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Keynote Address by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development, at the SHE Annual Symposium “Changing Mindsets, Changing Lives” at Catapult on 25 November 2023

Type: Official Speeches (All) Official Speeches: Masagos Zulkifli

Topic(s): Women Empowerment Children & Families


Ms Stefanie Yuen Thio, Chairperson of SHE
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

INTRODUCTION

1.      Good morning. It is my pleasure to be with you here today. Thank you SHE for organising this Symposium and bringing us together to discuss this important topic of “Changing Mindsets, Changing Lives”. 

2.      I’m glad to see many here today, to discuss how we can strengthen women’s development – Government, corporates, academics, and community leaders. Advancing the progress of women requires support from all actors in society. So it is important that we come together in partnership to further this important work. 
 
3.      Today, in my short time, I would like to share Singapore’s experience and our thinking around women’s development. 

SINGAPORE’S EFFORTS ON WOMEN’S DEVELOPMENT

4.      Women’s development is important to Singapore. From the very start, we have regarded women as the equal half of our society. One of the first laws we passed was the Women’s Charter. The Women’s Charter instituted the equal standing of men and women in marriage, and ensured the welfare and protection of women in Singapore. This was in 1961.

5.      Since then, we have continued to put in place clear laws and policies and make concrete progress on issues. Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I thought it would be apt to share how we have strengthened protections for women over the years: 

a.     Our Government takes a clear position on this issue. We believe that Singapore must be a place for everyone.  Violence against women and men must never be tolerated. 

b.      While incidents of violence and harm against women are now less common, a single incident is still one too many. We want to strengthen protections for women and for all survivors of domestic violence. We have also set ourselves the challenge of breaking the cycle of violence. 

c.      Within the last 5 years, we repealed marital immunity for rape, and enhanced penalties for sexual offences and offences against victims in intimate relationships. We also enhanced protection for victims of harassment. These victims are usually women.

d.      Specifically for family violence, we set up a Taskforce on Family Violence in 2020. Individuals from different sectors came together to deliberate on ways we can improve the ecosystem – from social workers, medical professionals, and women’s organisations, to the Courts and the Government. I’m glad to share that 16 recommendations were made by the Taskforce, and are being progressively implemented. This year, we passed the Family Violence Amendment Bill. It brings to fruition all the legislative amendments, and gives effect to the Taskforce’s recommendations - to strengthen protection and support for survivors, increase the accountability of perpetrators, and strengthen their rehabilitation. 

e. Our measures are meant to be enforceable and effective, and not another legislation to pass.  In Singapore this is possible because as a society, we work together to support families and individuals impacted by violence, all of us doing our part. For example, MSF now works jointly with the Police to respond to domestic violence cases so that we can address immediate safety issues and provide the support needed. To address the root causes of violence and enable healing of relationships, social service agencies also work with perpetrators in their rehabilitation journey.  Our approach is not one of a criminal law process which only focuses on punishment, 
but one of therapeutic justice. 

6.      This is just one example of the way in which our society works together to make progress on issues and concretely advance women’s development.

7.      Another is the Conversations on Women’s Development, which 6,000 Singaporeans from all walks of life participated in, to share their aspirations and chart the way forward. These Conversations culminated in the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development which was unanimously adopted in Parliament last year. 

8.      We are now working to implement the 25 action plans. We will report back to Parliament on the progress we have made in 2027. 

SINGAPORE’S PROGRESS ON WOMEN’S DEVELOPMENT

9.      I am happy to say that we have made tremendous progress in Women’s Development: We have achieved very high literacy rates of over 95%; Three out of four women between the ages of 25 and 64 are employed; In Parliament, we have 30% women’s participation, above the international average of about 26%. 

10.    We are also doing well by international standards. We are ranked 7th worldwide and first in Asia for gender equality in the latest United Nations Human Development Report.

11.    More importantly, our youths are moving in the right direction. The recent Reykjavik Index for Leadership reported that there is a general worrying trend, including in countries in the West, where younger people are more prejudiced against women’s suitability for leadership than their elders. However, the report found that our Singaporean youths are in fact more open-minded than their parents, holding less stereotypes against women leaders and with stronger belief that women and men are equally suitable for leadership.

12.    This bodes well for Singapore. This is the society we are building, where men and women respect each other and partner each other as equals. There is still work to be done. As Stephanie mentioned earlier, research shows that gender biases and stereotypes still exist in Singapore, we must continue to shift mindsets and break stereotypes. 

