Comment: Why aren't we looking at a woman for S'pore's next Prime Minister?

Heng Swee Keat is stepping aside. Why aren't we discussing if a woman could be the next PM?

Sulaiman Daud | April 17, 2021, 09:00 AM

There's a job available, I hear the role is good but the competition is intense. To get it, you need to be a member of parliament from the People's Action Party (PAP), ideally have experience running a ministry, a man, seemingly. Haven't you noticed that amidst the speculation of who will be the next Prime Minister-in-Waiting, all the names offered up were men?

Let me first add a caveat that people who are too focused on the headline will miss. So if you see comments to that effect, you'll know they haven't even read the third paragraph. Here goes.

I am not saying a woman should become Prime Minister solely because she's a woman. As always, the best candidate for the top job should be the best person for the job. Also, while I recognise that Halimah Yacob is our first female president and head of state, this doesn't necessarily exclude a women to be the head of government role.

Now with that out of the way, let's try and parse the reasons why no one thinks it's a realistic possibility that a woman will succeed Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister. least, not yet.

Not many women in Cabinet

Let's assume the next PM comes from the current Cabinet, which has 20 members, including PM Lee.

Out of these 20, only three are women, which means just 15 per cent of the Cabinet's slate of full ministers are women.

  • Josephine Teo, Manpower Minister, Second Home Affairs Minister
  • Grace Fu, Sustainability & Environment Minister
  • Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Second Finance Minister, Second National Development Minister

So if we're going purely by numbers alone, the fact is that women in Cabinet are outnumbered by their male counterparts.

Even if you expand the definition of "Cabinet" to include office-holders (i.e. Senior Ministers of State to Parliamentary Secretaries), it has only improved slightly.

Out of 37 political office-holders, nine are women.

They include Senior Ministers of State like Sim Ann and Amy Khor; Ministers of State like Sun Xueling, Low Yen Ling and Gan Siow Huang; and Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam.

That's a rate of 24.3 per cent, or just under one-quarter of the total number of office-holders. So there aren't that many women to choose from in the first place.

History against them

But even the fact of having multiple full women ministers in Cabinet is something relatively new, and only during PM Lee's premiership.

The first time in Singapore history that the government had two full women ministers was 2017, when Teo was promoted to Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

She was concurrently appointed to the posts of Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Manpower.

She joined Grace Fu, who had earlier been promoted to full minister in 2015, helming the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Before Fu, there were only two women who served as full ministers in the Singapore Cabinet.

One was Lim Hwee Hua, who was Minister in the Prime Minister's Office as well as Second Minister for Finance and Transport. However, after having been defeated in Aljunied GRC in the 2011 GE, she retired from politics.

The other was Seet Ai Mee, who was made Acting Minister for Community Development before the 1991 GE.

She was widely expected to be promoted to a full minister if she had won, but she lost her seat to Ling How Doong of the Singapore Democratic Party.

This means that there was no woman minister in Singapore before the 1990s.

Experience by ministry

Ever since Heng Swee Keat took himself out of the running, there have been many, many column inches devoted to the experience of his potential successors.

Much like a hiring manager scanning the resume of a job applicant, political observers examined their various stints in charge of the different ministries, along with their other credentials.

Experience running a "heavyweight" ministry is seen as a point in their favour, those which deal with matters of national security (e.g. Home Affairs, Defence), the economy (e.g. Finance, Trade & Industry) or both (e.g. Foreign Affairs).

In other words, "heavyweight" ministries can also be defined as those whose ministers have previously run another ministry.

For instance, K Shanmugam was a Law Minister before helming the Foreign Affairs Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry. Vivian Balakrishnan led the Ministry for the Environment and Water Resources; and Community Development, Youth and Sports, before taking on the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

But women, by and large, have not helmed such heavyweight ministries yet.

Even if you go by budget, the top five ministries in terms of expenditure were (looking at the revised FY2020 numbers, page 15):

  • Health
  • Defence
  • Education
  • Trade & Industry
  • Transport

None of them have been helmed by a woman in Singapore's history.

Candidates themselves

It would seem that women have a steep hill to climb, with numbers and history not in their favour.

But let's take a look at the three ministers themselves.

Josephine Teo - First minister who anchored & won a GRC

Josephine Teo is 52 years old and the current Manpower Minister, as well as Second Minister for Home Affairs.

