Gender bias deeply embedded in social practices, but education & technology are driving change: Ong Ye Kung

Ong called on men to be more supportive to women, and to see themselves as "equal partners" in society.

Sulaiman Daud | Low Jia Ying | April 07, 2022, 11:55 AM

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Health Minister Ong Ye Kung urged men in Singapore to be stakeholders in creating a "fair and equal society".

Directly addressing men in a part of his speech during a debate on the White Paper on women's development in Parliament yesterday (Apr. 5), Ong also called on men to be more supportive to women, and to see themselves as "equal partners" in society.

Ong says men should try and see things from a woman's point of view

Ong said that at the most basic level, men should respect women through their "words and actions".

He said what may be "less obvious" to men was the "occasional insensitive remark that reflects an unconscious bias or stereotype".

He then called on men, as a fellow man, to understand and see things from a woman's point of view, and added:

"Stop mansplaining, using diminutives, or doing things in the presence of women that they feel embarrassed by."

He further called on men to be more proactive in supporting women, by taking on tasks that society expects women to do as a matter of course, such as household chores or taking care of children.

Acts of courtesy are welcome

However, Ong said men could also "take a step further" and be chivalrous towards women. Ong described himself as "old-fashioned" and said there was much virtue in extending a special courtesy to women.

"To be honest, I often feel uneasy [that] just because I'm a Minister, people, including my female staff, will attempt to carry my bag or open the door for me. I will always try to stop them and offer to open the door for them instead, and often reminding them 'etiquette comes before protocol'," he said.

He added that such acts of courtesy do not lessen the person on the receiving end, they don't imply that the recipient cannot do such things themselves, but add a certain "appreciation and complementarity" to the relationship between men and women.

Be respectful towards others

Ong also directly addressed the youths of Singapore, calling on his experience as the former Education Minister.

He said that sexual offences are a "rising problem" among their generation, and added, "The boys might be uncomfortable hearing this, but I think it is important you hear this. Never be part of the problem, but be part of the solution."

He urged them to be kind to one other, afford each other respect and courtesy, listen to everyone's views and ensure that games and jokes are kept appropriate and tasteful, "not from your point of view, but theirs."

Traditional societal expectations of women are increasingly under scrutiny

Ong said that it was through his daughters' eyes that he better understood the lived experience of social expectations and prejudices.

Sharing some personal anecdotes of his experience raising two daughters, Ong said that relatives would frequently ask him, 'When are you having sons?'.

His wife would reply that she was happy with two girls. But Ong wondered what his daughters would make of such conversations.

His elder daughter was a young girl when she learnt and was shocked by the concept of dowries.

Trying to explain, Ong's wife responded that it was a Chinese tradition that the girl "marries out" of the family.

Ong recounted that this seemed to upset his young daughter even more, who exclaimed: "So this is like a transaction -- I will be sold?"

He then attempted to "make things better" by explaining that the money flowed both ways, that in some cultures the bride's family provides the dowry in recognition that the husband incurs costs in taking care of the woman.

"It wasn’t a helpful intervention. I would say it was a very badly answered SQ. We left it like that," Ong said, referencing the supplementary questions that MPs would ask in Parliament.

Education, technology are 'great equalisers'

Ong said that human society has long been organised along gendered roles, starting from hunter-gatherer tribes in antiquity, and such deeply embedded practices cannot be undone in one generation.

However, he recognises that such views are being challenged by education and technology, which have become "great equalisers".

"With equal opportunities for education and development, women are now able to enter vocations and professions that were historically male-dominated.

Education as a driving force of equality is turbo-charged by the advancement of technology. What used to require physical strength can now be automated or performed by machines.

Neither men nor women are better at numerical calculation, or more empathetic or more meticulous. It is individuals that have varied strengths and weaknesses."

Ong cited his experience as the former Transport Minister, where he met many women engineers, and his fellow Sembawang GRC Members of Parliament Mariam Jaffar and Poh Li San, a trained engineer and a helicopter pilot respectively.

Status quo being challenged, but inherent differences between men and women do exist

Ong recognised that there were biases in society that needed to be corrected, but that there were "inherent differences" between men and women that "cannot be ignored and should continue to exist". This makes the push for equality a "nuanced and long-term" effort.

"Many women I know, including my wife, are against gender biasness in society, but they will also fiercely guard the difference between women and men," Ong said.

Ong quoted the late Mother Teresa, who said:

‘I do not understand why some people are saying that women and men are exactly the same and are denying the beautiful differences between men and women...

As I often say to people who tell me that they would like to serve the poor as I do, “What I can do, you cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something beautiful for God.” It is just this way with the differences between women and men.’

He cited examples like how a daughter will always have a "special bond" with her parents, which is different to a son's relationship with his parents.

He also said that a mother's maternal instincts are "non-substitutable", stemming from having to carry the child for nine months, which manifests in mothers wanting to nurse their children after birth.

Ong then quoted Hollywood star Denzel Washington, who said, ‘A mother is a son’s first true love (when he’s born). A a mother’s last true love (when she dies).’

White Paper strikes a balance between championing equality in opportunities and recognising differences between men and women

Due to these differences, Ong said women had "special roles" to play in their families and society.

"However, where does recognising inherent differences stop, and biasness and stereotypes begin?  It is a very difficult and sensitive question, which I have no answer to," he said.

Ong said the recommendations in the White Paper took special care in championing equality, especially in opportunities, while also recognising the differences between men and women.

The paper includes "practical initiatives" like anti-discriminatory measures in the workplace, flexible working arrangements, stronger support for caregivers, allowing elective egg freezing, and upholding stiffer penalties for sexual offences.

After a 9.5 hour debate in Parliament, the White Paper was unanimously endorsed by Parliament.

Watch Ong's full speech here.

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Top photo via MCI/YouTube