On Sunday, September 20, 2020, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam delivered a speech at a virtual dialogue session titled "Conversations on Women's Development".
In his speech, Shanmugam announced a comprehensive review of issues affecting gender inequality in Singapore, leading to a white paper next year. The White Paper will aim to address women-related issues that Singaporeans are concerned with and be a further roadmap for progress.
The speech was divided into three main portions: the scope of the review, history of women's rights in Singapore, and Singapore's results over the years.
Here, we reproduce the transcript of his speech in full:
Delivered by K Shanmugam
Parliamentary colleagues Xueling, Yen Ling, Rahayu, NGO partners, participants.
We are gathering here today, to speak on a very fundamental, important topic – Women and Gender equality.
It is something that has been important to us, for a long time. Many steps have been taken and much progress has been made. But despite the progress, it is still work-in-progress.
The question to ask is what more needs to be done now?
Cultural, social, structural hurdles remain
We have looked at the progress of women in many areas. Women’s education, educational achievements, women in workforce, women on Boards, women in politics and several other areas. These are all very important matrices. But there remain cultural, social, structural hurdles. We need to deal with those.
One of the ways of dealing with these hurdles, I would suggest, is we approach the issue by way of asking a fundamental, philosophical question.
When we speak about gender equality, let’s go beyond matrices of performance in specific fields. Let’s ask: The idea of gender equality, should it not be imprinted deeply into our collective consciousness?
The answer must be yes.
Every boy and girl must grow up imbibing the value of gender equality. They need to be taught from a very early age that boys and girls are to be treated equally, and very importantly, with respect. It has to be a deep mindset change.
When you internalise that, what then happens?
Society’s whole outlook on a variety of gender issues are much easier to change. Sexual violence is then not just an offence that a man commits against a woman. It is a deep violation of fundamental values. Voyeurism is not just a prank that a young student commits in a moment of folly. It is a deeply offensive act, that violates fundamental values. Differential treatment in the office based on gender, is not okay. It is a deep violation of fundamental values.
It must lead us to think, not in terms of accepting differentials, and then seeing what can be done to correct that. We must instead start with accepting equality, and any differential treatment then has to be justified.
And equality must not just be formal, but substantive, and takes into account the unique challenges, needs that women face, and the specific effects that policies have on them, to truly level the playing field.
In this context, I would like to quote from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She passed away two days ago, sadly.
Let me quote. She said: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” She was a true titan in the fight for Women’s Rights in the United States.
Gender equality is going to take a lot of effort, but I believe we can do it. It is going to require a change in our cultural value system.
How would this work?
Take penalties for sexual violence for example. It should not be approached simply as penalising an offence. It must also be seen as penalising a gross violation of fundamental values. That means the usual mitigating factors will have less force when they are viewed in the light of an act that is a breach of fundamental values.
The starting point should be that this should not have happened. No excuses, period. Excuses that a person is young, he is in University and so on, should be of less weight.
For that to be so, the understanding, learning, internalisation should be deep. It has to be built-up, taught from an early age. Society has to put a premium on that. Every boy and girl should grow up knowing that this is completely unacceptable.
The approach should not be that it is just another offence. And our laws, penalties, mitigating factors, and whether some factors are mitigating factors, should all reflect our values and mores as a society.
Specifically, on offences against young children, we take a very serious view. We all know young girls are often targets of violence. Young boys too, but proportionately, more girls are victims.
Specific to young children, we also need to look at a few points. The context often lets perpetrators get away scot-free. Sometimes, offences are in family situations, children are too fearful to report. Evidence from young children often is difficult to rely on. We have to deal with this.
Our penalties are stiff, as they are. Amendments were made to the Penal Code last year, to enhance penalties to give even more protection and higher penalties.
But if this review that is going to be undertaken suggests that we should make them even stiffer, we will do so. Also, what happens to perpetrators after their release? That has got to be thought through too.
Reasons for review, especially with a series of voyeurism cases
Now, why are we doing this at this point? Let me explain.
Many will recall the series of voyeurism cases in the universities and then earlier this year, the case relating to the Dentistry student. There was much discussion on the penalties the defendants should face. And there was much discussion on the relevance of factors - like “the person who committed the act has a bright future”, “it was one rash act” and so on.
How much should these count in mitigation? There was a lot of discussion on that. And, the takeaway for me, it set me thinking: What is the framework and the perspective we need, in approaching these cases, these situations?
Let me say, in terms of the penalties, we have made them stiffer for a series of offences. We created new offences on grooming, but those are the relatively easier parts.
