Ms Malathi Das,
President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations,
Ms Sylvia Choo,
Director of NTUC Women’s Development Secretariat,
Ms Joanna Portilla,
Chairperson of the People’s Association Women’s Integration Network Council,
Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon
Former Minister of State, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very good morning to all of you. It is my pleasure to join you today for the CEDAW Forum.
On 5 October 1995, Singapore acceded to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW in short. Today, we are gathered here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Singapore’s accession to CEDAW.
CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. It aims to promote the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.
As we celebrate Singapore’s 50 years of independence and 20 years of accession to CEDAW this year, let us look back and reflect on the tremendous changes that have occurred in the lives of women in Singapore over the past few decades. Let us also take this opportunity to ask ourselves what lies ahead of us?
Lives of women in Singapore have improved significantly over the decades
If you speak to women in their mid-60s and 70s today, they will tell you that women in Singapore have come a long way and they faced challenges that women of today no longer face. What a young girl takes for granted today was unthinkable for a woman of their times.
Back then, girls were not encouraged to go to school, much less pursue higher education. The social norm then was for a woman to stay at home to take care of her family and to do household chores. However, our founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew believed strongly in tapping the potential of every citizen, regardless of gender. He believed in giving all Singaporeans, including women, access to education. In 2000, the Compulsory Education Act was passed to mandate the first six years of primary education to ensure that all Singaporean children have equal access to quality education. As a result, Singaporean women today are better-educated – the literacy rate of resident females has risen from about 85% in 1995 to about 95%1
in 2014. There are also slightly more women than men studying in our universities today.
With improved educational status, our Singaporean women are no longer confined within the homes. Just like their male counterparts, they are now equipped with the knowledge and skills to be just as useful and employable in the workforce. In 2014, the labour force participation rate of women in their prime working ages of 25 to 54 years was about 79%2
, up from 58% in 1995. Our women now contribute actively to the economy.
We continue to face challenges in the progress of women
Women today no longer face most of the obstacles faced by women 20 years ago. However, the journey has not ended – we face different sets of challenges as our society evolves. For example, a woman in the past may struggle to join the workforce, earn her own keep and contribute to the economy. Today, it is not uncommon to see a woman active in the workforce; but she is juggling the demands of her career and her family obligations. As a working mother myself, I understand fully how tough it can be trying to strike a balance.
One notable example is Brigadier-General Gan Siow Huang, who smashed the “brass ceiling” to become the first female general in the Singapore Armed Forces. The mother of three young girls shared that her career success was not without hurdles. She had to manage her priorities and make tough choices between her career and her family. She was fortunate to have the strong support of her family, where her parents-in-law and husband took care of her children while she was at work. On top of that, along with SAF’s family-friendly policies, her bosses and colleagues encouraged and supported her as well3
. BG Gan’s story shows how a nurturing environment and family support facilitate women’s contributions to society.
The Government recognises the importance of promoting work-life harmony in our society and introduced various policies to facilitate a family-friendly environment such as the shared parental leave, extended child care leave, adoption leave and paternity leave. We also recently announced an additional week of government paid paternity leave.
The journey towards success is not easy but not impossible
Enhancing the status of women is an ongoing journey – we should continue to strive to close gaps and address new challenges to achieve a better future for all.
I believe that empowering women to fulfil their true potential requires more than changing legislation and implementing government policies. We also have to modify attitudes, mind-sets and expectations.
As Dr Aline Wong said in a book entitled “Our Lives to Live – Putting a Woman’s Face to Change in Singapore4
”; and I quote “True equality… lies in a woman’s ability to realise her full potential and be her true self in whatever she endeavours to achieve.” Professor Chan Heng Chee, the first woman ambassador in Singapore also said, “Gender is less important than being good at what you do and working hard at what you do”. I agree with both of them totally. Do not short-change yourself in any way just because you are a woman - I urge you to have courage and work hard to pursue your dreams and aspirations.
At today’s event, we celebrate the past and present contributions women make, in their roles as mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, workers, citizens, and leaders.
To mark this important occasion, the Office for Women’s Development from the Ministry of Social and Family Development has produced a video, which highlights what women can achieve when given access to equitable opportunities. I am pleased to launch this video today and hope that it will inspire you to pursue your dreams. There may be challenges ahead, but looking at how much we have progressed, I am confident that we can look forward to an even brighter future.
Thank you and have a fruitful morning.
1 Source: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/statistics/latest-data
2 Source: Comprehensive Labour Force Survey, Ministry of Manpower
3 Chow, Jermyn. “SAF gets its first female general” The Straits Times, June 26, 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/saf-gets-its-first-female-general
4 Source: Aline Wong. (2015). Fifty Years of Change and Struggle for Equality. In Kanwaljit Soin & Margaret Thomas. (Eds) Our Lives to Live: Putting a Woman’s Face to Change in Singapore. Singapore. World Scientific Series on Singapore: 50 Years of Nation-Building.