Motion On Singapore Women's Development
Mr Speaker, Sir.
1. The White Paper marks the culmination of a meaningful one-and-a-half-year journey to further advance Singapore women’s development. Many organizations, representing both men and women, student unions and members of the public stepped forward with their feedback. We are extremely grateful to organizations such as SCWO, NTUC U Women and Family, PA-WIN, PAP Women’s Wing and Young PAP, PPIS, AWARE and also trade associations and corporates for putting forward proposals. My fellow Co-chairs, MOS Low Yen Ling and Parl Sec Rahayu Mahzam, and I are deeply grateful for the inputs from everyone.
2. In the White Paper, we had grouped our 25 Action Plans into five areas not only for clarity, but also to allow for thorough and effective implementation. After all the conversations, it is now time to take action.
3. We are determined to see this through over the next decade, just as how the Government has advanced the progress of women over the past decades.
4. Some shared that the White Paper only seems to focus on Singapore women. I would like to clarify that many of the action plans such as mindset shifts and protection from violence and harm extend to all. Let me highlight a line in the Taskforce Report on Family Violence which was referenced in the White Paper: ‘violence against all persons should not be condoned regardless of nationality, marital status, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation'. At the same time, we know that there are groups of women who face unique challenges.
5. To address their concerns holistically, we have other workstreams such as a committee which looks at residency and benefits for foreign spouses, which Minister Indranee chairs, supported by MOS Desmond Tan and myself. For today, I will speak about specific groups of women who are vulnerable, their challenges and how, as a society, we can collectively protect, support, and empower them.
I. PROTECTION AGAINST VIOLENCE AND HARM
6. We convened the Taskforce on Family Violence in February 2020, before the full effects of the pandemic on family life became apparent, which signalled our concern and focus on family violence. We brought in various partners, including the Family Violence Specialist Centres, such as PAVE, who have spent decades supporting families affected by family violence.
7. We firmly believe that in Singapore, one of the safest cities in the world, that no woman, child or vulnerable adult should have to live in fear, jump at the sound of approaching footsteps or be subjected to the abusive words and actions of a perpetrator of violence. The home is supposed to be a sanctuary – for adult and child alike – and we will do our utmost as authorities and as members of the public to protect those whose sanctuary has been violated by physical and sexual violence, psychological and emotional abuse and neglect.
8. One example of our firm commitment to tackle family violence is how we have taken steps to expand the National Anti-Violence Helpline (NAVH). I had announced the renaming of the to the NAVH to National Anti-Violence and Sexual Harassment Helpline, to better reflect the scope of its services. This one-stop national helpline provides support for all forms of violence, including sexual violence and sexual harassment, in a familial or non-familial setting.
9. To expand the capacity of the helpline to take more calls, MSF has provided more resources to social service agency, Montfort Care, which operates the NAVH, increasing the number of operators to handle calls by 70%. The MSF Adult Protective Service and Child Protective Service will also help to train the new operators to equip them to perform their roles effectively. MSF is prepared to set aside more resources if there is further increase in call volume.
10. Accessibility is another key area we are looking at. By end-2022, witnesses and survivors will be able to report violence or abuse with greater ease, through new modes such as a web link and mobile application.
11. Mr Speaker Sir, I have seen with my own eyes, the anger in the eyes of a perpetrator of violence and the damage that the perpetrator can cause to families. We will not stand by and watch vulnerable adults, men and women, children, be subject to family and domestic violence. With the 16 recommendations from the Taskforce on Family Violence, we will act swiftly, strengthen deterrence and prevention, and rehabilitate perpetrators.
12. We will enhance MSF’s emergency response team. Appointed social service professionals will be empowered to go on site and jointly work with the police to address immediate safety issues. This is by no means a soft approach just because social service professionals are involved.
a. If there is a risk of family violence recurring, the social service professionals will be empowered to decide on the issuance of a time-limited protection notice or help victim-survivors move out of their home temporarily.
b. Victim-survivors facing immediate risks are not left unprotected and in the vulnerable position of having to take care of himself or herself against a perpetrator.
c. The Court may make an order to authorise Adult Protective Services to remove a vulnerable adult from the place of residence, if he or she is experiencing abuse, and the removal is required for safety. This would also include persons with disabilities.