STARTING WITH THE FAMILY

13.    And, it starts from the family.

14.    We recently emphasised during the release of the Forward SG report that families are the bedrock of our society. 

15.    Parents are our first role models and first examples of partnership and respect between men and women.  

16.    As fathers, it is our responsibility to teach our sons what it means to respect all women, starting from a young age; to pass down and instil in them the right values, and to be role models ourselves through our actions to be equal and respectful partners, in the family, at school, at work and subsequently, as a spouse.

17.    I am heartened that we are seeing positive mindset shifts towards active fathering. In the 2021 Marriage and Parenthood Survey, almost all married respondents, men and women, agreed that fathers and mothers are equally important as caregivers for children.

18.    We need to do more to make this a reality. The same survey found that in a weekday, women spend an average of 6 hours on childcare, while men spend only an average of 3.6 hours. 

19.    The Government is committed to helping fathers achieve their family aspirations. In March this year, we doubled paternity leave from two to four weeks, with a clear message that we want paternal involvement to be the norm. We will support fathers in playing a bigger role in raising their children. We envision a society where it is just as natural for fathers to take paternity leave, so that both fathers and mothers can support their children, especially in their early years.

20.    Many studies, internationally and in Singapore, have shown that children with more involved fathers have better developmental outcomes.

21.    But more than that, active fathers demonstrate to our children that men and women can be equal partners, helping each other build a family, and supporting each other’s career aspirations by sharing the caregiving load.

22.    When our boys and girls see their father and mother partnering together, building on each other’s strengths, enabling each other to achieve their career aspirations, and respecting each other, they will grow up knowing how to respect each other and believing that anyone, men or women, can achieve their aspirations.

23.    So it starts with the family, but it does not end there.

WHOLE-OF-SOCIETY EFFORT TO ADVANCE WOMEN’S DEVELOPMENT

24.    We can only advance real progress in women’s development, again, through a partnership approach across the whole-of-society.

25.    In schools, the Government has enhanced our curriculum to address gender stereotypes and teach our children and youth the values of respect and appropriate behaviours in school to shape the right social norms from young.

26.    We also encourage our students to explore a variety of education and career pathways based on their interests and skills, and not allow gender stereotypes to limit these pathways such as STEM. I am heartened to note that in 2021, close to 40% of students studying STEM in our tertiary institutions were females. About 40% of our tech workforce are women.  

27.    In the workplace, we must do more to facilitate equal opportunities.  We will strengthen workplace fairness, including through legislation. We are also encouraging flexible work arrangements as a workplace norm.  This will enable both women and men to better balance their work and caregiving responsibilities.

28.    There has been good progress in helping women advance their careers and attain leadership roles. According to a 2021 Deloitte report, Singapore has the highest percentage of women CEOs globally. The number of women board directors in our top 100 listed companies has also tripled over the past decade.

29.    However, there is more we can do to shift mindsets and ensure that our workplaces reflect our societal values of fairness, inclusivity, and progressivity. 

30.    For women who want to re-enter the workforce after taking some time off, we need to be supportive and not penalise them unfairly for the break in their career. We can also provide more support to facilitate their re-entry.

31.    We must be equally supportive of fathers who need to take time off to care for their children, such as when their children fall sick.

32.    Having a family-friendly and supportive workplace culture will help women, especially working mothers, to participate more fully in the workplace and achieve their career aspirations. It will enable men and women to partner together to achieve their aspirations in the family and in their workplaces.

33.    In the community, we work with our partners and stakeholders to make the world a safe and empowering place for women and girls to live. 

34.    This is essential at a time where new challenges such as online harms are emerging. From bullying and defamation to sexual harassment, these online harms negatively impact many individuals’ mental and emotional well-being and their sense of safety. I am happy to note that SHE has partnered the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations and launched Singapore’s first support centre for targets of online harms earlier this year, called SHECARES@SCWO. At the centre, individuals can receive dedicated help and support.  

CONCLUSION

35.    In conclusion, changing mindsets starts with the family, and continues on in our schools, workplaces, and in the community. We must work together across society and across these domains to change minds, change norms, and change lives. 

36.    Singapore is committed to building a place:
     a. where boys and girls grow up in strong families, 
     b. where they see fathers and mothers partnering each other as equals, 
     c. where there is respect between men and women, 
     d. where girls and women feel safe to live their lives both in the physical and online space, and 
     e. where we believe that anyone can achieve their aspirations. 

37.   I hope today’s symposium will inspire us to foster stronger partnerships and propel us towards a fairer and more inclusive society. Let me give my best wishes to SHE for their first Symposium, and best wishes to them. Thank you.