SINGAPORE: A task force set up to help Singapore's economy recover from the impact of COVID-19 does not have enough female representatives, Workers' Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Sylvia Lim said on Thursday (Jun 4).
Of the 17 members in the Emerging Stronger Task Force, two are women. The task force is co-chaired by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee and PSA International group chief executive Tan Chong Meng.
The task force, first announced by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Apr 7, will review how Singapore can stay economically resilient and dynamic in a post-COVID-19 world.
Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the Fortitude Budget, Ms Lim questioned if the task force would be able to adequately address the issue of women being disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Ms Lim said other "blind spot" issues include whether COVID-19 help schemes for self-employed persons and the elderly go far enough.
Fellow Aljunied WP MP Faisal Manap asked if low-income groups could get more help with rental and Internet fees.
"I am confident that we want every Singaporean, regardless of their socio-economic background, to move together and not be left behind in this digitalisation endeavour," he said.
Mr Faisal also asked about President Halimah Yacob's role in approving the Government's use of Singapore's reserves, pointing out that its three most recent Budgets have done so.
"Was the President given the information or the balance amount that we have in the national reserves?" he asked. "Such critical information is very crucial for the President in making an evaluation in order to reach a decision."
FEMALE AND RACIAL REPRESENTATION
Starting her speech with the Emerging Stronger Task Force, Ms Lim said that it has a "gender imbalance" and could benefit from having more women.
"Any agency looking at long-term recovery should include diverse voices," she said. "It is especially necessary to include those familiar with segments that bore a disproportionate brunt of the virus."
Ms Lim cited a United Nations report on Apr 9 that said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequality, in terms of increased domestic violence and unemployment.
"In terms of economic impact, there has been significant employment loss for women who hold the majority of insecure, informal and lower-paying jobs," she said, adding that unpaid work by women has also increased.
"The global health workforce is estimated to comprise 67 per cent women, with many women in roles most exposed to the virus."
Ms Lim said women are also disproportionately affected in the field of academics, with growing evidence that female academics are publishing less than their male counterparts as they are "bearing the brunt" of family care responsibilities.
"This would clearly impact their careers where publications are a key performance indicator," she continued.
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Closer to home, said Ms Lim, mothers in Singapore anecdotally spent more time than fathers with their children during home-based learning, while foreign domestic workers face "overwork and inadequate rest" as more people stay home.
"While men appear more prone to succumb to the virus, it is women and girls who pay the social and economic toll," she stated.
"One of the UN's key recommendations is to ensure women's equal representation in all COVID-19 response planning and decision making. There is a need to study gender-aggregated data in all fields, from public health to economics to communications."
It could therefore be a "missed opportunity" that the Emerging Stronger Task Force does not have enough female representatives, said Ms Lim, adding that successful COVID-19 responses in New Zealand and Taiwan had women at the helm.
"Also, there seems to be a weak representation of multi-racial voices, as there is no Malay member on the task force," she said, highlighting the absence of representatives for small- and medium-sized enterprises as well.
"With inadequate balance, will the final report and recommendations risk having blind spots that will prevent us from truly emerging stronger as a nation?"
Moving on to self-employed persons, Ms Lim asked how the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) decides whether to accept or reject appeals under the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS).
First announced in March during the Resilience Budget, SIRS gives eligible self-employed persons cash payouts of S$1,000 a month for nine months to help them tide over this period of uncertainty.
Qualifying criteria include earning a net trade income of no more than S$100,000 a year, and living in a property with an annual value of no more than S$21,000.
Ms Lim said the NTUC is helping the Government administer appeals for those who are not auto-included under the scheme, with 60,000 appeals received so far.
For some appeals, Ms Lim said NTUC reduced the cash payouts to S$800 a month, while others have been rejected outright.
"Suffice to say, these disparate outcomes have caused frustration and feelings of arbitrariness and unfairness," she said. "Questions from the ground have now emerged about the purpose and fairness of the scheme."
Ms Lim also asked why the Manpower Ministry (MOM) needed to outsource the administration of appeals to NTUC.
"Will this set a precedent for the Government to outsource its schemes to external parties to manage?" she asked. "What does it mean for Government accountability?"
In response, NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng said that the union has the capability to extend help to freelancers as quickly as possible, pointing to how the NTUC had administered a care fund for taxi drivers early on in the pandemic.
"The Government has put up the S$100 billion Budget, but I think there is space for business owners, NTUC and the workers to play a part," he said, calling this partisanship a strength.
READ: COVID-19: Eligible self-employed workers to receive S$9,000 in quarterly cash payouts under new income relief scheme
"We should ride on these strengths to execute this strategy well, and to the extent possible remain adaptive and learn lessons along the way.
"I'm humble enough to say that NTUC could have done better in some of the SIRS things that we have done. But let us draw those lessons when the time comes, but now extend assistance to as many as possible."
As for the appeals criteria, Mr Ng said NTUC works within the policy framework and guidelines given by MOM. "(Manpower) Minister Josephine Teo in the right time can answer this arrangement," he added.
ROLE OF PRESIDENT
On the President's role in the use of reserves, Mr Faisal said the Government has to go through the process of providing her with a "detailed explanation that is supported by information and facts".
"The President will then consult and consider with assistance and advice from the Council of Presidential Advisors whether to approve the Government's request or otherwise," he said.
Mr Faisal said knowing how much is left in the reserves would allow the President to make an "informed decision" on approving the expenditure or release of the funds.
"I hope Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat can explain whether the President has been given information about the amount ... when the Government presented information and facts to support its request to obtain the President's consent," he said.
The debate of the Fortitude Budget continues on Friday.