Ex-NMP Dr Kanwaljit Soin on politics, meritocracy and ageism in Singapore

Ex-NMP Dr Kanwaljit Soin on politics, meritocracy and ageism in Singapore

Former NMP and founding member of AWARE Dr Kanwaljit Soin talks to 938LIVE’s Bharati Jagdish about biases and meritocracy in Singapore, and dealing with OB markers.

Kanwalijit Soin

SINGAPORE: Dr Kanwaljit Soin was one of the founding members of women's organisation AWARE and since then, she has spent more than 30 years advocating women's rights. Today, her eyes are trained on the rights of older people in society.

As a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) in 1995, she tabled a Family Violence Bill. Some of her proposals were incorporated into amendments to the Women’s Charter. Even during her time as an NMP, Dr Soin was seen as progressive and spoke up for gender-neutrality and for granting maintenance in the event of a divorce on the basis of need – something that is currently being raised as part of public discussions on updates to the Women's Charter.

She went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about politics, meritocracy and ageism in Singapore, but first what led her down this path and her passion for caring as a doctor.

Kanwaljit Soin: I was actually born in India. I had to leave India because of the Partition when I was a little child. So then, we went to settle down in Indonesia. I was in Indonesia until the age of 10, and then my parents sent me to school in Singapore. Now, we had a very gentle doctor, who looked after us in Indonesia, and I think he inspired me to think of medicine. And that's how I wanted to be a doctor from the age of 10. I believed in justice, and fairness, even before I heard of feminism.

Bharati Jagdish: What influenced you?

Kanwaljit Soin: I've been thinking about that lately. I think partly it has to do with my religion. I was born a Sikh, and the Sikh religion is quite progressive, and it does believe in equality of the sexes, and does believe in justice and fairness, and does not like inequality. So maybe it’s got to do with something I read or heard when I was young. I cannot put a finger to it.


Bharati Jagdish: You were one of the founding members of AWARE. How challenging was it to start up an organisation like this, in Singapore then?

Kanwaljit Soin: In those days, it took us more than a year to register the organisation, because it was much more difficult. Now, they've made it much simpler. The civil servants have gotten used to the fact that society also consists of the non-profit sector. In those days, the not-for-profit sector did not speak so openly about what was happening in the establishment, and there was a bit of a fear that we would be reprimanded if we did, but I don't think during those days we were reprimanded, although we were seen to be taking quite a line outside what is acceptable.

Bharati Jagdish: Were you seen as troublemakers?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, they didn't brand us as bad, but we were made to feel that. It wasn’t spoken of, but we were just outside the OB markers.

Bharati Jagdish: How challenging was it to communicate with the Government? You obviously wanted to influence policy at a time when there were perhaps other priorities such as the economy.

Kanwaljit Soin: It was challenging. They are always other priorities, but the other priorities cannot be realised, if you begin to discriminate on people on basis of gender, or other things. Women form more than half the population. Even if you're thinking of economic priorities. If you don't make use of the power that is the “women power”, so to speak, in terms of labour, talent and brains, you're missing out on achieving your full economic potential.

You can never say that, “Oh, women's issues. We mustn't worry about that. Let's worry about bread-and-butter issues.” Women's issues are part of bread-and-butter issues. They're part of every issue that the nation should look at.

Bharati Jagdish: You mentioned the word “fear” earlier. How did you reconcile that feeling with speaking up?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, first of all, we did our research very carefully. Secondly, we formulated what we said. The fear was inherent because there were hardly any other organisations that were speaking against the establishment's policies. We were a little bit worried about what was going to happen.

Bharati Jagdish: What did you think might happen?

Kanwaljit Soin: I don't know…

Personally, I'm not a pessimistic person and wasn't so concerned about what would happen. But there were some other women, who were worried about it. But I don't think we self-censored too much. We had a passion. We had a mission. We want to fulfil something. If we didn't have that, we would never have founded AWARE. But once we had passion and mission, and we formed AWARE, we had to go about achieving it. If we didn't speak, then we might as well have closed the organisation and gone back to our private lives.

