Tembusu Forum - Women in Singapore: Equality, Justice and Respect – Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law

Published: 08 March 2021

Prof. Tommy Koh,

Rector of Tembusu College,


Assoc. Prof. Kelvin Pang,

Master of the College,


Dr. Margaret Tan,

Director of Programmes,


Fellow panellists, Ms. Junie Foo and Ms. Corinna Lim,


Students & Participants,



1.    Good evening to all of you.


2.    I was last here, I think in 2017. Had a very good dialogue with the students.


3.    Today, as Prof Koh has said to you all, is International Women’s Day. For us, we had designated this year as the Year of Celebrating SG Women, and International Women’s Day is being celebrated around the world.


4.    Our discussion is timely in that context.


5.    In September last year as you’ve heard, we started off a series of Conversations on the position of women in Singapore – How we can better deal with the issues they face.


6.    What is the aim of these Conversations? It is really to look into how equality and respect can be better ingrained in our society. It’s not easy, because we’re not just talking about laws, we’re not just talking about criminalising conduct. We’re talking about a mindset change, a change in psychology, which takes a very long time. Generations. And how can these values be inculcated as important values from a very young age, and tackle underlying attitudes and behavioural patterns? It’s a very ambitious set of aims. We set the ambition high, and then we work towards it.


7.    Since then, my colleagues and I have been using several fora to repeat the same points.


8.    So, when Prof. Koh invited me to this Forum, I said yes straightaway.



9.    If you look at the position of women in Singapore, is the glass half full, or half empty? I would say it’s perhaps two-thirds full, maybe a little bit more.


10.    But that makes it clear, that we have much more work to do.


11.    We do well on several matrices – education, security, status of women. But, we do less well in helping women juggle multiple roles, particularly in their adult lives. I have put up some slides. If you look at education today, in 2018, almost 50% of our graduates were women, and the literacy rate was 96%. I think these are figures you can be happy about. If you look at safety and security, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) does regular public perception surveys. 93% of our women felt safe in Singapore. It won’t come as a surprise to you all, I would think. In global surveys, we ranked first for the proportion of women employed with advanced degrees, and we have one of the highest proportion of companies with women CEOs. So, that’s a paradox, because we have a relatively high proportion of women CEOs, but if you look at the number of women on Boards, we don’t do so well.


12.    And if you look at the UN Human Development Report 2019, we are ranked 11th out of 162 countries for equality between men and women.


13.    But, I think it’s still a work-in-progress.


14.    During the Conversations we’ve had so far – and there are many more to go – familiar issues came up. Juggling of family and work, greater expectations of women to take leave from work, to care for their children, parents and parents-in-law, in our ageing society.


15.    And, a serious issue that maybe, perhaps, we’re so not comfortable speaking about, that’s not adequately discussed even in the Conversations, is family violence. It’s often unseen, many victims just don’t talk about it. To give an example, a couple of examples – in 2017, a 38-year-old lady was seriously abused by her live-in partner. She was blinded, her bones were broken. She was unable to obtain a Personal Protection Order (PPO) because they were not married. PPOs are under the Women’s Charter. Her perpetrator was however arrested and jailed, because it is still an offence to beat up somebody. But on his release, he managed to locate her and continued the abuse. She eventually died in a shelter. One of the worst cases that I’ve seen. Why did she continue to live with him? These are questions we can ask, but I don’t know. We have Dr Kanwaljit Soin, we have a few others who are perhaps better qualified to answer. I think we have to accept that some people don’t step out of abusive relationships, and then try and protect them as best as we can.


16.    PAVE, the non-governmental organisation (NGO), told me about this case in 2018 and asked if we can change the law. I said yes, we must, and we must do our best to not let this happen again. So, we changed the law in 2019, so that you don’t have to be married in order to get a PPO. Anyone can get a PPO if you are living in an intimate partner relationship, and we have potentially doubled the punishments if you abuse another person who is in a vulnerable situation. So, in an intimate partner situation – boyfriend, girlfriend, or live-in partner – the person is vulnerable, the penalty could potentially be doubled.


17.    Many people assume that this only happens with less educated women. The answer, sadly, is no. It was widely reported in the papers last year – a university graduate, Rachel Lim, was beaten up by her boyfriend. He was a doctor.


18.    The boyfriend grew aggressive. I think she said no to sex or something. He punched her multiple times, hit her head against the wall, suffered multiple facial fractures. And again, why does she put up with it? It wasn’t the first time. But we have to find a way of helping them.


19.    Now, let me come back, moving away from family violence, to the attitudes which I spoke about. They get hardcoded from young. In my September 2020 speech, I referred to an Asterix comic strip, as a fun way of making the point. I will go back to that. You see this comic. It’s Asterix, a famous Gallic village. They are employing a new Bard, who is going to replace Cacophonix. A woman Bard, a lady bard. How is that possible? It’s been unheard of. Only men can be Bards, how can a woman be a Bard?


