Do we need more women to speak up on behalf of their sex?

By Liang Lei and Cheng Yui Seeng

MP for MacPherson GRC Tin Pei Ling interacts with a child during her walkabout on 1 February 2020. PHOTO: LIANG LEI

When there’s a woman entering the election arena, you can bet comments will be made about the way she looks, dresses and carries herself. Just think back to the 2011 general election when People’s Action Party’s Tin Pei Ling was compared to her opposition counterpart in the National Solidarity Party, Nicole Seah.

The then 27-year-old Ms Tin faced a torrent of online criticism for a photo of her posing with a Kate Spade bag and a video of her stomping her feet at a public event made rounds on social media. 

Many thought her win in Marine Parade GRC that year was secured riding on the coattails of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. That probably had more to do with her age, rather than her gender, she told Class Notes in a phone interview.

Then came 2015, when her MacPherson ward was carved out and she had to contest alone. Her first child was barely a month old when election campaigning started. Her opponent, Mr Cheo Chai Chen from the National Solidarity Party, told the media that she should stay home to rest, presumably, like any good mother.

“I just came out and walked. There’s no confinement to talk about, I stayed at home for two weeks after delivery and I had to resume my ground work,” said Ms Tin, now 37 years old. She could only manage to cover half the number of blocks per day compared to the 2011 general election, but received over 65 per cent of the votes.

Today, with nine years of political experience and two election wins under her belt, few doubt her ability to hold her ground and serve her residents. Then, just two months ago, a doctored image of her in a revealing outfit on a neighborhood banner made rounds online.

“I suppose it was someone mischievous,” she said. “The thing is, it got circulated in many different social circles and people kept asking me if that was true. The choice of image to superimpose also suggested a lack of respect for women.”

The political arena has been long thought to be unfriendly to women — they have had to overcome the stereotype of being too soft for power, jostle their way into an overwhelmingly masculine network and face uncomfortable attention over their physical attributes. The hyperbolic and hyper-public online environment has only made things worse, with its constant focus on their outfits, and whether they make the fashion grade.

Nominated MP Anthea Ong said she chooses not to read the comments sections of news about her. She chuckled when she recalled the rare occasion she took a peek and saw a comment that said: “Wow, she should do something with her eyebrows”.

“But at the same time, it made me think how difficult it must be for people who read every comment,” she added.

Female representation in Singapore politics has risen through the decades, though it started off from a low bar. In Singapore’s first general election in 1959, five out of 51 seats in the Legislative Assembly were held by women. In its second Assembly, the figure fell to three. It would drop to zero by Singapore’s third Parliament and stay so till the sixth.

Since then, the number of women MPs have risen steadily to the current high of 21 elected members and seven NMPs. They make up 23.9 per cent of the 88 elected seats, just shy of the global average of 24.3 per cent.

It’s still far from absolute gender parity, or the 30 per cent women’s advocacy group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) says is the baseline for meaningful political representation. This 30 per cent figure has often been touted as the “critical mass” required for a minority group to make its presence felt.

“One of the most pervasive barriers is society’s persistent gender stereotyping of politics as exclusively a men’s activity,” said Ms Filzah Sumartono, 30, projects manager at AWARE.

“Even if women have supportive partners or older children, they may still feel the pressure and guilt of neglecting their family responsibilities, which indirectly discourages them from entering politics,” she added.

Ms Braema Mathi, former president of AWARE and a former NMP, thinks society is now more ready to accept female leaders. In 2004, during her second term as NMP, she called on the Parliament to create gender-equal healthcare policies that do not assume that only men can be the heads of households. 

“Now, do you hear anyone using men as heads of households? Hardly,” she told Class Notes.

To Ms Ong, who had held leadership roles in womens’ groups WINGS and Daughters of Tomorrow, it is not just perception, but the actual work women do at home that holds them back.

“The roles of women in family, in the household, have not really changed that dramatically,” she said. “The caregiving role is still very much resting on the laps and the shoulders of women.

Caregiving can easily take up a large part of a woman’s time. It’s arguably worse for politicians who are also mothers, who may worry about the public attention their children will face, perhaps due to their primal instinct as life-givers, Ms Ong said. In Parliament today, 17 female MPs are married with children.

Said Ms Tin, now a mother of two: “Sometimes, we just want to be like other mothers, to be able to share our joy towards our kids on social media, but at the same time, we are cognisant of the possibly unwanted attention on the kids in school or in other settings.”

Being a mother has made Ms Tin more aware of issues concerning parenthood and young children. She said she could now better connect with young parents.

It showed when Class Notes followed Ms Tin on a walkabout in MacPherson in February. When she met families, her standard icebreaker would be to share stories about their children. She was comfortable with children too, her animated gestures winning over the hearts of toddlers.

READ MORE: How many children do married female MPs have?

Ms Mathi suggested temporarily setting a 30 per cent quota for each political party to field women candidates to get more female representation in Parliament. In the last general election, only 35 out of 146 candidates were women. 

