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Get the GPCs involved in gender review

How things do NOT change. I recall some 30 years ago I wrote a plaintive column about how I am NOT a superwoman. I said that I felt the weight of expectations on me: to perform on both the work and family front. A modern woman (and this was the late 80s by the way) was expected to juggle so many concerns and responsibilities that something had to give, I said. 

Even today, I wonder at my peers who seem to have succeeded on all fronts, becoming a good wife, mother and holding down a high-powered job without even the need for a long sabbatical. Okay, they probably had foreign domestic help. 

So, there will be a review on the needs of women and societal mindsets. It will be government-led, which means we should see some tangible results. Perhaps, the bigger number of women in Government and Parliament has something to do with the initiative which makes you wonder why Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam made the announcement. 

Frankly, I was surprised. I would have thought that the more pressing issues would be about polarisation between locals and foreigners or closing the income gap. There wasn’t much information given about the “lack’’ of equality that would make such a review timely. We’ve always been told that we are “getting there’’, and, as with everything else, it’s about whether the speed is fast or slow.

I was even more surprised that he cited the spate of voyeurism cases recently as a reason for the need for a philosophical approach towards gender equality. He didn’t say if  the objectification of women by young, educated males who indulge in peeping tom activities is a growing trend. Nor did he give figures. But what he said would warm the cockles of any woman’s heart: “It should not be approached as penalising an offence. It should be viewed as penalising a gross violation of fundamental values’’. Supposed mitigating factors like the man’s academic prowess will count for much less, if at all. 

Given what he said, the first thing I would expect is a change to the Constitution. 

The word “gender’’ has to be added to this clause on equal protection:  Except as expressly authorised by this Constitution, there shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.

Then we wouldn’t have had to bicker like we used to in the past over gender parity.

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Like, how female civil servants couldn’t get medical benefits for their spouses and dependents while their male counterparts could. Like, how single mothers couldn’t get HDB housing easily. Like, how the Penal Code used to be silent on marital rape. All three policies have been changed, after much lobbying by women’s groups over an extended period of time. These are tangible changes based on a shift from the patriarchal system that has underpinned society for so long. It says that women have a “value’’ that is no less than men. 

This is not to say that women didn’t have some privileges by virtue of their gender. The Woman’s Charter allows a married woman to own property in her own name and to sue for maintenance after divorce (equalised a little by allowing exceptions for men who can’t do so.) Then there is the male’s eternal bugbear: that a woman can scream rape or molest without any consequences if she is shown to be a liar. The man, however, is tarred for life whether or not he committed the crime. I think Mr Shanmugam and company need to prepare themselves for this attack even as they look at voyeurism cases. 

But there will be more than the legal aspects involved. The review will look at issues at home, like family violence, gender stereotyping and discrimination in the workplace, among others. That’s a gigantic brief and I wonder how prepared we are to discuss the issues in some depth. Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xue Ling said that it would be a whole-of-society exercise with women’s groups involved and at least 10 “engagement sessions’’ for now. The first dialogue has already started. 

I believe something as big and deep as gender equality deserves more than just dialogues and feedback. It requires information, research and a lot of academic work. It requires first, an examination of the status quo, with statistics, and the forces that led to the current situation. It requires people to chew over numbers and look at policies – before they start emoting about the fairness or unfairness of it all. There should be a more structured plan, lest it seems like an exercise to distract Singaporeans from other issues or worse, paying lip service to the feminist cause. 

I recommend that the newly-formed Government Parliamentary Committees be put to good use to lead discussions on aspects of policies under its purview. They are in the best position to summon data and get a resource panel of experts to examine issues. 

For instance:

  • The Manpower GPC should have all data on employment of women in the workforce and their salary levels to examine wage disparities and assess if they would have enough for their retirement needs. 
  • The National Development GPC should look at whether housing policies need to be further tweaked for single mothers and how many women are leading households as sole breadwinners. 
  • The Social and Family Development GPC should have data on dual families and the adequacy of childcare arrangements, as well as support groups for widows and single mothers. 
  • The Health GPC could look at whether women have enough access to screening for breast and ovarian cancer and whether company medical benefits are equal for both men and women. 
  • The Trade and Industry GPC could examine the state of “home’’ businesses by housewives to earn extra income and whether more such flexi arrangements can be made for them without contravening some rule.  

Their findings can be made public to allow for more feedback and consultation. It would also be a good for MPs to showcase their expertise and political chops over national issues than a mere mastery of constituency matters.

Although the GPCs comprise People’s Action Party MPs, there is also nothing to stop the Workers’ Party from submitting its own paper based on the “division’’ of duties that Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh has drawn up – nor other political parties.   

A White Paper is supposed to be ready in the first half of next year. There’s enough time for inputs to be gathered. This concerns half of Singapore. Let’s all give it some serious thought.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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