In terms of age, Teo is the youngest among the three female ministers, and is around the same age as 4G frontrunners Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung.

She has experience in various portfolios, having also served as Senior Minister of State for Finance, Foreign Affairs and Transport.

Teo is also the first woman minister to anchor a GRC and win it. She stood in Jalan Besar GRC in GE2020, where her team secured a strong 65 per cent of the vote against a People's Voice team.

However, whether fairly or unfairly, Teo has caught public attention for making a number of statements some deemed controversial.

Whether it's the "small space" comment from 2016, or saying in May 2020 that she has not come across a single migrant worker who has demanded an apology, Teo has the distinction of someone that almost every Singaporean has an opinion about.

That would be useful for politicians elsewhere, but less so in placid Singapore.

During the latest PAP Central Executive Committee (CEC) election, Teo did not get enough votes to get into the top 12, and was ultimately co-opted into the CEC.

She is not a PAP office-holder, but was appointed as the chair of the PAP's Women's Wing.

Grace Fu - First female minister who helms two different ministries

Grace Fu is older than Teo at 57, and with age cited as a reason by Heng, that's another mark against her chances.

But Fu arguably has more ministerial experience, entering politics in 2006 and holding various offices in the Education, National Development, Information, Communication & the Arts and the Environment & Water Resources ministries.

She was promoted to full minister in 2012, as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, and then helmed the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth in 2015. In Parliament, she was appointed Leader of the House.

In GE2020, Fu won her Yuhua SMC contest against an SDP opponent with over 70 per cent of the vote. In the subsequent reshuffle, she was given a new role as the newly-renamed Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, which appears to be a priority of the PAP's.

In the recent CEC election, Fu did well enough to be directly elected to the CEC.

Fu also holds the position of Organising Secretary in the CEC.

Indranee Rajah - Parliamentary combatant

Indranee Rajah is another political veteran, having entered politics in 2001 and standing with Lee Kuan Yew in Tanjong Pagar GRC. She is 58 years old.

As a political office-holder, she held various positions with the Ministries of Law, Education and Finance. She was promoted to full minister in 2018 as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, where she oversees the National Population and Talent division. She is also concurrently Second Minister for Finance and National Development.

In Parliament, Indranee served as Deputy Speaker and was recently appointed Leader of the House after winning her GE2020 contest in Tanjong Pagar GRC with 63 per cent against a PSP team.

Indranee also drew attention in Parliament for her clashes with the Workers' Party (WP) Members of Parliament. She engaged in a back-and-forth with WP's Pritam Singh over the Keppel Offshore & Marine Ltd. corruption case in 2018.

In 2019, Indranee also confronted Singh over the WP's "moral authority" in hypothetical cases of misconduct, given the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council situation.

And in 2021, she questioned Singh after he tussled with Heng about the WP's suggestion for a parliamentary budget office.

If the mark of a potential Prime Minister is their ability to cross swords with the opposition in Parliament, Indranee would be higher up in consideration.

However, like Teo, Indranee did not receive enough votes in the CEC election to be directly elected, and was co-opted.

Change needed first

Despite their accomplishments, no one is considering any of the three women ministers as realistic candidates to take Heng's spot.

Perhaps in the future the prospect of a woman PM may not seem so far-fetched. GE2020 saw the highest number of women MPs with 27 out of 93 elected seats. Hazel Poa, Non-Constituency MP from the PSP, is another addition.

Still, at 29 per cent, there just aren't that many women in politics right now. In March earlier this year, an attendee at an NUS forum asked Minister K Shanmugam whether Singapore is indeed ready for a woman as PM.

He replied that while the party wants more women MPs and ministers, and are actively scouting talent, the burdens of the job is a daunting prospect for many people.

He added:

"If you have an active professional life, you are also spending your weekends preparing for them...And then at night, three times a week, you are in your constituency. Weekends, you are in your constituency, parliamentary sessions you are juggling… it takes a toll on you, on your family life, on your work."

But that may be a Singaporean hurdle, as opposed to an Asian one. While one might say women in politics is a "Western ideal", tell that to the people of Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh and India, all of whom have had women as heads of government. Both Hong Kong and Taiwan are also currently led by women.

For now, it would be highly unexpected if a woman succeeded Heng as the leader of PAP's 4G team -- and the next PM-in-waiting.

Top image from Indranee Rajah and Josephine Teo's Facebook pages and