“Hopefully, in the elections over the years, we have more and more women entering Parliament, and therefore, at least one-third become women parliamentarians,” she said. But Parliament has not been receptive to this suggestion. “Singapore’s government has rejected it over and over again because they feel that if you have a quota system you are actually diminishing the women’s worth,” she said. 

“Let us have (the quota) for maybe three elections, that is maybe 15 years, let us try. And if we have reached it, dissolve it,” she said.

She cited the example of Rwanda, which set a quota of at least 30 per cent women parliamentarians in its Constitution in 2003. Currently, its lower parliamentary house, the Chamber of Deputies, has women occupying 49 out of 80 seats.

Ms Ong was also in favor of a gender quota in general elections. She sees it in the same vein as racial quotas in the Group Representation Constituency system, where each team needs one member from a minority race.

Ms Ong said that if political candidates were selected based on their existing leadership experience, it would be yet another stumbling block for women, given they spend more years out of employment.

In 2019, 92 per cent of men aged 25 to 64 held a job, while the equivalent figure for women was 76.1 per cent, according to statistics from the Ministry of Manpower. The number of women in employment has been steadily increasing since 1991, when it was almost half that of men.

In top management, however, women only make up about 10 per cent of corporate directors of companies listed on the Singapore stock exchange, making top leadership something of a boys’ club, where networks are built around generations of men.

GRAPHIC: LIANG LEI / SOURCE: Ministry Of Manpower

Asked about gender stereotypes in Parliament, Ms Tin said: “If there was ever a strong view against women, it has only gotten better. We now have three full Ministers, two of whom helm their own ministries; we have many more women political office holders, and we have more SMCs being helmed by women as well.”

Parliamentary speech has moved quite a long way from 2001, when Dr Lily Neo, MP for Jalan Besar GRC, was told by then-Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang that women can “save on one hairdo and use the money for breast screening”. It resulted in a barrage of angry responses from women.

Singapore’s first female minister came by the way of Dr. Seet Ai Mee, who became the Acting Minister for Community Development in July 1991. Following the appointment of Dr Seet, many women ministers have found themselves assigned to similar “soft’’ ministries. 

They include former Minister of State Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who was appointed to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports from 2004 to 2011.  

The reason women politicians are often put in charge of community development could be because women tend to look at things differently from men. Ms Tin noted that when women MPs debate on issues, they tend to be more sensitive towards their impact on families.

Former NMP Kanwaljit Soin said in 2013 that she would like to see women more spread out in the Government, and not just in what are perceived to be 'soft' areas. "Why can't we have a woman in Defence?" she added.

Three out of 19 Cabinet ministers in Singapore today are women, the highest in Singapore’s history. Ms Grace Fu is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, as well as the Leader of the House who handles Government business and the legislative programme in Parliament. 

The other two are Mrs Josephine Teo, 52, the Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs and Ms Indranee Rajah, 57, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for Education. None of them can be said to helm “soft” portfolios. 

Although women politicians still remain under-represented in Parliament, this doesn’t mean that women’s issues get swept under the carpet.

The attitudes that male MPs hold regarding women’s issues have been encouraging, Ms Tin said. “I think men today are a lot more open and recognise that women issues concern families and the society that they are part of, and many more men have spoken up as well,” she added.

Ms Tin had spoken about the issues women face juggling work and family duties in a two-day parliamentary motion in 2017. 

“More than 20 members spoke over two days in support of the motion. Front-benchers, including the Ministers, also responded very positively,” she added. 

Senior Minister of State Lam Pin Min touched on the nursing profession and flexi-work arrangements, explaining that the Return to Nursing scheme will be enhanced to attract retired and home practising nurses to return to work in the healthcare sector.

MP Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap wanted a change in HDB’s housing policy so that the majority of single unwed mothers, who are below 35 years old, could also apply to live in HDB flats.

To support women homemakers who want to re-enter the workforce, Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera suggested that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) could work with Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) in various industries to allow them to keep abreast of industry developments. 

Nonetheless, he admitted that as a man, he is “in no position to speak for women” and could only share his view. 

During the Committee of Supply debates this year, several male MPs also raised concerns about women’s issues and suggested what could be done to help.

MP Louis Ng called for a specific childcare sick leave on a per-child basis, in addition to the legislation of parental care leave. His current obsession is with the lack of lactation rooms for working mothers. He asked for both an oral answer as well as a written answer. He succeeded. More schools would have lactation rooms in the next three years. 

Workers’ Party MP Chen Show Mao acknowledged that women are disproportionately affected by caregiving responsibilities, which hurts their ability to work and accumulate financial resources. He proposed a CPF top-up in addition to cash grants for caregivers to better ensure their retirement adequacy.

Ms Mathi thinks it may even be a good “strategy” to let men take the lead on issues concerning women.

She cited examples of domestic violence, sexual abuse and molest, where victims are frequently women. “How many times do you want a woman to keep talking about it, if a sensitised MP were to bring it up, male preferably, that would be very good,” she said. 

While policies have increasingly taken into account the perspectives of women, especially working mothers, there are those which still grate.

Ms Ong, for example, feels strongly against women having to pay higher CareShield Life premiums than men. “How can we, in 2020, still be setting policies that clearly disadvantage women?” she asked.

Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor had said in Parliament in 2018 that women are charged higher premiums with CareShield Life because they live longer than men. In 2017, the average life expectancy at birth for women is 85.2 years, compared to 80.7 years for men.

Ms Ong isn’t convinced. “If they want to actually charge based on science that we live longer that’s why we should pay more, then shouldn’t we also use science to show that we care-give so much more in terms of number of hours? Then shouldn’t we be compensated? You can’t have one and not the other, it’s not right,” she said.

It looks like some policies are slower to change than others. 

One example was the lack of parity in medical benefits between male and female civil servants. Before 2005, only male civil servants could claim subsidies a 60 per cent subsidy for outpatient treatment for their dependants. Female civil servants were entitled to this benefit only if they were divorced or widowed. The rationale is that the man in the house should be responsible for the family, as is the norm in Asian societies. 

Things have since changed after a long fight by female MPs like Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, who raised the matter in Parliament in 2003 and 2004. Then-Labour MP Halimah Yacob noted that the unequal medical benefits contravened the standards set by the International Labour Organisation. Ms Mathi chipped in too, reminding the House that there were more female civil servants than males at that time — 54 per cent to 46 per cent — and big industry players were shedding gender-based policies. Medical benefits for civil servants was made equal for both men and women in 2005.


A women’s ministry exists in many countries: France, Cambodia, New Zealand, and Afghanistan, to name a few. The UK has a Minister for Women and Equalities in its Home Office.

Granted, having “women” in a ministry name is no silver bullet for gender equality – Malaysia’s Ministry of Women and Family Development recently had to apologize for advising women not to nag at their men and to speak to them with a Doraemon voice. But the women ministries across the world adopt common tenets in their manifesti: gender equality, family development, economic empowerment and so on.

In Singapore, there is an Office for Women’s Development (OWD) under the Ministry of Social and Family Development, but no standalone women’s ministry. Neither is everyone in support of the idea of a women’s ministry.

“If you have a Ministry just on women issues, I’m afraid this will really call out women and make women out-standing. Is this something that we want?” Ms Tin said. “We don’t want privileges just because of gender, we want to be recognized for our abilities and merits, we want to be given a fair opportunity.”

To Ms Tin, Singapore women’s status quo also does not necessitate a women’s ministry. The country remains one of the best places in the Asia-Pacific region to support women entrepreneurs, according to a MasterCard index. It has both low infant and maternal mortality rates. Its universities are churning out more female than male graduates — over 52 per cent of graduates were female in 2016.

“The approach must be tailored to the situation,” Ms Tin said.

Singapore does have one ministry singling out a particular demographic – the youth. In 2004, the Ministry of Community Development and Sports was renamed to the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS). 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the change stemmed from his wish to create more opportunities for the youth, while encouraging them to stay and contribute to the country. In 2012, MCYS was restructured and the “youth” moniker went to the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

And while the Singapore government may not have a women-specific ministry, the People’s Action Party (PAP) does have its own women’s wing. It was formed in 1989 to bring more women into politics.

In recent years, the group has published policy papers on women issues, such as a report on women’s aspirations in 2016. Another report in 2019 recommended a series of measures to help families defray childcare costs and increase access to in-vitro fertilization. Some of these measures were later adopted by the government.

Ms Ong isn’t for a women’s ministry in Singapore either. Instead, she sees room for the mandate of the OWD to be expanded to make sure legislation passed in Parliament does not discriminate on gender lines — just like how the Presidential Council for Minority Rights does so for race and religion.

Beyond OWD, Ms Ong sees the need for a “much larger change in narrative” when it comes to women issues. She sees two ways about this.

One way is to beef up the Women’s Charter, a law dating back to 1961. It covers issues concerning marriage, family and offences against women, which include trafficking and illegal prostitution. The law has frequently been amended, with the latest changes made in 2016 and 2019 to broaden initiatives on marriage and divorce, and to strengthen protection against sex crimes.

“A lot more needs to be addressed in the Women’s Charter,” Ms Ong said, listing examples such as women’s 6 per cent pay gap against men and Singapore’s ratification of the United Nations CEDAW convention.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is an international treaty spelling out women’s rights and what constitutes gender discrimination. It is ratified by 189 states worldwide, including Singapore. However, Singapore made partial reservations about Articles 2 and 16 of the convention due to concerns over religious rights. The two Articles call for urgent policy action to eliminate gender discrimination in family and in marriage. 

Ms Ong also thinks the Women’s Charter should be called the Family Charter as the issues revolve around maintaining the family.

Alternatively, she suggested that Singapore’s Constitution could be updated to include a specific mention of gender equality.

As it stands, the Constitution protects Singaporeans against discrimination on the basis of religion, race, descent, and place of birth. 

“When you have that section in the Constitution that only specifies four different categories to be highlighted as the explanation of what equality means, I think we are short-changing ourselves in terms of who we want to be, what we want to be, as a society, as a people,” she said.

She might get a listening ear, especially since there are three female ministers in Cabinet she can lobby. Or she could repeat this quote to them from former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.”

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