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Singapore Government

Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin on the motion on aspirations of Singapore women

Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin on the motion on aspirations of Singapore women

A More Equal Society

Madam Speaker, let me tell the story of 69 year old Madam Er Teck Gin who had been described as a woman born at the right time1. When Madam Er reached school-going age, Lee Kuan Yew emerged as the leader of the fledgling nation, then still seeking its independence from the British. He called on families to send their children - both boys and girls - to school, to forge the foundation of an educated and effective workforce. So, unlike her older sister, Madam Er and her younger sisters went to school with their brothers. It changed the course of their lives. In fact, she is a fine example of lifelong learning because she kept attending classes to improve herself. She got better and better jobs over the years. She was a cold chef preparing non-cooked food in Raffles Hotel and later was an executive chef with Singapore Food Industries. Madam Er shared, "I was always financially independent. With my extra money, I could give my four children a comfortable life.” Was life easy?  I’m sure it was not. But Madam Er worked hard with the opportunities afforded to her.

Madam Speaker, at the heart of all we have done and have been discussing in this session, it is really about building a fairer and more equal society. Men and women may have different perspectives, insights and instincts, but there is one clear constant. Whatever the differences, we are equal.  

But Madam, the fact that we have this motion in the first place says something. This equality is still work in progress, but thankfully, a work that remains very much alive, and that builds on the achievements of our pioneers. This is a unique opportunity for us to also present an overview of how the Singapore Government values women in our society.

My colleagues at MOM, MOE and MOH have also shared in greater details the efforts that have been undertaken by the respective Ministries.

We believe in helping every woman fulfil her potential and aspirations. To do so, we must ensure that the playing field is even and opportunities are fair between men and women. At the same time, we must also ensure that women have the right to choose, and we should respect those choices.

How do we translate this vision into reality? Well, we must first believe in the worth and potential of our people – both women and men.  Let us start at the beginning, more than 50 years ago, when we laid the foundation for our women to progress. The PAP’s first election manifesto, “The Tasks Ahead”, not only outlined its promises to build homes and schools, reorganise the civil service and build a strong and united trade union movement, it also put across its policy on women’s rights. There was a strong desire to uplift our womenfolk in our society. Five women were fielded in the election. Two of them, Chan Choy Siong and Ho Puay Choo founded the PAP Women’s League, the forerunner of today’s PAP Woman’s Wing who are tabling the motion today. 

As Madam Er’s story shows, education was a fundamental driver of change. Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that “the key is education. Old-fashioned attitudes of teaching women enough to be literate and useful wives have undergone profound changes in the last 20 years. Societies which do not educate and use half their potential because they are women are those which will be worse off.” So, we embarked on universal education for all children regardless of gender. Today, half of our graduates are women

In 1961, we passed the Women’s Charter – a seminal legislation to protect and advance the rights of women and girls. Many of you would be familiar with this Charter as I had recently tabled Amendments to it. Many of us actually take it for granted, what we enjoy today, we forget where we came from. But the Women’s Charter was a powerful signal on how we viewed women in Singapore, and how we were going to recognise and support them. 

We have also made significant progress on the health and employment front. In a recent dialogue with Chinese journalist Yang Lan in February, I highlighted that our literacy rate for women is 95.4%. Our full-time employment rate for women aged 25-64 has increased from 63.1% ten years ago, to 72% last year.  This brings us from previously 23rd to 12th now, compared to other OECD countries. Our infant and maternal mortality rates are amongst the lowest in the world. Our women also live longer - the life expectancy at birth for females is 84.9 years, more than men. In terms of gender equality, the latest UN 2016 Human Development Report ranked Singapore 11th out of 159 countries on the UN Gender Inequality Index2.  