13. We will also increase the penalties for the violation of PPOs. Courts will also be able make other forms of orders, such as non-visitation or non-communication orders. Public consultations for the related Women’s Charter amendments will start from tomorrow and run till the end of April.
14. Mr Zhulkarnain suggested adopting the Netherlands’ Orange House model of shelter for family violence survivors, for which the shelter is in a visible setting within the community.
a. As part of the step-down care to the community, residents of crisis shelters with low risk levels have an option of staying in individual housing units. Crisis shelters also adopt trauma-informed approaches to supporting family violence survivors and their children.
b. However, for some aspects of the Orange House model, such as the open location of the shelter where perpetrators know where the survivors live, our assessment is that this may not be suitable at this point in time.
15. Next on sexual and hurt offences. Minister Shanmugam had shared about the sentencing framework for sexual and hurt offences. The relevant penal code amendments have since come into force on 1 March 2022.
16. I would like to highlight that the trauma of sexual offences has a long shadow. Victim-survivors can remain traumatized by memories of the episode, have flashbacks that can be triggered by anything remotely related to the incident, develop phobias of interacting and being close to people, and suffer from self-esteem issues. Being sexually violated takes away that feeling of inner sanctity that resides deep in every individual and some survivors may withdraw and develop a sense of detachment to protect themselves from further hurt.
17. We will support victims of sexual violence. Not just in the form of police enforcement and laws and penalties but also in the form of psycho-social support and care. All Family Violence Specialist Centres and the PAVE Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection Specialist Centre, will be able to provide comprehensive support for all forms of intra- and extra-familial violence, including sexual violence by the second half of 2022.
18. Our Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) have similarly further strengthened support for victims of sexual misconduct through various measures.
a. They have enhanced training for first responders to equip them with the skills to support victims sensitively.
b. 24-hour helplines for student care and dedicated victim-survivor care units have been established and counselling services have been enhanced.
c. If the case involves a student or staff from the same institution, No-Contact Orders can be imposed as added protection.
19. But we know that the heart of the issue underlying many sexual offences lies in the mindsets that we have in society. We know concrete action needs to be taken to emphasise the value of respect and teach appropriate behaviour and safety, starting from a very young age from our children and youth. And this is being done through the education journey from preschool, all the way to tertiary education.
a. Under the revised Nurturing Early Learners framework, preschool teachers will be encouraged to teach children aged 4 to 6 appropriate behaviours around body safety.
b. In primary schools, as part of Character and Citizenship Education (CCE), students learn about personal safety and the protection of oneself from unhealthy relationships, sexual grooming, exploitation and abuse.
c. In secondary schools and at the pre-university level, students learn that respect for boundaries is fundamental for healthy relationships. The refreshed CCE curriculum brings a greater emphasis on the need to communicate, assert and respect boundaries for self and others, and the social-emotional and legal consequences one faces if they overstep these boundaries.
d. Most IHLs already have compulsory modules on respect and appropriate behaviour for students today, and the remaining IHLs will roll out such modules by mid-2022. These modules aim to promote deeper shifts in culture and mindset that will create a safe and respectful community for all. In the Autonomous Universities, students discuss and reflect on issues related to consent. Similarly, modules in the polytechnics and ITE emphasise the importance of respecting boundaries and the consequences for overstepping these boundaries.
II. CHANGING MINDSETS
20. Mr Speaker, we know that changing mindsets does not happen overnight. And that is why I have laid out step by step what is being done for our children so that they grow up to become adults, they are respectful, they are discerning, and they are responsible. But beyond mindset shifts to prevent offensive and inappropriate behaviour between the sexes, it is also important to catalyse mindset shifts so that women and men become equal partners in all areas of life, in both the workplaces and at home.
a. In school materials, women’s experiences, contributions, and achievements are highlighted alongside those of their male counterparts, as content examples.
b. The refreshed CCE curriculum has Family Education as a key content area. Students learn to appreciate that members within families can play different roles regardless of gender, and that shared parental responsibilities should be discussed and mutually agreed upon.
c. Ms Poh Li San and Ms Nadia Samdin spoke about the need to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in STEM.
