PM Lee Hsien Loong's speech at the Closing Session of the Conversations on Singapore Women's Development held virtually on 18 September 2021.
Ms Junie Foo, President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, partners, participants and colleagues.
I am very happy to join you for this closing session of the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development. It wraps up a significant series of engagements. These conversations are part of a broader Government effort to engage Singaporeans on important issues, to listen to views and consider them carefully when crafting and adjusting our policies. We are grateful to our partners on this year-long journey, including the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) and many of their member organisations, NTUC Women and Family Unit, PA Women’s Integration Network Council and MOSs Xueling and Yen Ling, and Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu who led the effort. A big thank you also to our participants and everyone who has played a part.
Singapore women have made tremendous progress over three generations today. Young girls today grow up in an environment that their grandmothers could not have imagined when they themselves were children.
Like in many other societies of the time, women were not highly regarded in Pre-independence Singapore. Many parents did not send their daughters to school. They expected female children to be filial daughters, dutiful wives, and nurturing mothers. There is an old Chinese saying: 嫁出去的女儿就像泼出去 的水 – “Marrying out your daughter is like throwing water out of the house”. She leaves home and she is lost to you, so there is no point wasting resources on her. Thus most women worked in informal jobs or not at all. At the same time, men were allowed to take multiple wives, underscoring women’s subordinate position in a marriage. My mother, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, felt strongly about the unequal treatment of women. In 1959 she made the first and only political speech in her life and it was on raising the status of women. I quote her: “Women and their families must be protected against unscrupulous husbands who treat their wives as chattels …” Chattels means personal property which they owned.
From the very start, the PAP believed women were the equal half of our society. There is another well-known Chinese saying, which Junie said just now, sometimes attributed to Mao Zedong 妇女能顶半边天 – “Women hold up half of the sky”. Indeed, my father valued the opinions and advice of his life partner in every aspect of his life – bringing up the children, taking care of the family’s needs, sizing up people, discussing issues of the day. He loved and respected my mother. She was always his wise confidante, his equal. As he said in his eulogy to her: “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life.”
Because Mr Lee and our founding leaders were determined to build a fairer and more equal society, they moved swiftly to protect women’s basic rights and interests. In 1961, the PAP government passed the Women’s Charter. The Charter institutionalised the equal standing of men and women in marriage and provided for the welfare and protection of women in Singapore. Year after year, the progress continued. Healthcare services for women improved. Family Service Centres (FSCs) and crisis shelters were set up to support vulnerable women and families in need. The Women’s Charter was periodically updated, to keep the institution of the family a strong pillar of our society. Most importantly, we implemented universal education, so that both boys and girls could attend school. 60 years ago, only three in ten women were literate, compared to seven in ten men. Today, everybody goes to school, and nine in ten young women have post-secondary or higher education – on par with their male counterparts. Compulsory schooling not only educated our women, but also levelled the playing field for them. As the economy developed, more women were able to enter the workforce and work full time. They contributed to the economy and gained autonomy and opportunities in their lives that had been denied them before.
Educating women has had far reaching social consequences. Relationships between spouses have become more equal. More men are taking on domestic responsibilities. Fathers have become more involved in raising their children. Helping them with homework. Bringing them to the doctor when they are ill or changing their diapers! Through their example to their children, fathers and mothers are bringing about a generational change towards sharing responsibility in the household and raising a family.
Impetus for Conversation
But the journey continues. While women’s standing in Singapore has improved greatly, societal attitudes towards women have not fully modernised. Expectations are still often not quite equal. At home, women tend to shoulder a heavier share of domestic responsibilities, even if men are starting to do more. At workplaces, women still encounter pre-conceived notions, role and gender stereotypes. If they are too gentle, they get bulldozed over by male colleagues. Too firm, and they are resented for being too bossy, sometimes even by female subordinates and while the incidence of crimes against females is low in Singapore, it is not zero. All these remind us that we still need to make more progress in the way men and women treat each other, and the sort of society we want to be.
That was why we launched the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development to bring together different groups of Singaporeans, to tap their diverse experiences, delve deeper into these important issues and discuss systematically how we can help Singapore women make further progress and take their rightful place in society.
I am glad that nearly 6,000 people from all walks of life participated. Both men and women across 160 conversations. Many more gave feedback online. Several organisations, including the PAP Women’s Wing, Young PAP and the SCWO, submitted well-researched and thoughtful recommendations. The strong response despite the pandemic shows that these issues matter to Singaporeans.