Madam Speaker, we are not there yet, but not bad. We have come a long way. We have established strong foundations but we must further build on them. More can and must be done. I would like to highlight the changes we need on two fronts. First, we must eliminate barriers in the public sphere, be they in the workplace or in the community, to ensure that women reach their full potential. Women have made and can make significant contributions to not only the economy, but also our society at large. So it is important to remember that it’s not just only the economic front and the economic value that we look at them. There is also a broader value. As a nation, we would be foolish not to value and nurture our women. Second, we need to make changes on the domestic front, in keeping with the changing realities of our modern times, to recognise the evolving roles for both men and women at home, and in their personal relationships. 

Realising Women’s Full Potential in the “Public Sphere” 

a) Providing More Options for our Women (and Men)

Like men, women are not a homogenous population with uniform preferences. Some prefer to focus on work, while others prefer to focus on family. Some want to do both. There will always be trade-offs. Our job is to respect these choices and work them within the larger collective aspiration. We aim to put in place an environment that supports our women and men to be able to make these choices. I emphasise that we must never trivialize choices made by fathers and mothers to spend more time with children. It is invaluable both for the family and for society.

For women, the need to balance career and familial commitments is usually more intense, because of the way we have viewed them. Some face discrimination in their jobs. Others take a less linear career path, to focus on their family. In doing so, they may find it difficult to return to the workforce. All these are real challenges, especially in these times of economic uncertainties that we are facing. 

As Ms Tin Pei Ling, Mr Alex Yam, Ms Cheryl Chan, Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Mr Louis Ng, Ms Sun Xueling, Ms K. Thanaletchmi, Mr Leon Perera and Mr Desmond Choo pointed out, that flexible work arrangements is vital. I totally agree. The Government has promoted and implemented flexible work arrangements and progressive work practices over the years, and we must continue to keep up these efforts. Your suggestions and ideas are certainly valued. This includes the Tripartite Standards on Flexible Arrangements which MOM has introduced. We want employers to offer these options to their employees. It’s not good just enough to have them available, we must offer them too.

b) Building Capacity to Support our Women (and Men)

Ms Tin Pei Ling argued for building capacity to help women in juggling work and family priorities. Women who have taken a break from work to focus on their families may wish to return to the workforce after their children have grown up. Yet, they may find it difficult to start working again – perhaps, because sometimes after they exit the workforce, their skills have “expired”, especially at the rate where technology is changing. Ms Tin, Er Dr Lee Bee Wah, Ms Cheryl Chan, Mr Darryl David, and Ms Rahayu Mahzam suggested having a customised SkillsFuture package to help these women update their skills, to facilitate their return to the workforce. Minister Ong Ye Kung explained how we can and should offer guidance and support to help all the different groups to sieve out the different modules that are available. We need to create more modules that may be suited to the different needs in society. Indeed, a more user-centric approach would be useful.

Working couples who have just started a family may also need support in caring for their young children.  On this front, the Government has endeavoured to improve the quality, accessibility and affordability of pre-school services. 

To increase accessibility, the Early Childhood Development Agency, or ECDA, has increased the number of child care places island-wide, especially in estates with more young families. We work closely with HDB on that. Since 2012, the number of child care places has increased by more than 40% to about 140,000 places. We will add another 10,000 child care places by early next year.   To support parents with child care and infant care expenses and ensure affordability, all parents received subsidies. Additional subsidies are also available to the broad majority of lower and middle income families. For non-working mothers who are retrenched, looking for jobs, undergoing training, we will consider their issues on a case by case basis; so that these subsidies are also available to them.

Er Dr Lee Bee Wah mentioned that working parents prefer to be near their young children during the work day. To address this, Ms Tin suggested having more care facilities near workplaces. You’ll be pleased to know that ECDA has worked with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to facilitate the setting up of child care centres in commercial developments under the Community and Sports Facilities Scheme. Under this Scheme, the developers for selected Government Land Sale sites are also required to provide space for child care centres. Last year, there were 450 child care centres located in or near commercial and government buildings - that’s about one third of all child care centres. 