i. The IHLs have ongoing efforts to encourage women to enter STEM fields. For example, NTU’s Promotion of Women in Engineering, Research and Science. This programme aims to recruit and empower women with a long-term goal of increasing gender diversity in STEM careers.
ii. At the secondary level, more than half of our secondary schools offer the Applied Learning Programme in STEM areas, providing a hands-on approach to enable students to appreciate the relevance of their learning beyond the classroom, in community and STEM industry settings.
d. The Education and Career Guidance curriculum, as part of CCE in schools, also encourages students to explore a variety of education and career pathways. ECG Counsellors guide students to recognise how gender stereotypes may limit education or career pathways, and to instead explore career sectors aligned to their interests and skills, including but not limited to STEM.
21. These efforts in formal education complement the crucial role of parents at home, and the efforts of our community partners such as Families for Life, to change mindsets. It is only when respect becomes a fundamental tenet that we can expect that when the children grow up, that men and women see each other as equals and treat each other with dignity.
III. WOMEN WITH DIFFERING NEEDS
22. I would now like to touch on our support measures for women with differing needs.
23. Firstly, on single unwed parents. The Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships (AFAM) has a focal area on supporting single parents and we are looking into single parents’ access to information, alternative childcare arrangements and socio-emotional support tailored to address the high stress and stigma faced by single parents.
a. I would like to acknowledge and thank organisations like Morning Star Community Services, HELP Family Service Centre and PPIS As-Salaam who have been dedicated in working to support single parent families for many, many years.
b. As part of the work of AFAM, we will work on a new pilot. The MSF will partner Daughters of Tomorrow to pilot a childminding service for low-income women, including single parents, outside childcare operating hours. This is intended to ascertain the demand for such services. Ms Hany Soh and Mr Wan Rizal would be happy to note that the childminding pilot has built in flexibility to enable users to specify their requirements, including arrangements for childminders to pick up the child from school and the location of childminding. Based on their needs, Daughters Of Tomorrow will match with suitable childminders. The details of the pilot are being worked out and we will share more details in due course.
c. The AFAM is also supporting MSF and NCSS’s work with HCSA Community Services to enhance their Single Parent Informed, Involved, Included (SPIN) programme portal. The enhanced portal aims to be a one-stop portal which better consolidates information on support schemes for single parents, and other types of useful information such as the location of nearby child and youth services.
d. Many of the initiatives that MOS Gan Siow Huang spoke about earlier, including flexible workplace arrangements and support for back-to-work women, will benefit all, including single unwed parents.
e. On housing, the HDB has further assured that, following their public rental application, single unwed parents will be informed of the outcome within 3 weeks of receiving all required information. For complex cases that need more time, HDB will provide an interim update that the application is still being assessed.
f. Ms Carrie Tan spoke about the housing insecurity that single mothers face at shelters. We have a network of crisis shelters and transitional shelters to help our single mothers who are homeless and require social work intervention. While the shelters aim to help residents move into long-term stable housing within six months, we understand that some residents may require longer time to do so. Hence, we will extend their stays if social workers assess that they need more time to work on the issues that they face.
g. Mr Louis Ng suggested that the full suite of marriage and parenthood incentives be made available to single unwed parents. I have shared, at my COS speech in February this year, that 12 line items which include Medisave Grant for Newborns, Infant Care Subsidy, Child Care Subsidy, Child Development Account etc. are available to every Singaporean child regardless of the marital status of their parents. But at the same time, our marriage and parenthood policies seek to support parenthood within marriage. This is because our society continues to strongly value marriage and having children within marriage.
24. Members spoke about paternity and maternity leave entitlements and shared parental leave.
25. I think we can all agree that employees generally will welcome more leave –infant care leave, child care leave, eldercare leave. And we can also all agree that any leave enhancements will need to balance parents’ caregiving needs with employers’ manpower and operational needs.
26. I have listened to the various proposals from various members. We do not differ when it comes to principles. Namely that mothers are differently impacted by the arrival of a child, because they need time to recuperate from childbirth. But we also agree that men should play an important role in their child’s early years and that men should be encouraged to take their paternity leave and parental leave. How the leave then ought to be shared between the parents is thus a function of the overall total number of leave days provided to new parents, individual families’ considerations and societal mindsets and norms about the roles of fathers.