My fighting for what I believed in was giving me a sense of self-worth. It gave me a certain sense of self-confidence. And I didn't feel I was breaking any laws. I was maybe breaking social conventions, but then that happens all the time, so I didn't have any sense of fear or worry.

Bharati Jagdish: To what extent do you think there is still a climate of fear in Singapore in spite of the fact that more and more are speaking up?

Kanwaljit Soin: It's very interesting. Before the last election, I asked one or two of the operating theatre attendants in my hospital, and I said, "Who are you going to vote for?" And one of them sort of whispered to me, "I'm going to vote for the PAP, because my daughter is going to apply for an HDB apartment." And I said, "What's that got to do with it?"

Bharati Jagdish: But in spite of the concern of some Singaporeans that their vote could work against them, today, you have to admit more people are speaking up in Singapore about issues that they care about.

"We have to acknowledge that there's gender bias, ageism, racial bias. Then, we must have a frank conversation to bring this out in the open." Former Nominated Member of Parliament, and one of the founding members of AWARE Singapore, Kanwaljit Soin goes "On the Record" with Bharati Jagdish about prejudices, meritocracy and politics in Singapore. Listen to the full interview on Friday at 7:30am and 2:30pm. #OnTheRecord

Posted by 938LIVE on Thursday, March 10, 2016


Kanwaljit Soin: There are people who believe in climate change, animal lovers...So I think it exists in all societies, but in Singapore, what we need is a stronger not-for-profit sector because the establishment is so strong. Business is so strong. Now you have a society which doesn't have the three legs of the stool, and the civil society leg is a bit weak, and most of it has been channelled into welfare organisations. It’s all to help the poor, the disabled. It seems as if it’s all right to do all that, but it's not all right to speak loudly about issues that people have a diversity of views on.

Bharati Jagdish: So organised advocacy and activism, rather than just talking about it on Facebook and stopping there.

Kanwaljit Soin: Exactly. And advocacy, because you feel that something is not fair in society, then you have to advocate for change. You first have to get information. You must have a little bit of outrage…so, to my mind, you must have the information and knowledge, a bit of outrage, and then you go ahead and take some action. And part of that action is advocacy, talking to the powers that be. They're all part of the advocacy plan.

Bharati Jagdish: What makes you say that people don’t feel free to do that in Singapore today?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, first of all, whenever you express something is not right in Singapore, the first response of the Government is, "Oh, being critical is not good enough. Give us a better answer." A citizen, who expresses his or her view about something that he or she feels is not right in Singapore is taking the time and trouble to do that. So we have to listen to them respectfully instead of saying, "Oh, don't be confrontational. Don't criticise. Be glad that you are in a safe country and all that." Because what is the role of a citizen? The role of a citizen is to speak up for his or her country. And whether the establishment agrees with that person is another matter.

As long as we don't break any laws in speaking up against what we feel is not right in the country, we should be allowed to do that. But, to be dismissed with "Oh, you're being confrontational. Oh, what better ideas do you have than that"…

You don't necessarily need to give a better idea. I mean, if you have it, you can. The first thing is to express that things are not doing well here. Like when people expressed their views that there were too many foreigners. But again the Government responded with “Oh, they're not being practical. They're not being realistic. Singapore's economy will go down.” Even the Population White Paper was not discussed enough. Even the MPs in the PAP said that it wasn't discussed with them. So it shows that the establishment itself does not have a collaborative frame of mind. They keep on saying, “Oh yes, we do, we do.” But how much do they really listen and change?

Bharati Jagdish: But of course, if you're talking about population, some changes were made. Immigration was curtailed. Steps were taken.

Kanwaljit Soin: Yes, they were taken, because if they were not taken, then 2015 would have a worse election result. Not enough collaboration was done before those steps were taken. When were we ever told that we are going to increase our population of foreigners by this amount? Who becomes a citizen? How do we know? We need to know why some people become citizens earlier than others. We need to have an input. We can say, "Nobody can be citizen unless they’ve lived in Singapore for 10 years."

This is our country. Surely we have a right to give our input. We need to know the rules of the game better, so we can play the game better. Without the rules, we don't know. When the referee blows the whistle, we are completely astounded.

