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Speech at High-Level Policy Dialogue on Women and the Economy, APEC Women and the Economy Forum

Honourable Madam Chair,

Excellencies,

Distinguished Delegates,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Singapore delegation, I would like to thank the Government of the People’s Republic of China for organising this Forum and your warm hospitality. The San Francisco Declaration was an important starting point for this dialogue. I am confident that the APEC WEF in Beijing will contribute to the efforts to empower and advance the economic well-being of women in the Asia Pacific region.

Women’s Empowerment Issues in Asia-Pacific

We are at a critical juncture today. According to the United Nations, about $89 billion a year is lost in the Asia-Pacific region because women are not fully integrated into the workforce. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific or ESCAP’s Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2013 shows that although the rate of employment has risen since 2002, the proportion of female employment has not increased since the early 1990s. This is sobering evidence of the challenges we face in gender equality and women’s empowerment. In 1991, female employment as a proportion of male employment was 65%. In 2002, it dropped to 64%. Ten years later, the proportion of women fell even lower – to 62% in 2012.

Despite progress on several fronts, women today continue to face hurdles posed by pervasive social norms and traditional gender expectations. With limited access to capital and markets, women are over-represented in vulnerable low-paying sectors and under-represented in political participation and decision-making. Women still face the struggle of juggling work and multiple duties at home and the workplace. We need to press on and narrow the gender gaps in education, health, employment and political participation. Allow me to now share Singapore’s experience and challenges.

Women’s Empowerment in Singapore

Singapore is a small city-state with an open economy. We aim to create an inclusive and enabling environment for our people, regardless of gender, race or creed. To stay competitive, we continuously upgrade our skills to keep nimble and relevant. All Singaporeans, male or female, are given equal opportunities and access to fundamental resources such as education, health services and skills training.

Education is one of the key enablers that empower our women. The first six years of primary education is compulsory for all Singaporean children. In 2013, Singapore’s literacy rate for females, aged 15 and over, was 94.6 per cent. Today, women make up more than half of the student population in our local universities.

As a result, women in Singapore are able to contribute actively to our economy.  Our female labour force participation rate in the prime-working ages (25 – 54 years) has improved from 66.6 per cent in 2003 to 77.1 per cent in 2013.

Our Employment Act protects the economic security and rights of every employee, regardless of gender. We promote the adoption of fair, responsible and merit-based employment practices. In 2002, we ratified ILO Convention Number 100 on Equal Remuneration, thereby enforcing inclusive and non-discriminatory workplaces for women. Companies in Singapore are encouraged to re-employ older employees with relevant skills set. These measures have improved the employment rate of resident females aged 55 to 64 years. In the last decade, their rate of employment has jumped by 23% from 28 per cent in 2003, to 51 per cent in 2013.

We now have more women employers. In 2013, 38 per cent of women are employers compared to 17 per cent ten years ago. Women are increasingly making a mark in the workplace and leading in business. There are many inspiring success stories. One example is Mrs Anastasia Liew, founder and managing director of successful bakery chain Bengawan Solo Cake Shop1. The business which started in a small home kitchen has now expanded to more than 40 retail outlets.  Mrs Liew’s passion and dedication led her to win the first Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1988.  Women who aspire to be successful entrepreneurs can tap on government schemes for start-ups and small and medium enterprises.

Madam Chair, I am happy to report that our Speaker of Parliament is Madam Halimah Yacob. Some of you may have met her at previous WEF forums. Our female representation in the Singapore Parliament is on the rise. Women now make up 25 out of 99 seats (25.3 %)2. This percentage is above the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world average of 21.7%3.

Harnessing Women’s Potential

As Singapore continues to pave the way for greater participation in society by women, we are highly conscious of the varied roles that women play. Therefore, the government has enlarged the opportunities and resources for women, and introduced different schemes and programmes to help them balance their multiple commitments.

We have made providing affordable, quality and accessible child care one of our topmost priorities. Assistance in eldercare, promoting family life and work-life balance is also integral to our efforts to enable and empower our women. We are also promoting the values of shared-parenting. Fathers now get a week's paternity leave from work. Working mothers can share a week of their maternity leave with their working husbands. We hope that this will go some way to change the traditional idea of women as the children’s primary caregivers.

Our efforts have started to bear fruits. The latest State of the World's Mothers Report rated Singapore as the best place in Asia to be a mother4. This report placed Singapore 15th in the world, based on the mother's health, education and economic status. The UN Human Development Report 2013 ranked Singapore 13th out of 148 countries on the Gender Inequality Index5.

While Singapore has made progress, there is a lot more to be done. One of our challenges we face is to increase the level of women representation at the Board level in companies. We need to better harness our women’s potential in this area. The percentage of women directorships on boards of our Singapore Stock Exchange listed companies was 8.3% in 2013. This lags behind APEC economies such as China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Research has shown that companies with female boards of directors generally out-perform those without. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company has found that companies with a higher proportion of women in their management committees achieve better performance.

Singapore has much to learn from other economies in this area. For example, Australia, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong require companies to disclose their gender diversity policy. This is something we have yet to implement. We could also draw from the U.K practise of having industry leaders serve as advocates or mentors, and set personal targets for gender diversity in their organisations. There is a ‘30% Club’ in the U.K that comprises  a group of committed company Chairpersons who volunteer to sponsor or mentor women for U.K corporate boards.

In late 2012, Singapore’s Ministry of Social and Familiy Development set up a Diversity Task Force to examine the state of gender diversity on boards and its impact on corporate performance and governance. The Task Force found that the causes of female under-representation are inter-twined and complex. They range from low awareness of the importance and benefits of gender diversity on boards to the lack of formal search and nomination process. Family responsibilities and other factors also affected the talent pool of women. My delegation member, Ms Yeo Lian Sim, Special Adviser to the Singapore Exchange Limited and member of the Task Force, will be speaking more on this in Plenary Session II this afternoon.

Looking Ahead

Madam Chair, there is a Chinese saying that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. The APEC WEF has made a number of progressive steps that give us cause to celebrate. For example, the gender gap in terms of employers has been reduced. The proportion of female to male employers has increased from 23 per cent in 2002 to 31 per cent in 20126.More women are now engaged in entrepreneurial activities. Let us continue to support and introduce women-friendly schemes and programmes to increase women’s access to capital and markets.  We can use technology and innovation to break down barriers and improve the viability of women in businesses. In order to empower women at work, we must make family-friendly policies and practices a crucial pillar of the workplace.

Concluding Comments

Madam Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to be part of this Forum and to learn from the collective wisdom of those present here. I am confident this Forum will galvanise action and commitment to harness the power of women for the wellbeing and prosperity of APEC economies. There will be challenges on the road ahead but with our shared determination to improve gender equality, we have much reason to expect positive changes and a better future ahead.

Thank you.

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1 http://www.bengawansolo.com.sg/abtus.history.aspx

2 Elected Members of Parliament (MPs), Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs)

3 Both houses combined as at 1 February 2014 (http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm)

4 This Report by Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation that promotes children's rights, is now in its 15th edition.

5 According to the UN’s Human Development Report 2013, Singapore was ranked 13th out of 148 ranked countries on the Gender Inequality Index with a score of 0.101. The Gender Inequality Index is a composite index that measures the inequality between female and male achievements in 3 dimensions – reproductive health, empowerment and labour market. It ranges from 0, which indicates that women and men fare equally, to 1, which indicates that women fare as poorly as possible in all measured dimensions.

6 Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2013 p.147
http://www.unescap.org/resources/statistical-yearbook-asia-and-pacific-2013




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