Published: 05 April 2022
1. Thank you, Sir, for allowing me to take part in the debate on this Motion.
2. We started this process in September 2020.
3. The White Paper, if I may call it WP for short, is an important marker in this road to equality for women. We haven’t arrived, but we know the road to travel, and the final destination.
4. I don’t need to speak about the history of women’s rights in Singapore, or the issues women face, the details are in the WP. They are important, but the topics have been well covered.
5. I will just make two points. First, the psychological significance of the WP, and second, I will update the House on our approach to violence which is targeted at women in the family context.
The Psychological Significance of the WP
6. First, on the psychological significance of the WP. When you try and deal with large issues like equality of men and women, one, you have to make a list of specific things that need to be done to achieve the end goal. That is very important. Otherwise, it just becomes a rhetorical exercise. And the WP lists the many areas where more action needs to be taken. The House has discussed them, and I am sure will continue discussing them.
7. But beyond that, in a more fundamental way when we talk about respect for women, equality of women, it requires an internalisation by the majority that these are basic values, that these are values which we cherish, which we hold dear.
8. And I had said, when we started the Conversations in September 2020, that our aim is to work towards a deep mindset change, to build a society where every boy and girl grows up, imbibing the value of gender equality.
9. To get a change in thinking at the individual level, and to have it deeply set in, is never easy.
10. I will put it this way: Are we able to say that equality for women is part of our culture that is deeply set in?
11. I think the answer is, it is still work-in-progress. But the process we started in September 2020 has moved the needle quite some.
12. 1961 was epochal. It was path breaking.
13. The progress women have made in many fields since then, has made the idea of equality more real.
14. From September 2020, the Conversations, this WP, I believe, have had a significant psychological impact and moved us further along the path.
15. The scale, the depth of the Conversations, and follow-ups, have registered in our collective consciousness.
16. It has helped in the process of our collective psyche in accepting equality.
17. In law, there is a concept. When you want to know whether something is fundamental and accepted by most, you test it by checking. If I were to ask this question to a group of right-minded people, will they say “yes, of course it is so” or will they express different views? If they will say “yes, of course it is so”, then that’s your answer.
18. If you apply that to the idea of Equality for Women in Singapore – after the Conversations and the WP, if someone were to stand up in a group in Singapore and ask about equality for women, will people say: “Obviously, yes”?
19. I think so. Or, put it another way – how many will dare, in a mixed group of right-thinking people, how many will dare to say that men and women should not be equal? Think of that.
20. It is an achievement that regardless of whatever one may personally think, that if people realise that expressing a contrary view would be against social norms, that means people understand what the norms are.
21. And that is important. So, we must not underestimate the power of such collective norm building. The Conversations and the WP have helped a fair bit in this process. Over time, if properly acted upon, that can change behaviour on how men and women, perceive women and their roles.
22. The current situation in Singapore, it may look like, well this is normal, this is the natural order of things. But it isn’t. Let me illustrate by giving you some examples.
23. In the US, a headline in the last few days caught my eye, that women now have to travel outside their states they stay in some places, to get abortions because of tighter and tighter rules on abortions in some of these states.
24. The issue of a woman’s right to have a medical procedure, autonomy of her body versus a life. This is subject to laws in many countries, including Singapore. But it gets difficult when the issue becomes politicized, and if you tilt too far away from giving autonomy to a woman over her own body.
25. And in Singapore, a woman’s autonomy is given considerable weight.
26. If you move to Australia, another matter that has received some attention, is the experience of women in Australian Parliament.
27. And I am referring to these examples not to criticize other systems and approaches.
28. I am looking at them as illustrations which can remind us on choices we have made, we make on the journey we have travelled, and can travel.
29. Coming back to Australia, there were several allegations about how women were mistreated in the Australian Parliament.
30. Last year in Nov 2021, a report, known as the Jenkins Report, was published on what has happened in the Australian Federal Parliament.
31. It sets out in graphic detail some of what happens, quite shocking really, and I have prepared an Annex that lists some examples.
32. Mr Speaker Sir, with your permission, may I distribute an Annex to the Members of the House?
33. If you look at the list: An MP leaned over, grabbed the victim and stuck his tongue down her throat. I’m quoting from the report. It’s a Member of Parliament doing this. At an after work drinks session, a senior party member put his hand up the victim’s skirt. A male colleague asked the victim intrusive questions about her personal life, and so on. Leaders made jokes about employees’ sex lives, ask them out for dates and propositioned them. A parliamentarian was completely naked when a worker walked into his office and addressed the worker as if nothing was untoward, and so on.
