Published: 16 December 2021
Professor Danny Quah
Dr Carol Soon
Senior Research Fellow, IPS
Ms Corinna Lim,
8th S R Nathan Fellow,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. As you heard from Dr Soon, this SR Nathan Fellowship for the Study of Singapore was established in late 2012 to advance research on public policy and governance issues.
2. We’ve had 11 SR Nathan Fellows, the 11th would be next year, speaking on a variety of topics: Politics & Governance, Economy and Business, Society & Family, and other key topics. The lectures have helped to push boundaries in thinking amongst both thought leaders and the wider public.
3. Corinna was appointed by IPS as its 8th IPS Fellow. She shared her views on women’s development in Singapore. We will see her book later.
4. She asked me if I could speak at the book launch. I said sure, but is she sure that she wants me, because there are points which she made, which I disagree with, and I may say that. I’m not exactly known as an unspiky person. She said she was sure, and that was not an issue. So here I am, and I am happy to be here. It’s a privilege to be here for this launch.
5. The points made by Corinna in her lectures, I told her, I agree with her on the fundamental aspirations, but I disagree with some of her suggestions.
6. That, in a way, is part of what these lectures seek to achieve. Because we may not all be able to agree on some, or perhaps even many, of the points made by any IPS Fellow. But through the lectures, we can have a robust discussion on these issues. And hopefully, public discussion and policy making can benefit from such discussions.
7. And if these discussions, specific to Corinna, can lead to more equality for our women, or their position has advanced over men, I think we are better off as a country.
8. As some of you know, Corinna’s lectures – she’s not exactly an unspiky person herself – received a fair bit of attention and attracted not an inconsiderable amount of controversy.
9. That’s fine, but I will add this. I think in society, we can have different points of view. In fact, it’ll be a very odd society if we all agree on everything, on many things. But our disagreements can be expressed in a civil manner, and one can be civil yet be robust, clear, and direct. And I don’t ever confuse the two. You can be robust, as I’m usually accused of. You can be clear, you can be direct, and yet you can be civil.
10. And, I think Corinna should not be shouted down just because she expresses her view on fairly touchy subjects, which many consider unpalatable in society. If they disagree, they disagree.
A Whole-of-Society Approach
11. With that, let me make a few points. I will be brief, because you really want to hear from her.
12. I think people acknowledge we have done fairly well in this area – literacy rates. Women aged 15 and above, if you look at it from 1965 to 2020, it’s now 96%. It has more than doubled. We are ranked 12th out of 162 countries and second in Asia for gender equality in the UN Human Development Report 2020.
13. But beyond stats and rankings, what matters is also the lived reality of women in Singapore.
14. And so, if you look at workplaces, pre-conceived notions, gender stereotypes. A man who is firm may be described as “assertive”, while a woman who is firm might be resented for being “bossy”, and that leaves out some of the more frequent, and less polite comments. At home, women still generally take a heavier share of domestic responsibilities.
15. As Corinna said, Government cannot change these things alone. It really requires a whole-of-society effort. Families; Companies; NGOs; Community; everyone, really.
16. Laws and policies have to be accompanied by mindset shifts.
17. In schools and at homes, our children have to be taught that the respect between boys and girls is fundamental. We have to encourage our children to pursue their aspirations based on their interests and strengths, rather than outmoded gender stereotypes.
18. At the workplace, employers are now required to treat all jobseekers and employees fairly based on merit. The TAFEP Guidelines provide for this.
19. PM announced at NDR earlier this year that the Government is considering anti-discrimination legislation which will obviously cover women.
20. Legislation alone is not going to create equality, but our position should be to try and reduce workplace discrimination in every way that we can.
21. Moving on to the safety and protection of women. I think our score card is very good on that front. Our women generally feel safe in Singapore, even when they are out late at night. I have been very focused on that. We have very tough laws and tough enforcement, and each year, I go back to Parliament and say I am making them even tougher. And our laws are regularly updated to cover evolving conduct which is based on new technology.
22. Family violence specialist centres are also being scaled up to provide counselling and intervention to victims of violence, including extra-familial sexual violence.
23. The Family Violence Task Force which we set up, co-chaired by Ministers-of-State Sun Xueling and Assoc Prof Faishal Ibrahim, released its report this year, on 23 September 2021. I would urge people to look at the report carefully because it is a very comprehensive report which goes into how these things have got to be dealt with at the heartlands. If you’re well-educated, you’re able to take care of yourself. You’re in one category. Don’t mistake me, I am not one of those who believe that familial violence only takes place in certain socio-economic classes or only some women are impacted. It’s across the entire spectrum. But how does it work in the heartlands, how do we help those women?
24. I think this report, if executed well, will make a significant difference to the landscape, and the way victims of violence – including family violence – are assisted.
Suggestions from Lectures
25. I will now briefly touch on three areas from Corinna’s lectures: Parental leave, including ‘Gender Equality’ in the Constitution, and National Service for women.
26. On parental leave, it is possible for the Government to introduce legislation, to equalise or increase parental leave that companies give.
27. But, when we have these conversations, I will ask that we also bear in mind that in the end, it is the private sector that provides most of the employment in Singapore, like in most other countries.
