SINGAPORE: A record number of women lawmakers will enter Singapore's Parliament after the General Election, a milestone that the incoming female parliamentarians said will add more diversity and balance in policy-making.
Out of the 93 seats for elected Members of Parliament (MPs), 27 - or 29 per cent of the elected seats - will go to women, compared to 21 out of 89 seats after the 2015 polls, and just four seats two decades ago.
One of the two Non-Constituency MP seats will be taken up by a female candidate - Progress Singapore Party’s Hazel Poa - as well.
“There was a conscious choice to include more women candidates in this term of Parliament as women bring important issues to the table and also offer different perspectives,” said Ms Sun Xueling, the Punggol West SMC MP-elect and the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and National Development.
Ms Carrie Tan, a newly elected People's Action Party (PAP) MP for Nee Soon GRC, told CNA that women are able to provide a “more emphatic interpretation” in Parliament for policies, and especially so on topics like caregiving and family needs.
And if there is one thing the electoral results have shown, it is that Singaporeans are yearning for their feelings to be addressed, said Ms Tan, who professes to “wear my heart on my sleeve”.
Ms Poa said that the step-up is a "good development", especially in light of how the world is welcoming more female political leaders, and countries with them at the helm are doing well in managing the pandemic.
While much can still be done to up the level of diversity in Parliament, the latest figures are “very heartening” and “encouraging”, said MP-elect for Jurong GRC Rahayu Mahzam.
“I believe it signals that we, as a community, are moving on the right track in making it conducive and in motivating women to do this,” she said.
Female politicians are known to be more inclined towards engaging on topics outside the traditional bread-and-butter concerns like the economy, said Ms Nydia Ngiow, a senior director at public policy consultancy BowerGroupAsia.
Citing the example of MacPherson MP-elect Tin Pei Ling, Ms Ngiow said that the parliamentarian has championed issues that were not widely discussed such as mental health and difficulties facing single parents.
Her work appears to have paid off. This election, Ms Tin won 71.7 per cent of the votes in her constituency - more than she garnered in 2015, and putting her among the candidates that won with the highest election margins this year.
POLICIES BROUGHT INTO THE FRAY
All of those interviewed said that in the upcoming term, they will bring up matters related to caregiving, such as the cost of pre-school and flexible work arrangements.
Ms Sun told CNA she will continue to do what she had done in the last term of Parliament - speaking up on making pre-school options more affordable and accessible for young parents.
“I will also work with other women MPs to look at causes relevant to young unmarried women, young mothers and caregivers,” Ms Sun added.
Ms Poa said that there needs to be better family-friendly policies in the workplace, and more help for those who face domestic abuse.
Caregivers should also receive greater recognition, which could come in the form of financial support when they retire, she suggested.
Some ideas Ms Tan posed to ease childcare cost include extending subsidies to home-base childminding, giving homemakers money to recognise what has essentially been unpaid labour, and a scheme that allows households to share a domestic helper’s time so that more families can afford to engage one - and perhaps raise the helper’s salary while at it.
The founder of Daughters of Tomorrow, a charity that helps underprivileged women, also highlighted the issue of the digital divide - a problem she noted does not occur just between the young and the old, but also among those from low-income families.
“It’s very hard for anyone to conceive of the idea that a someone in her 20s … may not have touched a laptop for 10 years because she left school in her teens and has since not touched any tech.”
Many of these women who Daughters Of Tomorrow works with lack access to computers because they do not have the money to purchase such big-ticket items. Ms Tan said she could raise the possibility of providing them with the hardware or even Wi-Fi access in all rental homes.
As for whether existing laws need to be revised to include the concept of gender equality, MP-elect for Tanjong Pagar GRC Joan Pereira said that the term is ever-evolving.
Rather, what needs to be done is to “ensure that with all policies, while observing gender-neutrality … take into account the reality in many of our families that women continue to shoulder a higher proportion of household and caregiving responsibilities, while continuing to pursue meaningful careers in the workforce,” she told CNA.
Last year, she worked with Ms Sun, Ms Rahayu and other female PAP MPs on a paper about parenthood, which recommended removing the age cap for in-vitro fertilisation and creating more spaces in government or government-supported pre-schools, among other points.
Ms Ngiow expects new MPs with backgrounds in women advocacy work like WP’s Raeesah Khan, an MP-elect for Sengkang GRC, to make sure issues such as gender discrimination and domestic violence remain at the top of the legislative agenda.
That is not to say that male MPs will stay silent, she added, referencing Nee Soon GRC MP-elect Louis Ng, who has often spoken up for more parental leave and spreading the burden of care among both parents.
“But these instances are few and far between, and ideally the increased presence of women in Parliament will inject even greater urgency and momentum to push such issues along,” she said.
STILL TRAILING OFF
While the country will witness its largest cohort of female parliamentarians yet, female political representation in Singapore is still lagging behind “for seemingly no good reason”, said Ms Ngiow.
She pointed out that back in 2009, Singapore’s first female minister Lim Hwee Hua had set a target for women to form 30 per cent of Parliament. The figure is recognised by the United Nations as the minimum ratio necessary to ensure a critical mass of women parliamentarians.
That goal has not been met, Ms Ngiow said, who added that this year’s election results show that voters are ready for greater diversity among politicians.
AIM FOR 50-50?
Given that diversity is crucial in politics, should the main goal then be for women to fill half of Singapore’s parliamentary seats?
No, said most of the respondents.
“As we celebrate the general uptrend from every election in the number of female MPs, we should not be too obsessed with percentages and numbers,” said Ms Pereira. “I believe that every female MP is elected based on what they can contribute.”
A focus on chasing numbers could lead to an exercise in affirmative action, she added, as opposed to a genuine effort to identify and bring in more women who can contribute to the country.
Similarly, Ms Rahayu said what is most important is “getting the best people who can represent the different groups within the community”, while acknowledging that some barriers might need to be removed if diversity “does not naturally surface”.
The PSP's Ms Poa said that her party should definitely aim for equal gender representation, and it would be setting up a Women's Wing to attract more females to join them.
"In fact, why settle for 50-50? In my view, the more the merrier," she said.
However, the challenge is women usually wear many hats, she added, alluding to how many women have to manage both full-time jobs and domestic responsibilities at the same time.
"This makes it more difficult for women to find time to participate in politics. But when there is a will, there is a way."
Given the lack of women in Singapore politics, the improved female representation is in itself a significant step forward, said Ms Ngiow, as the younger generation turns to these politicians as role models and inspirations to further crack the glass ceiling.
To make even greater strides towards gender equality in politics will not be easy, the women interviewed agreed. Ultimately, what needs to change is the long-held attitude that it is fine for men to put their jobs first as breadwinners, while women are supposed to prioritise family over their career.
“I think within the family setting, women (are still expected) to be the ones responsible for the children and caretaking at home,” said Ms Tan.
“How do you put all that into 24 hours - being main caregiver within the family, hold a job and still juggle being an MP, especially for those with young children? I believe those who manage to do that have amazingly supportive spouses and care support at home.
“It’s a broader cultural and societal shift that we need,” she added. “Maybe we can see real change when women no longer struggle about choosing between their family and their career.”