As I said, the discussions set me thinking: Is there a more philosophical, fundamental way of approaching this - to deal with the problem, beyond just increasing the penalties? To try and make sure that in the first place, people are aware that they shouldn’t do it, and how society views these offences.
Today’s event, and the idea of a thorough review - the idea of analysing the issues from the perspective of gender equality and gender respect being a fundamental value - arose from that thinking.
As we look at these points, we also need to look at some related issues. We have, over the years, had discussions on the structural issues that affect women, that affect their ability to achieve their full potential.
Scope of Review
The team will take a thorough look at all of these issues. The review will be led by MOSes Low Yen Ling and Sun Xueling as well as Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam.
Broadly, it can be categorised into the following aspects.
The fundamental mindset change that I spoke about, how can this start from a young age?
Then specific contexts. The home, protecting women from family violence, intimate partner violence, the integral roles played by women at home as wives, mothers, caregivers, homemakers; and at the school and workplace, the way women are thought about, and then specifically, protecting women from sexual harassment, assault, workplace discrimination, equality of opportunities; and the community, gender stereotyping, manner of speaking, way of thinking.
Following today’s dialogue, our partner NGOs will lead a series of engagements. It starts with SCWO, NTUC Women’s Committee, PA-Women Integration Network (PA-WIN) and others.
Recommendations will form basis of a White Paper
Engagements will take place from October onwards. We will invite participants from different walks of life.
Recommendations from the engagement sessions will form the basis of a White Paper. We are hoping to deliver it in the first half of next year. The White Paper will aim to address women-related issues that Singaporeans are concerned with. It will aim to be a further roadmap for progress, a pathway towards greater gender equality.
In this context, it is useful to look at the difficulties that earlier generations of women faced, and that’s quite well brought out in this clip from an old British comedy. Let me play that.
Some of us will recall this from the 1980s. The clip that was just played was from “Yes Minister”, a very interesting series. This was the UK in the 1980s.
But, as you can imagine, things have changed quite a bit, since about 40 years ago. Much progress has been achieved since then. But will we say, that the kind of comments and instincts that you see in the clip have been completely eradicated? Will we say that? Maybe the women in the audience can answer that question, when you start discussing.
Let me, in this context, also show you a short comic strip from Asterix, one of my favourite comic strips. Some background for those who don’t know, this is about the famous Gallic village, and horror of horrors, they are employing a new Bard, replacing Cacophonix. A woman bard. Unheard of, right?
Asterix, the hero of the series, is befuddled. A woman bard? He asks Getafix, the doctor, the druid who brews the secret potion, is that possible, a woman bard? See the response. Read the response.
Asterix asks, and Getafix tells him this is the new world, where anything is possible. Women can do anything and everything. But then Asterix asks, “So we can have women druids?” Getafix says, “Be serious, Asterix.” So, how does this attitude start?
Let’s see another strip. The opening of this particular comic, is of boys and girls. “Go away, girls can’t play,” says the boy. The girl says, “Why can’t I play?” and you see what happens. So, it starts from a very young age.
As we talk about this, I think these things bring out culturally why certain things happen, how certain values, and what they might need to change to make further progress.
History of Women’s Rights in Singapore
But as we talk about the review, I think it is useful to reflect also on the journey so far. That can inform us on how we can go forward.
This review is a continuation of a journey that started many years ago.
A key point in that journey is the Women’s Charter. I would say “turning point”. It was passed by the Legislative Assembly in 1961, before our independence.
The Women’s Charter was a landmark legislation during its time, almost 60 years ago.
It provided for monogamous marriage; the rights and duties of married persons at a time when polygamous marriage was commonplace; and recognised that the rights of a wife, including rights to own property, were not inferior to the husband and provided for a moral foundation for marriage.
It laid out the rule for divorces, maintenance of wives and children, and strengthened the laws relating to existing offences against women and girls.
As the primary piece of legislation governing women’s rights, the Charter has been amended over the years. Recent amendments in 2016 and 2019 were made to better support vulnerable women, girls in family violence, crisis situations. It strengthened law enforcement against online vice.
Other legislative changes to protect women's interests
In addition to the Women’s Charter, we have also added new laws and created a legal framework to protect women’s interests. This has been one of my key priorities as Minister for Home Affairs, and Minister for Law.
The legislative changes that were made include amending the Criminal Procedure Code and the Evidence Act in 2018 to reduce the trauma inflicted on victims – sexual victims - when participating in the criminal justice process; prevent counsel from asking intrusive questions during cross-examination and conducting hearings behind closed doors.
Last year, the Penal Code was amended.