Bharati Jagdish: But over the years, there have been things like Our Singapore Conversations. Now there are other consultation sessions, The Future of Us dialogue sessions. What’s your assessment of these?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, I know they've been made, but I want to know when the Population White Paper was formulated, where were the conversations relating to that? So subsequently, there have been conversations. But when it comes to this most important initiative by the Government, where were the conversations? So, sometimes you can have conversations for the sake of having conversations, but this is a stark example where there was no conversation, even with the MPs of the PAP, leave alone the population.

The political atmosphere here is very subdued, and it has purposely been that way, because earlier on, there were other priorities like survival, economic survival and we needed to build up our army. But now, we have become a developed nation. We are the third-richest country in the world. We now have to diversify. We must let people express their opinions, and not be ready to rap them on their knuckles for that. And even with some of these issues, there are more than enough laws to ensure that people do not make remarks that will lead to interracial or inter-religious conflict.

But even things like religion and race ought to be talked about. Everything's pushed under the carpet. The Government might say, “Oh, let's not talk about it. It's too sensitive.” But if you don't talk about it, and don't iron it out, how are you ever going to make sure that your differences are understood and respected?

Bharati Jagdish: Ok, so how should subjects like race and religion be talked about? What manner of honesty and openness would you like to see in such discussions that you’re not seeing now?

Kanwaljit Soin: I think we can be perfectly honest. For example, we can speak to our Malay-Muslim friends. I don't know whether it is still like this, but I remember my Malay staff nurse telling me some time ago that she cannot send her child to a particular childcare centre, because there's no halal food served there. But that's easily overcome. Maybe we can just have fish and vegetables, or we can have halal chicken in every kindergarten. The Indians, the Christians, the Chinese don't mind that. So some of these things can be overcome with a little bit of understanding.

And then we can also ask our Malay-Muslim friends, why they need to put on a tudung, so that we can understand. Once we understand that, to my mind, a tudung is fine. So, I think because we don't talk about these issues, because we think, "Oh, these are sensitive issues, let's keep away”, we are further away from reaching a common understanding.

The minorities in Singapore try to accommodate the majority. We do not bang the table and say, "We want this." We understand this is a peaceful country. So we try to understand, so I don't think there's going to be any flare-up out of the blue.

We had it at the time of the separation from Malaysia but those are old tales. I think people today are becoming much more open. We are globalised. We've opened up, but we keep on going back to this issue of primeval instincts. I think it’s time we buried these old stories.

Bharati Jagdish: We talked about strengthening civil society. Should civil society be waiting for the Government to give it space? Shouldn’t civil society claim this space on its own?

Kanwaljit Soin: Of course all these things have to come from ground up. But if there is an overbearing establishment that pushes you down, then it's going to take longer for things to come up from the ground. Even now, some of the OB markers are so difficult. I mean, look at Catherine Lim. She was told off roundly. So, because of that, again, there's a lot of self-censorship, and again, things from the ground up will take longer. It will happen, it will occur, but it will take longer.

Bharati Jagdish: So on the part of the Government, what do you think needs to happen?

Kanwaljit Soin: Government is part of society. We cannot keep on putting ourselves in a cocoon. We all must take risks, and in Singapore society, we do things incrementally. We are known for not changing overnight. But if we don't venture incrementally, we will always remain in the cocoon. We will always talk about the fears, and we will not progress as people, and our national identity will not come about.


Bharati Jagdish: You were the first woman NMP. Today questions are being asked about the relevance of NMPs, the selection criteria and so on. What’s your feeling on this issue?

Kanwaljit Soin: The Nominated Member of Parliament scheme and, to some extent, the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament scheme, both reflect that the ruling party wants these diverse views to be heard, because I think the ruling party realises, that if it's a monolithic structure, and only one voice comes out from Parliament, then there is going to be a non-representation of diverse views.

Bharati Jagdish: So in that sense, you think the Government is doing the right thing?