28. And there is a limit to what the Government can ask the private sector to do. What we can ask is dependent on the nature of our economy, so that when we compare with other countries, we need to see if the system is translatable to Singapore.
29. The reality for us, given our small geographical size, is that foreign Investments are a key part of our economic landscape, drive our economy, and companies which invest here need to be internationally competitive, because our internal economy is far too small.
30. Businesses will factor in cost considerations in locating their HQs or facilities in Singapore.
31. Let me give an example. A consultancy company called TMX Global released a report last month. It’s titled “The Great Supply Chain Migration – Breaking Down the Cost of Business in Asia.”
32. According to the report, the monthly average cost of doing business in Singapore was the highest amongst countries in South East Asia and India, and it is about 64% to 76% higher on average, compared to these other countries. So, our wages are much higher, our rentals are much higher, and costs are generally higher compared with these countries, and the compliance costs in Singapore – including environmental compliance, which we take very seriously – are much higher. And all of these are imposed on the private sector.
33. Alternatively, of course, the Government can pay for the parental leave, but that will ultimately have to be paid for by the taxpayer, which means we have to have a good economy to raise enough revenue to pay for everything that we want, in the context of an ageing society.
34. And you know, we don’t have any of the resources that one can extract from the ground to pay for these things, unlike say, some of the Nordic countries.
35. The Nordic countries have the resources, and their taxes are much higher – personal income tax as well as GST are much, much higher.
36. So for us, public spending has to come from economic growth.
37. Do we have room to increase taxes? These are some of the challenges that the Government grapples with on a very regular basis. Whenever we deal with not just one particular issue, but a variety of sectors, obviously we can spend more, and the question is how do we get the money and keep it sustainable? Whether it is healthcare, whether it is defence or security, costs are going up everywhere. Can we increase taxes from our personal income tax, which is at 22%? Our competition is Hong Kong, we are at 22%, and Hong Kong is at 15%. Some investors will be willing to pay a premium to set up in Singapore. But what is the delta? What is the premium that people will be willing to pay, given that we don’t have the hinterland that Hong Kong has? So, these are the broader considerations one keeps in mind, even as we look at what we can do and what we can impose on the private sector and what is it that we can pay through tax dollars.
38. But despite the challenges, we have moved, and we have introduced the Tripartite Standards to promote progressive workplace practices, which include flexible work arrangements, unpaid leave for unexpected care needs, and work-life harmony. I think part of the real issue is if it is all seen as something that women have to do, then we will constantly be facing this issue. It has got to be both sides of the equation in a family.
39. In February this year, MOM, NTUC, and SNEF formed the Alliance for Action or AfA on work-life harmony. This AfA aims to build a community to promote the importance of work-life harmony, and develop ground-up initiatives to support the implementation of work-life harmony measures.
40. These are significant steps to encourage progressive workplace practices, because rather than being directive, if we can encourage it, it is easier, and we will continue to do more.
Including ‘Equality Between Men and Women’ in the Constitution
41. Second, another key topic that was touched on by Corrina on the Constitution, was putting in an equality clause. I had raised this at a forum earlier this year and said I was supportive of it.
42. Corinna made a similar suggestion for gender equality to be added to the Singapore Constitution. Let me be frank, there are two views on this, and mine is not a majority viewpoint.
43. Many take the view that since the Constitution already provides for equality, there is no need for a specific provision providing for equality between men and women. Because today, it already provides for equality. So, do you break it down and say equality for men and women? Then you have got to have a list of 15 other things that you need to enumerate. And whoever is not in there will say, we also want to be in there. And then, it won’t read like a Constitution. Discrimination based on gender, if it is not rational, it is already unconstitutional. Any distinction must have a rational nexus, and satisfy Article 12.
44. But I thought there was benefit in something aspirational, because it emphasises it further. But I also recognise that it doesn’t, in legal terms, add much or anything to equal protection.
45. And, I can see the force in the alternate points of view that many others take. But the key thing is that, regardless of which view is taken, equal protection for women is already part of our Constitution. Any discrimination which has got no rational basis, will not stand in our Courts.
46. The Government, anyway, before we do any of our legislation, which is somewhat different from many other places – every piece of legislation is looked at beforehand, not just by my ministry, but also by AGC, for its compliance with the Constitution.
47. Third, on National Service. Requiring women to serve NS, and extending the scope of NS beyond the military to include community, social, and healthcare services.
48. This is an area where there are strong viewpoints, and differences in opinions. I have to say quite directly that I don’t agree with Corinna on this.
49. My own view is that women who wish, can join the SAF or the Home Team, and we encourage women to join the Home Team. I put them up on my Facebook, some of them carry rifles which are bigger than them, and they are very, very effective. They can join the Volunteer Corps as well, and there are ample opportunities for volunteer work in the social sector. But you know we can have differences of these viewpoints; we can’t all have the same views on these issues.
50. To conclude, Corinna has shared her views, and sparked off discussions. There are continuing discussions, and we thank her for that.
51. I would also like to thank everyone who has contributed time and energy to the cause of Singapore Women. This includes the many who have shared their views during the recent Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development.
52. The Government is studying the ideas from the Conversations carefully.
53. Let us, together, make our fundamental values of equality and respect between men and women, a lived reality in Singapore.
54. Thank you.