SINGAPORE: Achieving gender equality requires a “deep mindset change” as well as changes to Singapore's cultural value system, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Sunday (Sep 20).
“Every boy and girl must grow up imbibing the value of gender equality. They need to be taught from a very early age that boys and girls are to be treated equally and, very importantly, with respect,” he said.
To that end, from next month a series of engagements between the public and private sectors, as well as non-governmental organisations, will be held with the aim of identifying and tackling issues concerning women in Singapore.
These will culminate in a White Paper to be issued by the Government in the first half of next year, which will consolidate feedback and recommendations during the sessions, to be called “Conversations on Women Development”.
The initiative will be spearheaded by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, and supported by the Home Affairs as well as the Culture, Community and Youth ministries.
Leading the engagements would be groups such as the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, the National Trades Union Congress Women Committee, the People’s Association Women Integration Network and others, said Mr Shanmugam.
A "MORE PHILOSOPHICAL" APPROACH
Mr Shanmugam announced the initiative at the first such engagement on Sunday (Sep 20), a virtual dialogue session involving more than 100 participants from youth and women organisations.
He noted that there had been much progress regarding the position of women in Singapore society over the years, noting women had become better represented in politics as well as in senior management positions in the private sector.
Despite such advances however, cultural, social and structural hurdles for women remain, he said.
The issue of gender equality had to go beyond such matrices of performance to become something “imprinted deeply into our collective consciousness”, added Mr Shanmugam.
When internalised, such a deep mindset change would allow for sexual violence and differential treatment in the workplace based on gender to be seen as “a deep violation of fundamental values”.
“Equality must not just be formal, but substantive - and take into account the unique challenges (and) needs that women face, and the specific effects that policies have on them, to truly level the playing field,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam quoted the late United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom he described as a “true titan in the fight for women’s rights”, saying: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exceptions.”
Mr Shanmugam pointed to the spate of voyeurism cases in universities here that made the headlines in recent years, as well as the specific case of National University of Singapore dentistry student Yin Zi Qin, who in July was given community-based sentences - which would allow him to have no criminal record upon completion - after being found guilty of choking his ex-girlfriend.
Discussions regarding what kind of penalties such offenders should face, and whether the “bright future” of university students who commit such offences should count towards their mitigation had Mr Shanmugam consider what kind of framework should be used when considering such cases.
While introducing stiffer penalties for such offences was “relatively easier”, he saw the need for a “more philosophical” approach, to see such issues from the perspective of gender equality and respect being a fundamental value.
Leading the review of women’s issues will be Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.
Ms Sun said she hoped that the society would challenge its mindsets on the issues that women wrestle with, such as caregiving and workplace inequality.
“Women in Singapore have progressed significantly over the years, but more can be done to examine issues that affect women at home, in schools, workplaces and the community. When we say women have choices, are they real choices? Are they able to fulfil their potential, be the best that they can be, in an unencumbered fashion that does not require them to settle for second best?” she said.
The review will look at what more can be done to achieve greater gender equality, as well as the place of women in the home, as well as in schools and workplaces, and in the community.
In the home, the review will look at what can be done to protect women from family violence and intimate partner violence, as well as recognising the integral roles played by women at home as wives, mothers, caregivers and homemakers.
READ: Inter-agency task force set up to tackle family violence amid increasingly violent cases: Sun Xueling
Meanwhile in schools and workplaces, the review will seek to promote equality of opportunities for women, as well as what can be done to protect them from sexual harassment, assault and workplace discrimination.
The review will also look to push back against gender stereotyping in the broader community.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
Mr Shanmugam said while women enjoy equality of opportunity in many areas in the economy, there are other areas in which such equality remains a work in progress.
For example, when the Council for Board Diversity - created to address the under-representation of women in board positions - was formed in 2014, the percentage of women on the boards of the top 100 companies in the Singapore Exchange was 7.5 per cent.
“Again, work in progress,” he said.
Part of the issue is structural, noting working women often have to make the choice between work and family - a difficult position that men seldom have to confront, said Mr Shanmugam.
This is something the Government has tried to address by promoting more flexible work arrangements, he said, as well as by encouraging greater sharing of parental responsibilities by allowing fathers to take up to eight weeks of leave to care for their children in their first year.
Collective efforts over the years had led to much progress, Mr Shanmugam said, pointing to Singapore’s 11th place ranking among 162 countries in the United Nations Human Development Report last year, as well as its shared first place with Italy in terms of companies with women as chief executives.
"I think we have done fairly well. But indices only provide one part of the picture. What also matters is the lived reality of women in Singapore," he said.
"When you examine that, I think more can still be done. The next bound of change can only come from a mindset change I spoke about.
"A society which does not recognise the equal position of women, is a society which can never live up to its potential. Even more so in Singapore, where people are our only assets."
WHOLE OF SOCIETY EFFORT
The perpetuation of traditional gender roles has been exacerbated by COVID-19, which has seen women gravitate towards home caregiver roles even as they have to multitask by balancing it with their work, said Ms Low.
Ms Sun said it is important that men are part of the conversation about what happens at home, and how they can contribute to a better caregiving load at home, noting this leads to a better relationship between husbands and wives.
Ms Rahayu meanwhile noted that during discussions on Sunday, participants said that flexible work arrangements may not be available to blue-collar workers.
Ms Sun also pointed to the increase in reports of family violence during the “circuit breaker” period, which she said was concerning both to the authorities and larger society.
Ms Sun, who co-chairs the Taskforce on Family Violence formed earlier this year, noted the taskforce would present its findings in early 2021 and this would hopefully provide points of action that Singapore would address collectively as a society.
“Because I believe that as a society, we see family violence not as a domestic matter but as a matter that we collectively have to prevent and to penalise, if necessary, so that women, victims, and other victims of family violence will be able to live happily, meaningfully and be protected, knowing that their safety is guaranteed,” she said.
Ultimately, a “whole-of-society mindset shift” is needed to champion gender equality, said Ms Rahayu.
“Everyone plays a role; men or women, different community groups, because it's not just about changing legislation and laws,” she said.
“We know that we can do that to an extent, we can nudge behaviours to an extent, but the mindset, the basis of why we believe these things are important, needs to come from the community.”