One point emerged clearly from the Conversations – that as our society advances, so must our mindsets. It is not something easily done overnight, but we must keep on pushing. Our policies and programmes will nudge behaviour, gradually change attitudes, and enable us to make lasting progress.
In particular, we must continue to stress and strengthen the ethos of fairness and justice in our society where men and women partner each other as equals, progress together and pursue their aspirations freely and to the fullest and where we take care of the vulnerable amongst us.
What priority areas were on people’s minds? MOS Xueling has mentioned several, arising from the Conversations. Let me talk about three of them.
First, more equal opportunities at the workplace.
In particular, women should have real choices between work and family commitments. Women’s responsibilities at home can spill-over to affect their career progression. Some women need more flexibility at work, or they get forced to find workarounds to fulfil their familial responsibilities. Unfortunately, this can feed perceptions that women are less committed to their careers. Some employers are still reluctant to hire, promote, or groom female employees, particularly mothers or those planning to be mothers. Sometimes these are misunderstandings that can be corrected, but in other cases they are serious enough to constitute workplace discrimination and this is unjust. Singapore women are equally capable as the men. They should have equal opportunities to prove themselves, and reach their fullest potential. We must not let our prejudices become obstacles to women’s progress.
We will protect women better against discrimination or unfair treatment at the workplace, and other groups too, who may experience discrimination at work. I announced at the recent National Day Rally that the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices will be elevated and formalised into law. This is a major to level the playing field for female employees.
Besides legislating for fair treatment, we should also find solutions to the practical problems faced by working women, to make things easier both for them and their employers. For example, improving childcare arrangements. In the last few years, the government has invested heavily in pre-school to make it much more accessible and affordable. We are providing heavy subsidies, and creating more places for infant- and child-care services. So that parents have a practical solution for childcare, and can go to work with peace of mind. Employers, too, need to do their part. For instance, to make it easier for mothers to come “back-to-work” after having kids. Or better still, encourage them not to leave the workforce in the first place. Offering more flexible work arrangements will make a difference. Because of COVID-19, many more employers have been doing so and hopefully this will continue post-COVID-19.
Over time, I am confident employers will become more enlightened, and workplace arrangements will improve. More women will be able to balance their work and family responsibilities. More will advance into senior leadership roles and they can be proud that they did so on their own merit, and not through some special scheme or treatment.
One of the hindrances to women’s work and careers is that they often have additional caregiving responsibilities which brings me to my second point – how can we better support caregivers? Being a caregiver is both hard work and “heart” work. In families, women tend to shoulder more of the caregiving burden than men, whether caring for children or elderly parents. Caregivers have to make many significant sacrifices. Their careers are affected. Caregiving expenses can be substantial. The caregiver finds it harder to build up his or her own retirement savings. This can leave caregivers, particularly full-time ones, very vulnerable. Many participants in the Conversations felt strongly that this was unfair.
I agree that caregivers, whether women or men, deserve more support. One direct avenue is to provide them more financial assistance. No amount of money will fully compensate for the sacrifices that caregiving demands but we know that many caregivers would appreciate some extra help. We already have the Home Caregiving Grant which helps families with the cost of care, such as hiring a helper and home care services. Since its launch two years ago, the Grant has benefitted some 34,000 recipients with care needs. MOH is studying how it can enhance the scheme, to provide more help for targeted groups. Another important issue is the well-being of the caregivers themselves. During the Conversations, caregivers shared that they often had no personal time, and did not know where and how to seek help. Many end up exhausted and burnt out. This is bad for the caregiver, and not good for the person being looked after either. MOH is studying how we can expand the options for respite care to meet the varied needs of caregivers. The Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) will continue to be a one-stop resource to connect caregivers to the support they need. This will provide caregivers more choices to better manage their load and also look after themselves.
Everyone in the family can chip in, to help lighten the burden on caregivers. If you have a loved one who is a caregiver, I hope you will help to share his or her load by taking on some of the caregiving duties yourselves and financially, by topping-up their CPF!
Protection for women
The third area I wanted to speak on is protection for women. Singapore is one of the safest cities in the world. Women can walk alone on the streets at all hours without fear. This is not the case in many other cities. We cannot take this physical safety and sense of security for granted. We must keep up our efforts to maintain high standards of law and order in Singapore. At the same time, we must do our utmost to protect women and girls from being harassed or harmed.