27. I fully agree with Ms Carrie Tan’s point that we need shifts in societal mindsets and norms so that couples can best decide how they can jointly take care of their new child without preconceived stereotypes on caregiving. In addition, workplace support is also important as it impacts the willingness of fathers to take leave. We should also not forget the very important point that MOS Gan Siow Huang has made with regards to Flexible Work Arrangements as its availability can make a big difference to how caregiving arrangements can be sorted out.
28. Mr Speaker sir, in Mandarin pls.
34. 虽然政府有介入帮助需要经济援助的家庭，但我们不应该强制干预，例如货币化一对夫妻之间的关系。 这会导致夫妻间的关系变质，成为以金钱计算的交易，而政府将成为这场交易的市场仲裁者。
36. 我在此呼吁，每个家庭成员充分看到彼此为家庭的贡献，尤其是对为人妻、为人母的女性，对她们在家庭中多年来的辛勤付出，给予真心的认可和感谢。家人们除了贴心的言语、关怀与尊重、也可以考虑为家人填补公积金户头，政府将为他们配对， 这将给予家庭妇女更大的保障，更大的安心。
IV. ELECTIVE EGG FREEZING
38. Lastly, I would like to address questions raised on Elective Egg Freezing.
39. Since the announcement has gone out, I have received many emails from women who welcome the choice but are concerned about the age limit. Ms Cheng Li Hui had also suggested to extend the age limit to 40 years old.
40. The upper age limit of 35 years old is pegged to the existing age limits for donor eggs for Assisted Reproduction Treatment. Some ask why this is so since this is a woman’s own eggs rather than a donor’s eggs. The reason is because it is founded on similar current international scientific evidence and professional consensus which is that egg quality tends to decline significantly after 35 years old.
41. We are making a big move with regards to providing the choice with regard to elective egg freezing. The government had taken time to study the issue because there were differing voices and views and concerns about elective egg freezing, such as whether we are encouraging women to put off marriage and parenthood, when women also face the hard truths and scientific facts of the biological clock.
42. The government has the responsibility to let citizens know factually what the medical odds are of conceiving with frozen eggs. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the chance that a frozen egg will yield a baby currently stands at 2-12%. The further out we push the age range, the more the success rates fall. We have to be honest with our women because the procedure is invasive, it takes a toll on the women both physically and emotionally and also costs the patient recurrent costs for storage.
43. But that said, we recognise Ms Cheng’s point that many only start thinking about fertility and egg freezing in their 30s. I would like to assure Ms Cheng and many who hold similar views that we will continue to monitor medical developments and international data. For women who miss the local criteria slightly and who wish to appeal, they may seek their Assisted Reproduction practitioner’s assistance to appeal on their behalf. More details will be provided to the AR centres in due course.
44. I agree with Ms Cheng that with more conversations, there is more awareness. I hope that this move to allow women to have the choice to freeze their eggs, has also created some awareness and space for conversations about fertility health and cause women to think about these issues earlier. The Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriage and Family Relationships is also starting to raise awareness on this matter, to encourage couples to discuss and check their fertility early. The Government is also looking into supporting couples with ready access to evidence-based fertility health information to empower them to make fertility decisions and seek help if needed.
45. Ms Janet Ang spoke about her concern that younger women will now choose to postpone childbearing. I would like to assure the Member, and others who have similar concerns, that we will continue to encourage and support Singaporeans to fulfil their marriage and parenthood goals, and to do so early to increase the chances of conceiving naturally and reduce age-related fertility complications. To guard against misinformation, and to help women make an informed choice, women will have to undergo pre-procedure counselling. We will highlight the limitations, the risk involved, and that aged parenthood has its own challenges.
46. In conclusion, the White Paper has at its heart, the desire of the government to continue working alongside the community and all stakeholders to support our women while empowering them with opportunities and solutions, regardless of the circumstances that they are in.
47. We are grateful for the diverse feedback received. And we have had to navigate trade-offs, balance concerns while identifying the best way forward. More importantly, it is now time for us to take action. Let us come together, and work collectively to build a fairer and more inclusive society, where men and women partner each other as equals. Thank you.