34. For us here in the Singapore Parliament, you can understand this is quite unthinkable, and I don’t mean that in a self-congratulatory way, nor do I seek to draw any conclusions on morality.
35. Just looking at it factually, our laws and framework and what we can expect of behaviour in Parliament, all are different.
36. And consequences, if you breach our laws, are quite severe. You can expect to be caned if you are a man and I will come back to the examples [in the Annex].
37. So, the conduct in the Federal Parliament of Australia, one is tempted to ask – Is this the result of a different culture, on how women are perceived and can be treated? I don’t know enough to draw any conclusions.
38. But Members can see, where we are in Singapore. Again, the road we are on, was and is not pre-ordained. It is because of the choices we make, and the work we have put in, to treat women properly with respect.
39. If you look at the examples, on the right-hand column, in Singapore, just a couple of examples – A man, previously with NUS and holding a PhD, he touched a woman over her skirt during an MRT ride. He was sentenced to 18 days in jail. In another case earlier this year, a masseur molested a customer during a massage session. Nothing as graphic as what you see, as happened in the Australian Parliament. He was sentenced to nine months’ jail and three strokes of the cane. If you do these things outside Parliament, you are likely to get jail and caned. I think it is quite unthinkable that something like this can and or will happen in a Parliamentary context in Singapore. But if it did, a male MP is likely to go to jail and be caned for some of the more egregious conduct. And we look at it in the context of how we treat women, what the laws are. All of this fits in together to make sure that there is a certain status and respect, and expectation of behaviour. That's important.
40. Now I will refer to Australia in another context. Last year, in one of the conversations that I took part in, there was an Australian lady. I was taken aback by what she said, and I quote from notes that our civil servants take. I quote verbatim:
“To Minister’s question on her experience in Australia, in terms of career opportunities for women as well as support for mothers, the lady said that Singapore offered much better opportunities and support for women. Companies in Australia often took a male-centric perspective and women tended to be politically disadvantaged, especially in rising to leadership positions."
41. Again, a small vignette, we move over to the UK. I can recount to the House what a relatively senior female diplomat from the UK told me, and again, quoting from the notes:
“On caregiving, Minister said that we were exploring how we could provide better support. One way was to recognise the caregiving role in monetary terms. She – and I will skip her name – said that UK had not seriously discussed the question of monetary compensation for caregiving.”
42. On my list of examples, let me also share some things that have happened recently in Malaysia.
43. Now when I say Malaysia, Singaporeans and probably MPs too, sometimes tend to say that on social issues, Malaysia is not a real comparison, because we have taken different paths on social issues.
44. But I make a different point.
45. We were part of the same country, until 1965.
46. Our cultures were largely similar.
47. The roads we took, diverged, after 1965. These were deliberate choices.
48. And they have led to very different results.
49. And that is worth reflecting on, to consider carefully what path we should continue on, and what we can do to strengthen the respect and the idea of equality for women.
50. I will refer to two events, one early in the pandemic, and one, just a few weeks ago, from Malaysia.
51. In March 2020, Malaysia, like Singapore, was dealing with the pandemic. The movement order, I think, had been in place.
52. The Malaysian Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, posted infographics on social media on how to ensure harmonious households. It was a document that was obviously intended to be serious, and it gave advice to wives. The advice included the following – that the wives should mimic the voice of a Japanese cartoon character, “Doraemon”, when speaking to their husbands. Wives should giggle coyly. Wives should avoid wearing home clothes and put on make-up. Wives should use humorous words and avoid nagging.
53. The Ministry’s posts, as you can imagine, drew a lot of responses.
54. As I understand it, Doraemon is a male robot cat. So, not quite sure why women should speak like a male robot cat. And there were many takes on the ministry’s post.
55. This is one. With the Speaker’s permission, may I have this shown. [Video plays in Parliament]
56. Besides this, the same Ministry, on 18 March 2020, had also stated that only the “head of the household” should leave the house to purchase necessities. I think in almost every household, the men assumed that it was them, and only them.
57. Fast forward to this year, in February 2022, Malaysian Deputy Minister – again from the same Ministry – the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development – she gave this advice to husbands and wives: That husbands should try the “physical touch” approach, by striking their wives “gently”, and to discipline them if they do not stop “unruly” behaviour; wives should seek their husband’s permission before speaking, wives should speak to their husbands only when the husbands are calm and relaxed, and after the husbands have eaten and prayed.
