Govt to support caregivers & safeguard fairness in workplaces, but everyone can help advance women's equality: Josephine Teo

The Minister for Communications & Information used her own family and work history to illustrate her points.

Sulaiman Daud | April 06, 2022, 05:52 PM

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The Singapore government will be looking at legislative safeguards to uphold fairness in the workplace between genders and provide more support for caregivers as part of a collective effort to advance the development of women in Singapore society.

Minister for Communications & Information Josephine Teo moved the motion to endorse the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development in Parliament on April 5 and gave the opening speech.

Teo noted the strides in progress that women have made in Singapore society and also highlighted some milestones along the way.

Women's Charter in 1961

The rights situation for women might have been in an unrecognisable state to a modern observer several decades ago.

"Up till a hundred years ago, women were mostly confined to domesticity. Sons had priority for education and parents decided on their children’s marriages. Some women suffered the indignity of being traded like property," Teo said.

She cited her own personal family history to draw a contrast, noting that her own paternal grandmother, her popo, bore witness to the ban on the sale of young women to rich families as "mui tsais" or domestic servants.

This took place in 1932, just under 30 years before the passage of the Women's Charter.

World War 2 would come soon after, with terrible effects:

"During the war, many brave and enterprising women did their utmost to help their families and friends survive the cruel ravages of war: rape and murder, persecution and hunger, and untold personal tragedies.

There were many heroes – and heroines too, including Elizabeth Choy. After the war, women contributed to the rehabilitation efforts, setting up associations and mutual help groups."

Women's Charter passed in 1961

For example, she noted that one of the first things that the People's Action Party (PAP) government did upon assuming office was to pass the Women's Charter in 1961, which makes it older than independent Singapore.

Teo also outlined how the Charter specifically helped women, ensuring their protection and welfare, giving women more autonomy, and changing perceptions of how women were viewed at home and in society.

Progress over the years, more to be done

Singapore has made further progress over the years, with free primary education eventually leading to a strong academic culture for women.

Teo noted that there is an equal enrolment of men and women in university today.

There are also more women now in public and leadership roles, including in politics. Along with the Opposition Members of Parliament, there are currently more women in this current Parliament than before.

Teo also highlighted President Halimah Yacob's role, as well as how she had been a "pillar of strength" during the Covid-19 crisis.

Women life expectancy here is one of the longest in the world, 86, bettered only by Switzerland and Japan by 2020.

The adjusted gender pay gap has narrowed, halving to around 4 per cent over two decades. Singapore also has more than double the global average of women CEOs.

However, Teo said more can be done to better the lot of women in Singapore.

Some problems persist

Teo listed some challenges that women may still face today.

Teo said women have to wage multiple battles, such as finding the time to take on multiple roles and responsibilities, fighting for recognition for their achievements and grappling with societal expectations of their appearance and behaviour.

Teo also highlighted the threat of sexual harassment, now more pervasive in a digital world.

"To help women advance, we must not shy away from dealing with these battles. On the contrary, we must always see the progress of women as a journey without end, where every achievement is a foundation to aim for new highs," Teo said.

The focus, she said, must be on promoting equal partnerships between men and women, and catalysing collective action.

Family history

Teo then spoke in Mandarin of her own experiences as a working mother.

She said she "struggled with guilt", worrying about the possibility of her children falling ill while she was away on work trips or falling behind in their studies because she wasn't at home enough to guide them.

On the other hand, she also worried about her responsibilities affecting her job, as her boss may notice "her divided attention" and that opportunities might be redirected.

Teo said these questions troubled all women, and she was not unique in this regard.

Part of the solution lies in additional legislative efforts the White Paper provides for, such as ensuring fairness in the workplace and support for caregivers.

Strong support network is important

However, the government can only do so much. Teo said no law or tripartite guidelines can dictate the norms in a family or the detailed practices of workplaces.

Teo also credited her family members, such as her husband for being an "involved father" and her own father for supporting her decision to enter public life.

She spoke of her former boss Lee Yi Shyan, who was previously a Member of Parliament for East Coast and a Senior Minister of State for Trade & Industry, who allowed her to work from home long before this was a common practice.

Teo also mentioned Lim Swee Say and Phillip Yeo as bosses who accommodated her personal circumstances.

Collective action from colleagues, family members and others is, therefore, necessary to complement the support provided by the government.

Concluding her speech, Teo said:

"This White Paper reaffirms our shared vision of a fairer and more inclusive society. This will only happen when men and women partner each other as equals in every domain.

[It] depends on how we, as family members, share in caregiving and act as role models for our children. It depends on how we, as a community, signal our protection and respect for our women.

It depends on how we, as employers, empower women colleagues to dream bigger and fly higher. Women in Singapore can continue to triumph, not through our words, but our deeds. This is our collective mission."

The motion was unanimously endorsed by Parliament.

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