Kanwaljit Soin: Yes, but now, I think, since we have been in operation for so many years, instead of tweaking it a bit here, tweaking it a bit there, I think we ought to go to a more structured system, and what I have in mind – and I'm not the first one to express it – is that we should have two houses of Parliament, so that it will represent the rival interest in a more balanced representation.

Bharati Jagdish: So, bicameral.

Kanwaljit Soin: Yes. An upper house and a lower house. The lower house usually, in most countries, is like the present Parliament, always fully elected. So, usually, the upper house can consist of, maybe a few elected, some appointed and some NCMPs, and then we can have different terms of office for them, different people, and they will represent different views.

Bharati Jagdish: In what way would this be better than the presence of NCMPs and NMPs?

Kanwaljit Soin: If we have two houses of Parliament, because their terms will be staggered, their terms of office, even if there is an election outcome that is completely unexpected, you have an upper house which is there, so there will be some continuity. It's a much more evolving system, and also, it represents the interest of diverse groups much better.

Secondly, I do not think that it should be so easy for the Government to make laws, because when the constitution is changed too often, laws are made too quickly, sometimes reflection could be lacking. So when you have two houses of Parliament, this slows down the process.

It gives people more time to think, more time to speak up, and so, maybe the outcome is likely to be better. We always have this either-or scenario: “Oh then, we'll get gridlock Government.”

Things are not black and white. Everything nowadays is grey. So, of course, the grey may be a bit towards the black or a bit towards the white, but we have to take risks, we have to progress. Otherwise, where will we be in another 30, 40 years? We will still be stuck, and still enunciating the same fears, the same worries. So what's going to happen to us as a people?

Bharati Jagdish: Gridlock is one extreme, but no doubt efficiency will be affected. You talk about reflection, debate and slowing down as a good thing, but not everyone believes so, because of the possible lack of efficiency.

Kanwaljit Soin: First of all, pure efficiency is quite frightening. We must have equity with efficiency. We must have other objectives to be fulfilled in society. Of course, we don't want to have no efficiency at all, but the fact remains in Singapore, in spite of all of our efficiency, our productivity is so low. It’s because we haven't factored in many other things that will help to make the human potential better.

For example, women and meritocracy. Now, women are still saddled with a lot of the caregiving responsibilities. So then we say, "Oh, let's give them a longer maternity leave. Let's help them to do that." But does all this really help women in a meritocratic society? Because if you take long maternity leave, or you take three years off, no pay leave…

Bharati Jagdish: It will affect your career.

Kanwaljit Soin: Of course it affects your career. So, in a meritocratic society, pro-women policies work against women. Until we come to the conclusion that society consists of two main things. We have to earn cash and we have to care. Now, without the care, society cannot proceed, and without the economic part, society cannot progress either. Today, the care part is a bit too heavily on the side of women and the cash part is to the advantage of men. So women can never completely benefit in a meritocratic society.

Bharati Jagdish: You’re not, however, saying that women should be able to take time off without being penalised or that society should be less meritocratic. What you're saying is that that burden of care should shared between men and women, so that both have a chance to also succeed in their careers?

Kanwaljit Soin: Exactly! It should be shared, and I think we should stop talking of mothers and fathers. The only thing that a father cannot do is that he cannot have a baby, and he cannot breastfeed. Everything else, a father can do. They’ve increased paternity leave by a week but that’s not enough. So why don't we look at the parents' role, rather than a mother and a father's role. Here, we are trying to give women more leave, let's give the couples more money, but, that's not what is making the birth rate go up at all. So you need the whole country to understand that having children is important, and you need fathers, mothers, you need the business community. You need everyone to understand that this is a part of the national objective. And everybody has to help.

Bharati Jagdish: So you’re saying that if we took the time to process all these things, we would get equity.

Kanwaljit Soin: Yes. And you would get productivity, in every sense.

Bharati Jagdish: We were talking about the political system, which led to this discussion about efficiency versus equity. You said that in 30, 40 years from now, we shouldn’t still be enunciating the same fears and concerns over policy-making and freedom of speech. Some might say, why not? It seems to have worked for us so far in economic terms, in terms of quality of life, and safety and security.