58. In Singapore, let me tell you, that if you beat your wives – or vice versa – the Police will come looking for you.
59. And Members will not even consider it possible for either MCCY or MSF to issue such statements.
60. The differences in our approaches – and people may think that this is a joke – but the differences in our approaches underlie and make a serious point. The path taken in 1961, and continued, has led us to a very different place in terms of how in Singapore, we view women, and what we consider acceptable to say to women about how women should behave. The White Paper pushes us further along that road.
61. Our cultural norms are now different from Malaysia.
62. And we have, as opinion leaders, the power to strengthen and solidify those norms with more action.
63. And we can look at positive examples from other countries for us to emulate. Many of them are in Scandinavia, not in all aspects, but in some important aspects.
64. There is still much we can learn from others.
65. To summarise my first point, Sir, the impact on norms, values, the internalisation of the idea of equality - I see that as among the most important outcomes from this process.
66. Now let me move to my second point on how we deal with violence targeted at women, in the family context.
Protection of Women From Harm and Violence
67. On the whole, if we look at women, and how they perceive their safety and security, we have done well. SPF does, as I have told the House before, regular surveys. The 2018 public perception survey showed that 93% of our women feel safe in Singapore. In the 2020 Gallup Law and Order Survey, 97% of Singapore residents – obviously men and women – feel safe walking alone on the streets at night. It is the highest in the world.
68. We have made several legislative changes to give better protection to women.
69. Just touching on the changes in the last three years – in 2019, we amended the Penal Code to deal with sexual crimes which use technology. We repealed marital immunity for rape. We introduced enhanced penalties for offences against victims in an intimate or close relationship with the offender – usually women were the victims, even though the legislation is neutral about which sex. In the same year, we amended the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) to enhance protection for victims of harassment, and the victims again are usually women, and quite often, young women. Last year, we increased the penalties for sexual offences including Outrage of Modesty, that came into force just last month.
70. We intend to take further steps. For today’s purposes, I will deal specifically violence in the family context.
71. Violence at home, women again are more likely to be victims. The proportion or ratio is three is to one, roughly.
72. Members would have read about some cases which were in the news. A woman was abused by her husband on several occasions. He punched her, held scissors to her face, cut her hair while holding onto her head. An elderly mother was abused by her adult son for years. Starved, not allowed to shower, physically assaulted. She did not report him to the Police, despite volunteers asking her to, because she said she did not want to affect her son, despite suffering all this abuse.
73. MHA and MSF set up a Taskforce on family violence in February 2020.
74. The Taskforce came up with 16 recommendations.
75. One common situation for example, the threat of violence at home or in a flat. The husband is angry, he's threatening violence. The woman fears for her safety.
76. When the police turn up at that point, nothing much can be done. Because if there is no actual violence and no imminent threat of violence, then it's very difficult to do anything. And a husband denies anyway that he's going to hit. And the women and children stay in the same flat in fear, and then something bad can happen.
77. Now once these measures are able to be implemented, the Taskforce’s recommendations, MHA and MSF will respond and they will make an assessment. If the situation is serious, if there has been violence, it may proceed as a criminal case. We try not to criminalise all of these situations, because that then does, quite often, irreparable harm to the family context. But where it's necessary, it's processed. If there is no actual violence, but there is a significant threat of violence, the wife may be offered the option of being moved to a safe space, depending on the facts, and it'll be her choice even when there is no criminal offense. She has the option that she can take the children and leave immediately, go into the safe space, then consider her next steps, instead of facing the threat of violence. It could also include moving to a temporary shelter arrangement while working out longer term interventions.
78. This gives the parties the opportunity to cool down, provides an opportunity for reconciliation. And you really don't want every such situation to end up in the matrimonial courts.
79. We will also empower specific persons, such as the Director-General of Social Welfare, to apply for Personal Protection Orders (PPO) on behalf of those at risk in certain situations – like the mother who was clearly being abused, but did not want to report her son.
80. This will be very resource intensive, and therefore it will take time to implement. Members can see, however, what we hope to achieve.
81. So, in conclusion, if I may say this, the recommendations in the White Paper serve as a guidepost, not the endpoint of our aspirations for Singapore women.
82. And in that context, I showed you some examples of I call them vignettes, illustrations of how things happen in some other countries, some things that happen and what it reflects, and how the road we have taken has made pretty much some of these things quite unthinkable in Singapore. And that is by choice. It's not something that's pre-ordained. And we will need to look again at this White Paper and the recommendations, continually review, see how far we have come.
83. I hope that we can all work to make Singapore a place where every girl and woman can achieve her fullest potential.
84. Thank you.