Recently, Parliament increased the maximum punishments for a number of sexual offences. As a society, we must cultivate an environment where people respond with empathy and support when something bad like this happens. Victims must be able to seek help easily, and without suffering additional distress. More importantly, victims must not have cause to fear that they themselves will be blamed or shamed for what has happened to them, and therefore suffer in silence.
We worry about violence against women not just in public places, but also violence within the family. Unfortunately, family violence is still not as rare as it should be. Those of you who work with the Family Service Centres and shelters have seen too many heart-breaking cases. And the pressures caused by COVID-19 have worsened the situation. . We must do more to prevent family violence and to support its victims. We have a Taskforce on Family Violence, which will soon be publishing its report. Recommendations include improving immediate support for victims, enhancing protection for them, preventing violence from recurring, and raising awareness of early warning signs. I look forward to receiving their report, and to implementing effective measures to combat this problem.
Another threat to the safety of this generation of girls and women comes from online. With social media, females young and old are exposed and vulnerable to harassment, bullying, grooming, or unwelcome attention. Many victims suffer psychological distress, or worse, are driven to self-harm. We must ensure that the online space remains safe, especially for girls and women.
The most fundamental solution to the problem of violence against women is to inculcate the right values, so that men and women respect each other’s boundaries, and know that it is wrong and forbidden to take advantage of women, mistreat them, or worse attack them physically or sexually. Parents must educate their children about healthy boundaries and respect. In schools, our students must learn the importance of respecting one another, and how to protect themselves both in real life and online. Institutions of Higher Learning should be places where young men and women can feel safe. In our daily lives, everyone can do our part. Refuse to take part in “locker room” talk, speak out against disrespect for women, and objectification of women.
Beyond the Conversations
I have covered three issues: workplace opportunities, caregiver support, and protection for women.
These came up repeatedly in the Conversations but more importantly, they reflect our fundamental values. Taking care of one another in this society, giving every individual a fair shot at success and ensuring everyone receives equal protection in Singapore. These values must be continually reinforced – in our daily thoughts and deeds, among the current generation as well as future ones.
The Government will study the views you have expressed on these issues carefully, develop concrete proposals and it will be presented in a White Paper early next year. We will continue working with you to implement these proposals, and address these issues together. It is a long term effort, but a vital one.
Celebrating SG Women
It is also important that we take the time to celebrate Singapore women, to acknowledge and honour their contributions to our nation’s development, which can often be taken for granted. From the Samsui women who helped build our city in the early years, brick by brick. To the many other important roles that women have played, whether at work, as teachers, social workers, nurses and doctors and as the years passed, in every field and profession, making a contribution and leaving their mark. Or at home, quietly toiling away, looking after and bringing up the family, sacrificing careers to raise the children, and give them better lives. Sometimes prominently, often quietly, women have contributed their energies and ideas, broken new ground and pushed the boundaries in so many different directions and in so many different roles, both on their own and alongside the men. Women have been a vital part of the Singapore story.
MSF has designated 2021 as the Year of Celebrating SG Women. It is 60 years since the Women’s Charter was passed and an appropriate moment to review how far Singaporean women have come and also to commit ourselves to enabling women to play their fullest role in Singapore.
Among the proposals that the SCWO has made, is one to dedicate a suitable public space to the women of Singapore. I support this excellent idea. MSF, MND and NParks have identified one promising location: to create a garden at Dhoby Ghaut Green. The garden will be right in the heart of the City. It will honour and celebrate the pioneering spirit and the many contributions of Singapore women. It will recognise the central role that women have played in our society and nation.
I started my speech by noting how young girls today grow up in a society their grandmothers could hardly have imagined. These Conversations are an important exercise for us to imagine the kind of society we want for our children and grandchildren to grow into and create together, where those who need help are cared for and supported, where women and men stand as equals and where every citizen is empowered to fulfil their aspirations and dreams. As one female participant in the Conversations, in her early 30s and working in the people sector, said, “Society needs to recognise the intrinsic value of women, not simply for what she does or does not do, but for who she is.”
Together, let us work towards our vision of a fairer, more inclusive society, where our daughters and sons can thrive in a better age.
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