read his speech,” he said.
Mr Murali also suggested a new IT system to make more easily available information on MPs’ attendance, number of parliamentary questions asked and the number of times spoken on Bills, Budget, Committee of Supply debates and motions.
There should be a parliamentary record of the outcome of MPs’ proposals which the ministry has agreed to study, he added.
These will make it easier for members of the public to “hold MPs to account”, said Mr Murali.
“I think it is time that we ... as a nation, set its social and moral code under which we should not flinch from actively defending our views and values. And also understand an opposing point of view, and debate and discuss these views," he added.
“We should do so respectfully, with an open mind, always with the hope that the other side has something to teach us."