Kanwaljit Soin: I completely agree, but why can't you be ambitious for your own country. We keep on comparing ourselves to countries that are not so successful and say we are better than that. Then why don't we compare ourselves to countries that, in some ways, have an edge over us, and try to aspire to that?

Now we have a problem, because now the economic success is going to falter, and because it's going to falter, what is going to hold us together as a country, to hold us together as a people? So we have to work towards that end.

Bharati Jagdish: You’ve mentioned race quite a number of times. While you say there needs to be freedom to speak more openly, where would you draw the line?

Kanwaljit Soin: I think it shouldn’t be drawn too narrowly. How much can I talk about race and religion, openly, without someone saying, "Oh, you are inciting conflict", or "you're inciting differences". And I think, it should come from top down. So if the people at the top could talk about race and religion…

For example, we talk of being a meritocratic society, but why has nobody said that Minister Tharman (Shanmugaratnam) can be the next Prime Minister. Why does the Government say the population is not ready for an Indian Prime Minister?

What do you mean by “we're not ready for it?” We're a meritocratic society, interracial, inter-religious, inter-cultural. So if you look at ability alone, why is Minister Tharman not considered? He's Prime Ministerial material. Why is there a fear that the population will not accept an Indian as a Prime Minister? What gives people the right to assume?

Bharati Jagdish: Maybe the establishment has done its research?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, nobody asked me. For a thing like that, we've got to have a referendum. If you really want to know, we should ask the populace, "Will you accept a non-Chinese Prime Minister?" And then, I will be convinced, from the result of that referendum.

Bharati Jagdish: You mentioned that if we were to go by meritocratic principles, race should not be an issue. The Prime Minister recently proposed that a mechanism be put in place to ensure that minorities periodically have a chance to be elected President. If you feel that merit should take precedence, I take it you wouldn’t be in favour of such a mechanism?

Kanwaljit Soin: Exactly! I believe that the President should also be elected on merit. So many appointments in the civil service, judiciary etc, are based on merit and this has not been a bar to minorities getting these positions. So why should the election of the President not follow meritocratic principles as well? We have had non-Chinese Chief Justices. So why is there such a difficulty in having a non-Chinese Prime Minister? And something we pride ourselves on, besides being an economic success, is meritocracy.

Bharati Jagdish: But some of the posts you mentioned are appointed posts, not elected posts. And by that same token what about the GRC system, where one candidate has to be a minority candidate to ensure that minorities are represented in Parliament?

Kanwaljit Soin: Yes, I have always found the GRC to be an anomaly if one really believes in meritocracy. JB Jeyaretnam won a seat on his own merit. But we've never had an open discussion. When this is simmering in social media, I think it behooves the politicians to say, "Hey, let's talk about it openly. Let's see, so that the population understands where we are coming from.” Instead, it's just said, “Oh, they will probably not accept an Indian.” It surprises me. In fact, it shocks me to see that anyone should even think that or say that.

We have to change our thinking, we have to change our culture, and really, evolve into better human beings.

Bharati Jagdish: What do you fear will happen if we continue this way?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, we will become ossified. And if we become ossified and we become a society where everything that the Government says and knows is the best, we will just put our head down, go to work every day, get a bigger flat, get a bigger car, you know...have one or two kids and not more, try to make them go to university. Then what's going to happen to us?

Kanwaljit Soin at the book launch

Dr Kanwaljit Soin at the launch of a book celebrating the progress of women in Singapore over the last 50 years. (Photo: TODAY/Ernest Chua)


Bharati Jagdish: Why did you never join politics?

Kanwaljit Soin: First, I like being a doctor and a surgeon very much. I like it and I find it difficult to give it up altogether, and not everybody has to join politics. We want to create change. We can do it through the not-for-profit route. I have been trying to do it through that, and that, to me, is satisfying, because I can still continue being a doctor, which is my passion.

Bharati Jagdish: At the age of 74, you continue to practise medicine and operate. I know that you are passionate about ageing issues too and you’ve said before that the retirement age should be abolished. Why?