Some parents work shifts, and may require child care services in line with their working hours. Ms Tin and Ms Sun Xueling suggested extending the operating hours of child care centres. Currently, they are required to operate full-day services from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m daily on weekdays to cater to the needs of most working parents. Some centres may also choose to extend their operating hours to better cater to parents’ schedules. Currently, there are already 52 centres offering extended operating hours island-wide. 

Ms Cheryl Chan, Ms Joan Pereira, and Ms Tin gave several thoughtful recommendations to better support those who are caring for their elderly family members. MOS Lam Pin Min addressed some of these recommendations yesterday. Caring for our elderly is a key focus for MOH, as we address the issue of ageing in Singapore.

c) Facilitating Women’s to Leadership Positions

Much of the effort I have elaborated on so far deals with the career progression of our women. However, this is not enough. As a country, and as an economy, we must not underestimate the contributions that women can make at the apex of our corporates. 

Mr Louis Ng, Mr Leon Perera, Mr Vikram Nair, Ms Jessica Tan and Ms Tin agree that having women in corporate leadership makes good sense, for businesses and the economy. This is not about women’s rights. 

Today, our women are well-educated and contribute actively to our economy. The proportion of women in senior management roles in Singapore is about 21% - similar to other countries like Australia, US and the UK. Yet, women’s representation on our boards is about 9.9%, as of December 2016; which is less than half the representation rate in these countries. 

To address this, my Ministry set up a Diversity Action Committee (or DAC in short) in August 2014 to build up women’s representation on boards of companies listed on Singapore Exchange and to expand the pool of board-ready women. It comprises respected business leaders from the private sector like SingTel, CDL, Shell, and IBM; entrepreneur and professional firms; as well as representatives from the people and public sectors. 

DAC has recommended to enhance the Code of Corporate Governance (or CG Code in short) to require listed companies to disclose their board diversity policy (including gender) and their progress towards achieving these objectives. PAP Women’s Wing and BoardAgender have made a similar joint recommendation to revise the CG Code to require companies to disclose their board diversity (including gender) in their annual reports, on a “comply or explain” basis. BoardAgender is an initiative under the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, which aims to facilitate greater awareness of the benefits of gender balanced business, as well as the advancement of women into senior leadership positions and the boardroom. MAS has formed a Corporate Governance Council to review the CG Code, and we look forward to developments on this front. 

I dislike the fact that Singapore ranks near the bottom behind other key developed markets like Australia and UK in terms of women on boards; in fact even behind our neighbouring countries. Other countries are progressing at a much faster rate. Globally, shareholders and institutional investors increasingly view women on boards as being important for board effectiveness. This is something that Singapore corporates should not ignore anymore.

I appreciate the joint recommendation by PAP Women’s Wing and BoardAgender. Minister Grace Fu recently announced a declared ambition for at least 20% of directorships on SGX-listed companies to be held by qualified women by 2020. This is timely and I support this target. In fact, DAC discussed the same issue at its recent meeting in February 2017. For SGX-listed companies, DAC is suggesting a multi-tiered target: 20% by 2020, 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030.  Because, getting women on boards is a journey, it’s not a destination. DAC will share more details separately. I want to see more women breaking the ‘glass ceilings’ in the next few years!

d) Women and Social Capital

Beyond business, I think it is as also very important for us to look at the non-profit sector. The Centre for Non-Profit Leadership and the Charities Unit have carried out an inaugural study on non-profit board leadership.  The study shows that more women are represented on the boards of charities, compared with businesses.

Helen Keller once said, “Life is an exciting business, and most exciting when it is lived for others”. We have many women who exemplify this. One sterling example is Mrs Leaena Tambyah, who retired as senior adviser to the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) in 2013, after many years of devoting her time and effort helping others, especially children with special needs. Another example, is Mrs Thung Syn Neo, a social work pioneer, whose key contribution is the concept of the Family Service Centres that we have today. 

