The recent debate over changes to the Elected Presidency has made many Singaporeans re-examine the many key values that Singapore holds dear. Issues of meritocracy, affirmative action and ethnic tensions have been discussed widely in Parliament and in the press. To be sure, Singapore is founded on the princples of meritocracy and multiraciality, which makes it even more critical to scrutinise institutions and keep these values in practice. But when addressing the issue of representation in the government, Singapore tends to overlook an important factor, and that is gender equality or rather women’s representation in the government.
Studies have shown that there are several benefits associated broadly with a balanced workforce and they include a more cooperative feature, better work-life balance and more support in general for social welfare policies on family and income redistribution. Women can also bring new insights and perspectives, which can enrich the scope and content of policy debate, thus making the government more responsive to the needs of all people.
There are several reasons why female representation is not often brought up as a point of contention. Firstly, gender has never been the source of tension in Singapore, unlike ethnicity. The government has taken great pains to impart the lessons from the racial riots in 1964 as a constant reminder that peace should never be taken for granted. “Regardless of race, langauge or religion…” This line in the pledge of Singapore shows the emphasis on ethnicity and religious cleavages by the Singaporean government. Gender inequality on the other hand, is unlikely to manifest into any sort of overt tension against the government. Thus, it becomes not a priority.
Secondly, women in Singapore have equal parity to men in having their basic needs met. Statistics from the Ministry of Social and Family Development show that women have a higher life expectancy than men by about four years and also outnumber men in enrollment for tertiary education. As of 2016, the rate of women participation in the workforce was 43.4% with a gender wage gap of 10.3%.
For these reasons, Singapore does not implement any gender quotas in either the bureaucracy or politics because it believes that its women are capable of attaining top level positions based on equal opportunity. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2009 noted that there is no affirmative action or quota system in place so that Singaporean women can achieve top positions based on their ‘own merits’ and become role models for younger ones.
But inequalities still exist. At the top level of political representation, there has been few women that hold positions with decision-making power. As of 2015, only 13.5 per cent of Cabinet are women, well below the recommended 30% women representation by international scholars. But more dismally, there is only one women full Minister, out of 20, capable of heading a ministry for the past 5 years. For example, Grace Fu as the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth. Additionally, when women do head a ministry, they tend to be placed in portfolios that are seen as ‘softer’ or less significant ministries. Rather, men have always headed the key ministries that are critical to the survival of Singapore such as Ministry of Defence, Home Affairs and Trade & Industry.
Yet, there are still obstacles that impede the entrance of women into the workforce and into top level positions such as familial concerns. The role of the woman as the caretaker of the family and the man as the main breadwinner is still a dominant narrative in our society. There needs to be a greater balance and rethinking in gender roles and family responsibility to allow for increased women participation. As long as the government is discussing issues of representation, it is also important not to neglect half of the population as well. Greater representation from all kinds of minorities should be encouraged for ethnic, religious or gender. Perhaps it is time that the government should look into addressing and encouraging more women to be play a greater role in leading our nation.