Kanwaljit Soin: We have allowed people to retire too early. The retirement age only operates in countries which give you a pension. In Singapore, we do not have a pension system except now the Silver Support Scheme, which is on a needs-basis.

Bharati Jagdish: Of course, your CPF savings are supposed to help with retirement funding too.

Kanwaljit Soin: Yeah, I know. But we let so many people, who are still capable of working, we let them retire. And we let women stay at home to look after the kids, we let people who are still capable of working retire, so we had a labour crunch.

Then we said, "We need people from outside. We need migrants and all that." So in a way, what has happened now, is partly of our own making.

Bharati Jagdish: Now steps are being taken to change that – getting more women back into the workforce, raising the retirement age.

Kanwaljit Soin: Yeah, but sometimes it's not easy because, first of all, now the female labour force participation rate is 58 per cent, even though educationally males and females are on par. The male labour force participation is 76 per cent. After the age of 30, the two, they diverge.

And in many other countries, when women have children, they get back into the workforce. What they call the “M Curve”. In Singapore, many women never go back. Of course, now there have been some steps, but we have already let the good women be lost, and similarly for many older people. We retire them too early. We should persuade older people to stay on. We should make it easier for them. We should let them work part-time. We should give them a gap year, say, "Hey, you know, you've worked until you're 65. Take six months, one year off. Travel the world. Do whatever you want, and then come back and work again."

We should do everything possible to retain older people in the labour force, not only for the sake of the economy, but also for the sake of the older person. For the sake of keeping their mind nimble, their body nimble, and then there will be less need for medical care, less need for nursing. Probably, a lower rate of dementia. Definitely a lower rate of depression. So we're not thinking.

Yes, we have been thinking of ageing for a long time. We have made little steps here and there, but haven't made some really big steps that could really change the whole scene.

Bharati Jagdish: Of course, if you asked some people, they would say they wished the cost of living in Singapore were more manageable so that they could retire earlier.

Kanwaljit Soin: Because lifespans have increased so much, we cannot expect to work for 30 years and expect to live for another 30 years, and expect our savings to last that long. Especially if you want the same standard of living. Because lifespans have increased, we must work longer, and this is something, I think, all of us must subscribe to.

Bharati Jagdish: But even if the retirement age were abolished, would people hire older workers? Ageism still exists here.

Kanwaljit Soin: Precisely. Now, then we get back to our meritocratic frame of mind. If they can do their job, why do people get their CPF cut as they get older, even though they are still performing the same job? So, again, we need to think of all these policies, and if you believe in meritocracy, let us practise meritocracy meritocratic-ly, not arbitrarily. I think older people are a great resource, but some of them may not want to work full-time. And that's perfectly all right. It's better that two older people share one job than to lose two people in the labour force altogether.

Bharati Jagdish: How do you think we can overcome such biases?

Kanwaljit Soin: We have to go back to the principle of meritocracy and forget about age. When you apply for a job, I think we stop telling our age, because many people have said they've applied for many jobs, but because they are 57, they're not even called for an interview. We should stop writing what race we are, we should stop writing what is our age, we should stop writing what's our sex, and just apply for the job. See whether our qualifications are there, and then call us for an interview.

Bharati Jagdish: But of course, the prejudice can be exercised during the interview.

Kanwaljit Soin: Of course it can be, but at least once you get to the interview stage, you have a chance of impressing the board. They might think, “Oh, hey, this person is 57 and not bad, you know? I think we'll give that person a try.”

Bharati Jagdish: Shouldn’t the focus be on changing mindsets instead? Can you think of ways to do this?

Kanwaljit Soin: A lot of research has been done recently to show that there are two kinds of biases. One is conscious bias, the other is unconscious bias. There has been a lot of work done, and many multinational companies are making their employees and their CEOs to go through courses to rid themselves of this unconscious bias. Because most of us are not even aware that we have this unconscious bias. When we see an older person, our first thought is "Oh, that older person is going to be slow." But older persons come in all shapes and sizes, and they're very heterogeneous. They're not homogeneous.

Bharati Jagdish: We hear this within the political leadership as well - that there is a need for young blood. What impact do you think that has on how society thinks?