20.    So Asterix, who is the hero of the series, is shocked. He asked Getafix – Getafix is the wise old druid, the doctor who brews the magic potion which keeps the village safe against all enemies. So, he asks Getafix, is that possible? To have a woman Bard?


21.    You see the response, what Getafix says. He says, “Of course, this is a new world, anything is possible.” Then Asterix asks, “Can there be women druids?” And Getafix says, “Get real”. So, you see the attitude. This is 31 years ago.


22.    How does the attitude start? This part of the strip, I didn’t show, but if you look at the opening. If you see in the first slide “Go away! Girls (with a “th”).” And the girl says in perfect English, “Oh, and just why can’t I play?” “Ever theen a girlie fighting Thaethar’s Legionth?” And the other boy says, “Anyway girls cry all the time!” And then she does cry and goes to her mummy who says, “What’s the idea, upsetting little girls?” And then the boy says “Oh yeth, I thuppothe it’th all my fault”.


23.    You can see how, from a very young age, these attitudes get hardcoded. There are differences between boys and girls, men and women, but I think the right approach is not to say that everything can be done equally, but to say that everyone has equal rights. There will be some things where women will be better, there will be some things where men will be better, but we should start out with a perspective that everyone has equal rights.


24.    The early learnings for equality, respect, are important. What do I mean by that? There are some things that people will do things differently and we need to be accepting of that. I once read an article in countries where they prohibit gender-based advertisements. They wanted bricklayers, so they advertised. You can’t say we want man, but men generally may lay bricks, all things being equal, faster than women. So, they had to advertise in a roundabout form, saying “you must be prepared to work stripped down to your waist”. I think we should try and avoid getting into that kind of situation. Or, in the same country, they wanted somebody who was working in a home. A lady was working. They wanted another lady, but they couldn’t advertise for ladies so they said, “you must be prepared to spend the night with another woman”. A lot of men applied. So, we should avoid that kind of extreme political correctness, I think. But we should aim for real equality.



25.    This idea of equality has to be imprinted deeply into our collective consciousness.


26.    It’s got to be taught from a very early age – at home, in schools, in families and communities – that men and women, boys and girls are to be treated equally, and with respect.


27.    I said in Parliament last Friday – respect for women is non-negotiable. Period.


28.    When you internalise that, then society’s whole outlook on a variety of issues relating to men and women can shift.


29.    I also said in Parliament, and I will repeat here, that voyeurism in a university should not just be seen as something that a student commits in a moment of folly. It is a serious violation of a fundamental value. Uploading intimate images of a woman without her consent, engaging in revenge pornography, upskirt filming, all of these should not be seen as “oh well, boys will be boys” or this is something that they did in a rash moment. It should be seen as a serious violation of fundamental values.




30.    On Friday (5 March) in my Ministerial Statement, I set out our philosophy, tough stance against sexual offences, and how we have broadened our protections for women.


31.    I also referred to three specific steps we will take, including stiffening criminal penalties for some offences. Time does not permit me to go into them in detail, but I have set out some in the Annex, not what we are going to do, but what we have done in the last few years.


32.    I also made it clear, that an offender will not receive a lighter sentence simply because he has higher educational qualifications or has better prospects in life. That cannot be an argument made in mitigation to reduce the sentence.


33.    He can pursue his bright prospects, but he should serve his sentence first.


34.    The starting point must be – no excuses, should never have happened. Offenders should expect to face the full force of the law, and I went so far as to say rehabilitation will take second place to dealing with it, and making sure deterrence is there.


35.    That message has to be brought across to all boys and girls



36.    As I said, over the last 10 years, MHA as well as MinLaw have made significant amendments on protections relating to women. [Annex 1] sets out these changes.



37.    In conclusion, as a Government, we will continue to enact laws, implement policies to protect women, and help them reach their fullest potential. Create a framework.


38.    6 months into the process, since the September 2020 kick off, we have had many conversations with partner NGOs, including SCWO. We have Junie here. NTUC, PA Women’s Integration Network, National Youth Council, and Grassroots.


39.    Many more discussions are planned. We are on track for a White Paper to be released later this year.


40.    I invite you all to visit the website link [go.gov.sg/sgwomen] which is on the slide. I would like many of the young women here, and girls who listening online, to tell your friends, take part in it. And not just women, boys have got to be involved in this too. Be part of the conversations, give your feedback.


41.    So, let me close by reiterating my earlier message. Women have to be presented with real choices, unencumbered by unequal expectations on the roles of men and women in society.


42.    We have to recognise as a society that the differences between men and women are to be celebrated, and not to be discriminated.


43.    I look forward to the discussion later. Thank you.