Women leaders in the non-profit sector have shown that a combination of “heart and mind” can go a long way in building up our social capital, and helping us to become a caring and inclusive society. While women sitting on the boards of these charities make up about 31%, 13% of the charities still have no female representation. My Ministry and NCSS will look into this. I believe we can improve on this figure

e) Protecting Vulnerable Women

While we provide support for women to balance their work-family commitments, and excel in the business and non-profit sectors, we must not forget that there are also vulnerable groups of women who require more support. We must also help them to overcome particular barriers so that they too can also realise their potential. 

One such group is single mothers, which has been raised by Ms Cheryl Chan, Mr Leon Perera, Mr Faisal Manap and Ms Joan Pereira. Some of you when we talk about singles refer to divorcees, some of you refer to unwed mothers. We continue to support parenthood within marriage. But whatever the circumstances we remain child-centric. It is important for us to do so. So single parents’ children get the same health and education benefits as any other citizen child. We have also made policy changes in recent years to provide more support for parents to support their children.  For example, we have recently extended the full 16-week maternity leave to unwed mothers, and their children are also now eligible for a Child Development Account (CDA).  

I have also highlighted several times in this house about KidSTART, which will help parents who need support with the development of their children. This extensive effort does not just focus on children, but to also link families to community resources with their other social and financial needs. This programme focuses on the groups which many of us are concerned about. I believe we will make a significant amount of difference.

Ms Joan Pereira appealed to treat a single mother and her children as a “family nucleus” in HDB applications. It is very clear to us that housing is an important institution for children’s well-being and development. Our housing policies aim to address the needs of the vulnerable without undermining self-reliance, family support and parity with other families. I would like to assure Ms Joan Pereira that single unwed parents are not without housing options. Depending on their age, they may apply for HDB flats themselves, or jointly with their parents. But let me state this again quite categorically. On a case-by-case basis, HDB make exceptions to help single parents with their housing. Do surface their cases to us and we will look at it. 

While I specifically mentioned the Women’s Charter earlier, something we often overlook is how our laws have not only made Singapore a safer place for women. It is something that we should not take for granted. It is not something that women in other countries necessarily have. But at the same time we need to make sure that we shape society’s ideas about what is not acceptable. Violence against women is unequivocally wrong. Although married persons have conjugal rights over each other, such rights should be exercised within reasonable behaviour. Married women should have the same access to protection as unmarried women. We are thus actively reviewing the issue of marital immunity for rape, and will give an update once the review is completed.

Strengthening the Home Front 

Madam Speaker, let me turn to the homefront. I believe that this is an important area where we can provide support for women to achieve their true potential. I think it is important for us to remember that the first line of support surely must be the family. That is something that cannot be mandated and that is something all of us can play a part in. Dr Intan Azura, Mr Louis Ng, Mr Leon Perera, Mr Darryl David and Ms Tin Pei Ling reminded us that we need to have a cultural shift and mindset change, especially about the share of care responsibilities. Mr Kok Heng Leun also reminded us that eliminating gender stereotypes starts from young. What we do at home as mothers and fathers, husbands and wives is extremely powerful.  By our example, we socialise our daughters and sons into their future roles when they set up their own homes.  We can either help them move with the times and evolve more appropriate interpretations, or we can unnecessarily confine and restrict their understanding of the roles and duties of mothers and fathers, and of husbands and wives. 

Even today, while women in Singapore enjoy equality in many aspects of society, including education and employment, the greater responsibility of caregiving within the family continues to fall on women. We need to change the paradigm relating to the roles men and women play. As husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, we should step up to play our part at home.  Parenting responsibilities can and should be shared with our wives. Household chores should not be seen as only the purview of female family members, including the domestic help. Otherwise, how can our society progress? If the women around us continue to bear the disproportionate burden of family and caregiving responsibilities, it is less likely that they can achieve all that they are capable of.

Madam Speaker, gender roles are evolving. The 2012 Marriage and Parenthood study showed 99% of respondents, both men and women, either strongly agreed or agreed that “Fathers and mothers are equally important as caregivers for children.” However, in terms of division of labour within the household, day-to-day chores and childcare responsibilities mostly still fall on the women’s shoulders.  Only 13% of the respondents said that the role of cooking was shared equally between spouses, while only 23% said that this role of feeding young children was undertaken equally by both parents. 