Kanwaljit Soin: Now, as a doctor, the only time we need young blood is in a blood transfusion situation, you know? What do you mean by young blood? You need people who understand society, who understand what's happening in society, and many older people have experience and have knowledge, and they're not being considered.

I mean, look at the election in the US. Bernie Sanders is 74, Hillary Clinton is about 70, and in Singapore, the election candidates are getting younger and younger, and older people are just being forgotten. What is this? What does it express? It expresses ageism.

Bharati Jagdish: To what extent do you think unconscious biases, whether it is in regard to gender, race or income, are actually sharper in meritocratic societies?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, yes, there’s a study called the “Paradox of Meritocracy”, where people who work in companies where the mission is meritocracy, and when they interview somebody for a job, they believe that they're so meritocratic that often, they will let their unconscious bias get the better of them. They will not even entertain the thought that there was some bias.

Of course you can look at it from just the example of men and women. In Singapore, 52 per cent of the population is women. Now, in a meritocratic society, why is it that the Singaporean women are not doing so well in politics or in the corporate world even though there is educational parity? It’s because structural impediments and unconscious bias work against women, work against older people, and sometimes may even work against different racial groups.

Bharati Jagdish: Can you expand on the structural problems?

Kanwaljit Soin: For example, many of the politicians come from the armed forces. Now women don't even do NS (National Service), so we're not even in the armed forces to be considered. Many of the politicians, where are they chosen? On the golf courses. Women are too busy looking after children to be on the golf course or in clubs, because they're also a product of a society that has certain norms that many of them internalise.

So first of all, we have to acknowledge these things. We have to acknowledge unconscious bias, we have to acknowledge that there's gender bias, that there is ageism, sometimes racial bias. We have to acknowledge that. Then, we must have a frank conversation at different levels of society, and bring this out in the open.

In a meritocratic society, if a person doesn't get a job, then it seems that that person doesn't have the ability, doesn't have the interest, or doesn't have the ambition, but that's not true.

They don't get the job because of many other reasons, so even meritocracy has to be talked about at all levels, and it cannot operate just in such a hallowed ground, as if just saying that you're a meritocratic society makes it a perfect society. No. I think it's not enough. We need to talk about merit, and tease it into bits and pieces, and see that it cannot work uniformly.


Bharati Jagdish: You've done so many things over the years, spoken up about so many issues. Any regrets?

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, I don't know, but that's one interesting question. I like to think that when I die, I'd like to have as few fears and as few regrets as possible. I'm a very optimistic person. I'm sure I had regrets, small regrets along the way, small fears along the way, but in general, no.

Bharati Jagdish: Because you have been so busy in the public eye and in your medical practice, I wonder what family life was like for you. And I'm not asking this because you're a woman. I would ask a man the same question.

Kanwaljit Soin: I know. I don't know, I'm happy. I'm not a perfect mother. I'm not a perfect wife. I'm not a perfect doctor. I'm not a perfect social activist, but if I add the happiness and the satisfaction I get from all these various parts of my life, I'm a happy person.

Bharati Jagdish: You mentioned being a mother. Many years ago, your son was involved in a drug case and had to do some jail time. Much was said then because of the fact that he was a high-profile individual, partly because he was your son, of course. Some even said he got off too lightly.

Kanwaljit Soin: Well, it was awful, of course. But I knew that he was not an addict. I knew it was a one-off thing that he did and it was some emotional upset. So to me, it was important that he had not committed something worse than that, like hurt another human being or something.

Well, we knew we had to go through it, and we went through it, and he survived.

So now, I also like to tell my friends that I'm not responsible for all the faults that my children exhibit and I don't want to get credit for all their successes. I tried my best as a parent, but in fact there's an Arabic proverb, which says that a child is more an expression of his time than of his parents. So you try your best as a parent, but none of us knows what is the perfect way of parenting. And sometimes, you have three children, but each one grows up differently, so obviously, parenting isn't the end-all and the be-all.

I like to tell parents, "Don't beat yourself up too much. If your child is not perfect, you must at least know you tried your best.”

Source: 938LIVE/cy