There are new offences for technology-facilitated sexual crime – for example, voyeurism, distribution of intimate images/recordings, including the option of caning for these offences, to signal the severity. We created new offences to better protect minors from sexual predators, and repealed marital immunity for rape.
This year, POHA was amended, and made it possible for victims, primarily women, to obtain protection orders against harassment, stalking, online bullying. We also further amended the legislation to streamline and expedite the process – made it easier, less expensive for women to obtain help. Intimate Partner Violence - we also dealt with it this year under POHA.
Previously, only married women could obtain Personal Protection Orders. Now, intimate partners in an unmarried relationship can also seek help. Maximum penalties were doubled for offences against intimate partners, whether they were dating, married or in a relationship.
We also made the process easier for women to lodge reports and obtain justice.
In terms of processes, the OneSafe Centre was established by the Police for victims of sexual assault to undergo forensic and medical examination in one place, with greater privacy. An information pamphlet on investigation and the court process for victims were designed by the Police and Ministry of Law, to educate victims on the process.
The Family Violence Taskforce, in which MOS Sun Xueling is involved, started earlier this year, to combat family violence and protect victims, because family violence disproportionately affects women as victims. This Taskforce will also complete its study and provide recommendations next year.
One of the metrics I pay close attention to as Minister for Home Affairs is the sense of safety and security that our people have. SPF’s 2018 public perception survey shows that 93% of our women felt safe in Singapore. We have to ensure that our laws continue to protect this sense of safety and security.
I spoke earlier, briefly about equality of opportunities in the economy for women. Women do well in many areas. Medicine, law, accountancy, finance. All these, and in various aspects of the knowledge economy, women do very well.
Areas for improvement
But there are areas where it is still work in progress.
So, the Diversity Action Committee (DAC) was set up in 2014 to address the specific issue of under- representation of women in board positions. It’s been renamed as the Council for Board Diversity (CBD) last year. Before DAC, women on the boards of the top 100 companies on the SGX was 7.5%. That was in 2013. After DAC, it increased to 16.2%, as of last year. Again, work in progress.
Part of the issues were structural. Working women are often forced to make a choice between work and family, a difficult decision that men seldom have to confront.
To help, the Government has promoted flexible work arrangements to give working mothers more choices to remain in the workforce, while balancing family responsibilities. Improved accessibility and affordability of infant-care and childcare will help to give working mothers more choices to remain in the workforce, and peace of mind when they go to work.
Recently, the budget to incentivise companies to adopt flexible work arrangements was increased from $30M to $100M. Also encouraging greater sharing of parental responsibilities.
Fathers can now take up to eight weeks of leave to care for children, in the first year of birth.
We want women to be presented with real choices, unencumbered by unequal expectations on the roles of men and women in society.
Let me quote again from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to underscore the role that men can play, in recognising the equal role of women, helping them fulfil their potential.
On her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, she said this: “I have had the great fortune to share a life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s.”
Now, I spoke about the efforts over the years. Through our collective efforts, the position of women in our society has improved significantly.
If you look at the United Nations Human Development Report 2019, last year, Singapore ranked 11th out of 162 countries for gender equality.
If you look at the Global Innovation Index 2020, Singapore ranked 1st for proportion of women employed with advanced degrees.
You look at education – literacy rate of 96% in 2019, compared to 86% in 1995. 48.5% of graduates were women in 2018.
If you look at employment – 73.3% of female employment in 2019 at the prime working ages of 25-64, and in representation in Senior Management, women held 16.2% of board seats, as I said earlier, in Singapore’s top 100-listed companies.
The Credit Suisse Gender 3000 Report puts Singapore as tied with Italy for 1st position in the highest proportion of companies with women CEOs.
And women in Parliament has been a good story. There are 28 women out of 95 seats, almost 30%. It’s higher than the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world average of 24.5%.
The Way Forward
I think we have done fairly well, but indices only provide one part of the picture. What also matters is the lived reality of women in Singapore. When you examine that, I think more can still be done. The next bound of change can only come from the mindset change I spoke about.
In conclusion, let me say this. A society which does not recognise the equal position of women, is a society which can never live up to its potential. Even more so in Singapore, where people are our only assets.
Today’s dialogue marks the continuation of a journey to examine the obstacles that remain in the path of gender equality. I encourage all of you to participate actively and make your views known.
The outcome of this process is not just a White Paper with recommendations, but it has got to be a clear message to every young girl today, and in the future, that Singapore will always be a place where they can achieve their fullest potential, fulfil their hopes and fulfil their dreams.
Top photo via K Shanmugam on Facebook