Marriage is an equal partnership. As husbands and fathers, it is important to share the household and parenting responsibilities with our wives. This would provide working women with the necessary support to alleviate the work-life conflict that they face. Research also shows this brings about stronger and happier marriages, as both parties better understand and feel supported in managing day-to-day chores and concerns. This means stronger families, stronger families mean a much better environment for our children to grow up in.

Studies have also shown that children with active fathers have better social skills, do better academically and have less behavioural problems. Fathers, themselves, are more fulfilled as they are no longer the distant breadwinner. They are able to develop close bonds and ties with their children. 

As much as possible, we should start bonding with our children from birth. So, I urge fathers to use the two weeks of paternity leave which has been made mandatory from this year, to be present in the lives of your children. Fathers can also tap on four weeks of shared parental leave, with effect from July this year. During the Committee of Supply debate a few weeks ago, SMS Mrs Josephine Teo announced that from July this year, public servants will get an additional four weeks of unpaid infant-care leave per parent, as part of a three-year pilot. This is available to both mothers and fathers. Please use it.

Madam Speaker, the Government can legislate these leave provisions to encourage shared parental responsibility, and fathers to play a more active role in their children’s lives. But only families can decide what is best for them, as family time is something that the Government cannot dictate.

A 2013 survey on Social Attitudes of Singaporeans indicated that men are changing their attitudes. 58% of men in 2013 (compared to 44% of men in 2009) said that their work demands ate into their family time more than they liked. The point that more men are identifying a conflict between work and family commitments is also highlighted in the 2014 Employer Alliance survey, where men indicated an increasing desire to have flexible work arrangements so they can help out with the children and domestic responsibilities. That’s a good indicator. Businesses must therefore realise that employees, including the men, do not perform their best when they feel conflicted and are unable to juggle career and home demands. Enlightened businesses know that when they help both mothers and fathers manage work-life, they are the ones that will succeed in retaining talent, and recruiting new talent. Of the 500 bosses polled, over 80 per cent said they felt work-life initiatives are important to improve employee satisfaction, raise productivity and retain talent. So the surveys look positive but we need to begin to ‘walk the talk’ across the board. 

Members of this House will be familiar with the Dads for Life movement and the Center for Fathering. Many have asked me why is there not a Moms for Life Movement or a Center for Mothering? Do they not have a role to play too? My response is that moms are already for life and mothers are already at the center of everything! 

Today the burden is uneven. Attitudes are changing and that is encouraging. At home, responsibilities unfortunately are disproportionately borne by women. Playing the roles as we should as husbands and fathers, will help level the playing field for women in so many ways.


Madam Speaker, even as we push for the elimination of gender biases, I hope we remember that this journey to ensure a level playing field for women in Singapore is an ongoing one. Builds on remarkable work done by our pioneers. The lives of women in Singapore have improved significantly over the years through the various Government policies and initiatives, as well as more enlightened societal perspectives and practices. 

But our work is not done.  We must continue to remove the barriers faced by women in the public sphere. In this regard, we will seriously consider the many useful and insightful recommendations that the Members have put forth these two days. 

However, fundamental societal change can never be achieved by the Government alone.  The change also has to take place at home, and in our workplaces and communities. All of us have a stake, whether as employers or colleagues in the workplace, as civil society or as family. We must remove glass ceilings and give Singaporean women - our mothers and sisters, and our wives and daughters - the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential.  As Dr Aline Wong said in a book entitled ‘Our Lives to Live’, “True equality lies in a woman’s ability to realise her full potential and be her true self in whatever she endeavours to achieve.” Let us endeavour to make this happen. 

2 This is a composite index that measures the inequality between female and male achievements in 3 dimensions – reproductive health, empowerment and labour market.

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