SINGAPORE: A motion on gender equality tabled by the Workers’ Party (WP) was passed in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 3), with an amendment from a People’s Action Party (PAP) Member of Parliament.
The motion, raised by MP He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) and MP Leon Perera (WP-Aljunied), called on the House to affirm that “gender equality requires a whole of society effort to remove all barriers, in order to empower every woman to freely realise her full potential and participation in society”.
It was amended to state, as proposed by MP Vikram Nair (PAP-Sembawang), that the House also “looks forward to action plans" in the upcoming Government White Paper arising out of the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development.
In September last year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said that 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.
READ: Singapore to embark on a review of women’s issues in move towards greater gender equality, leading to White Paper next year
“As the motion rightly acknowledges, this is a whole of society effort to remove the barriers, both visible and invisible to help women achieve their full potential,” said Mr Nair.
"I would however like to go further and would like to see action and concrete steps to help remove these barriers."
The White Paper is meant to consolidate feedback from the conversations around these issues, and provide recommendations to change the culture and mindsets around them.
“What I hope is that the findings in these dialogues can be converted to action plans,” he said, proposing the amendment to “tie the spirit of the motion with concrete action”.
SYSTEMIC IMPEDIMENTS TO GENDER EQUALITY
Introducing the motion, Ms He said while efforts have been made to understand the issues faced by women, there is still much to be done to advance gender equality.
She highlighted numerous "systemic and cultural impediments" to gender equality, including thinking about women’s success and progress through “the lens of traditional measures", such as their ability to climb the career ladder and economic earning power. Continuing to do so will make gender equality hard to obtain, she said.
“Work traditionally done by women, such as caring, running households, and looking after our families continue to be seen as being inferior or merely ancillary to the real work of earning wages," said Ms He.
She added that the issue cuts both ways, with men often judged based on their ability to earn wages to support their family.
As for women who wish to return to the workforce, Ms He suggested policies such as targeted job matching and paid re-entry schemes to remove barriers.
She also mooted the idea of creating a national gender scorecard.
“This scorecard would track progress … for matters such as the gender wage gap and contain a regular time study which quantifies the amount of unpaid work being performed in Singapore on an annual basis, particularly as a bulk of care work is undertaken by women,” she said.
She also raised other issues including the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women, as well as challenges women face as they age.
READ: The Big Read: Gender equality in Singapore remains elusive amid entrenched attitudes about women’s roles
Mr Perera echoed that Singapore must address structural, cultural and psychological barriers to gender equality.
One structural issue, for example, is that many women who choose to be homemakers end up struggling financially later in life, be it due to insufficient funds in their CPF accounts or inadequate support from their family, he said.
“It is not fair that women who sacrifice to build a home and support their children should have to struggle later in life because of an inequitable sharing of family earnings,” said Mr Perera.
To that end, he suggested that research be undertaken on the commercial value of homemakers’ contributions. That can be used as a reference point in determining if policies need to be tweaked, such as raising the government quantum or ceiling for dollar-for-dollar matching of husbands' CPF transfers to their wives.
He also suggested giving home-based businesses the same access to grants as other kinds of start-ups, urging social enterprises and trade associations to support such “micro-entrepreneurship”.
Mr Perera also echoed his party's calls for anti-discrimination laws, saying they would bring more clarity and serve as a stronger deterrent.
He reiterated that remedying gender inequality issue is “ultimately in the interest of every man”, as it would also mean the freedom of not having to conform to stereotypes and expectations placed on them.
MP Gerald Giam (WP-Aljunied) appealed for greater support for single parents, who have to juggle caregiving duties with work. He said that government benefits and housing options for single unmarried parents and their children should be the same as for any other family unit, such as divorced parents.
“To be clear, we should not encourage single parenthood or having children outside of marriage, any more than we encourage divorce. It is hard enough raising children with both parents, let alone by oneself,” he said.
“However, once a woman has made the brave choice to carry her child to term despite not having the support of a spouse and likely family disapproval, we as a society must do all we can to support her.
“We should not make things more difficult for her by denying her benefits available to other parents.”
“CONSISTENT AND UNWAVERING” EFFORTS AT PROGRESS
Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling said that the Government has made “consistent and unwavering” efforts to chart the next step for women’s progress.
She noted that since the Government launched its series of conversations on women last year, 160 sessions have been conducted, involving more than 5,700 participants.
Several key themes have emerged from these, such as recognising caregivers’ contributions to society and strengthening support for vulnerable groups of women.
She added that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will attend the final session of the series in September and that he will share the Government’s plans for the future, taking into consideration the feedback received.
But even as the Government reviews feedback and prepares the White Paper, Ms Sun said authorities have started working to address some of these issues.
For example, she cited how protection for women has been enhanced with tougher maximum penalties for three sexual offences, while an inter-agency task force on family violence will release its recommendations later this year.
The Manpower Ministry is setting up a tripartite committee studying legislation against workplace discrimination, while school curriculums have been enhanced to build an appreciation of gender equality, she said.
EMPOWERING, SUPPORTING AND PROTECTING WOMEN
Ms Rahayu Mahzam, Parliamentary Secretary for the Communications and Information Ministry, added that MPs are “clearly united by a common desire” to address issues facing women.
She recapped efforts that have been made by authorities to "empower, support and protect" women.
Ms Rahayu said that the Government supports the diverse career aspirations of women, including encouraging women to enter industries that are "traditionally male dominated".
Women now make up 41 per cent of the tech industry in Singapore, well above the global average of 28 per cent.
“There’s still plenty of opportunities available in the tech sector, and we want more women to benefit from them and take on leadership roles.
“By entering such new sectors women can achieve better career and pay prospects to further reduce the wage gap,” she said, adding that initiatives have been launched to enhance support for women in tech.
READ: Close gender pay gap by helping women break into growth sectors, re-enter workforce: PAP groups
Turning to issues faced by women caregivers, Ms Rahayu said the Government has made “significant” efforts in response to their challenges, such as by expanding preschool places and ensuring its affordability, regardless of the working status of parents.
A caregiver support action plan was also launched in 2019 to strengthen support for senior caregiving in the community, she said.
She said the Government will continue to grow such efforts to support women caregivers and will constantly review feedback.
With new and emerging challenges, such as online sexual violence and harassment, the Government is also working with partners to come up with solutions aimed at protecting women, said Ms Rahayu.
“WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER”
Wrapping up a debate that stretched for more than four hours, Ms He said the “amount of feeling" and the large number of speakers reflected the importance of the issue.
She said the WP did not object to the amendment proposed to the motion, and looks forward to scrutinising the action plans that will be proposed.
"We hope to see concrete steps taken to effect change, whether through legislative amendments or policy overhaul," she said.
"Gender equality is not a partisan issue. It is not even just a women's issue. It is a men's issue. It is a societal issue. We are in this together," she added.
“I hope our parliamentary colleagues will address these issues together … It is time for Singapore to take the next step.”