The Big Read: Gender equality in Singapore remains elusive amid entrenched attitudes about women’s roles
Patriarchal values, and the traditional mindset about gender roles - such as the wife being primarily responsible for matters at home with the husband playing a supporting role — are still entrenched in Singapore society, gender equality advocates say.
SINGAPORE : Accounts manager Joana likens her husband to a “useless piece of large display furniture” at home.
Despite being unemployed for the last 20 years or so, he hardly helps with the household chores such as cleaning the house - leaving it all to his 54-year-old wife to handle them even when she has to work up to 10 hours in the office.
“Asking him to do anything is very difficult,” said Ms Joana in Mandarin of her husband of 27 years who is a year younger than her. She declined to give her full name.
While she feels resentful at times, Ms Joana, who has two children, said she could only grin and bear it when it comes to the uneven distribution of their household responsibilities.
“Yes, I feel it’s not fair. But men and women are also different … Maybe women like cleanliness more and we cannot tolerate untidiness, so we’ll just do what needs to be done,” she said.
Then, there’s Ms Hannah (not her real name) who picks up her children from the childcare centre, cooks for her family of five and finishes up the housework - after spending about 10 hours at her teaching job daily.
Every day, like clockwork, either her mum or mother-in-law would call to ask if she has finished cooking and bathing her three young children before her electrician husband comes home.
“To them, my career is secondary and it should not take priority over my husband and children,” said the 31-year-old. “But truthfully, it feels like coming home from a full-time job to another full-time job.”
Ms Joana and Ms Hannah are not alone among working women who have had to shoulder more than their fair share of household responsibilities despite holding full-time jobs.
Nearly 60 years after the landmark Women’s Charter was passed in Singapore to protect and advance women’s rights, gender equality is by and large still elusive - even though some strides have been made in terms of breaking corporate or political glass ceilings.
“When we’re talking about fundamental values, we really have to go to the roots of patriarchal values, which is our daily living, social culture… We’re talking about how control and power is imposed through a hierarchical level - the father to the household, to the mother, mother to children and so on,” said Mrs Constance Singam, a long-time gender equality advocate.
Patriarchal values, and the traditional mindset about gender roles - such as the wife being primarily responsible for matters at home with the husband playing a supporting role — are still entrenched in society.
Media reports of sexual violence against women and court cases of voyeurism involving female victims also suggest that respect for women in Singapore has yet to become deeply embedded in the nation’s DNA.
The Government now aims to address all this by embarking on its first-ever comprehensive review of issues affecting women in the city-state.
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam said on Sep 20 that the initiative aims to shift the Singaporean culture and mindset on gender equality and respect for women.
This review, called the “Conversations on Women Development”, will culminate in a White Paper that aims to create a roadmap towards gender equality.
READ: Review on women's issues goes beyond the law, aims to 'deeply ingrain' gender equality in society: Shanmugam
LISTEN: On women in the workplace, quotas and more - K Shanmugam speaks frankly on Heart of the Matter podcast
“Every boy and girl must grow up imbibing the value of gender equality. They need to be taught from an early age that boys and girls are to be treated equally with respect,” he said at the first of a series of virtual dialogues to be conducted as part of this review.
“It has to be a deep mindset change,” said Mr Shanmugam, adding that society’s outlook on gender issues will be easier to change then.
He added that penalties against sexual violence should not be seen as penalising an offence, but as penalties against a “violation of fundamental values”.
While it remains to be seen what the White Paper will contain, some gender equality advocates said the review may lead to a paradigm shift in how the Government treats gender-related issues.
Said Mrs Singam: “One of the things that I am particularly excited about… (is that) this is the first time our Government has spoken up, since the Women’s Charter, not just about women’s development but fundamental values.”
The former president of the gender rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) added: “This is a Government which is pragmatic in its approach to public policy. But here is a minister who is talking about fundamental values.”
Calling this review progressive but overdue, Ms Braema Mathi, the honorary secretary of human rights non-governmental organisation Maruah, said that progress made on women’s issues in the past had been issue-specific, such as the repeal of marital immunity for rape.
“There are improvements but it cannot become where you (NGOs) put a case forward to us (the Government) and we think about it and we work our way through. If you have it by a gender-equality ethos ingrained within the Constitution, (ensuring gender equality in policy making) has to be done,” said Ms Mathi.
As the review prepares to gather feedback and recommendations, we look at some issues which gender advocacy groups and community leaders say are among the three biggest challenges faced by women in Singapore: Sexual violence, balancing work-family dynamics and sexism at the workplace.
The unequal distribution of household work - as faced by the likes of Ms Joana and Ms Hannah - has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended life as most have known it, both at work and at home.
Many women have been forced to shoulder a bigger share of the burden as families grapple with the aftermath of closed schools and daycare centres.
The pandemic has led Ms Josephine Tan, a mother of three, to leave the labour force to focus on her family - especially to care for her 87-year-old mother who has dementia.
The 53-year-old former public servant said it seemed easier for her to give up her job even though she was earning more than her taxi-driver husband because “he wouldn’t know what to do at home”.
For Ms Nur Farhana Aziz, 28, even though her husband does his share of the housework, there are some things that she needs to do herself, she said. They include cooking for the family, bathing her two children, and going through their homework.
The pre-school teacher added that the physical exhaustion from managing both her class and house often leaves her mentally stressed and causes her to lose sleep.
Asked why the housework was not divided equally, Ms Farhana said: “I’ve been taught since young that these are the responsibilities of a wife.”
Ms Fannie Lim, executive director of charity organisation Daughters Of Tomorrow, said even today, women are still expected to take on the caregiving role at home and sacrifice their careers.
When they are ready to return to the workforce, they may then be hired to do the same job with lesser pay.
“Unpaid care work is underappreciated, and similarly, if a woman chooses to fulfil her responsibility at home, they should not be penalised for it,” Ms Lim said.
In its first nationwide study on the gender pay gap, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) found that in 2018, women were earning 6 per cent less, on average, than a man with the same job in the same industry, and of the same age and educational qualifications.
An MOM spokesperson said then that the cost of parenthood likely accounted for a big proportion of the pay gap.
Ms Junie Foo, president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisation (SCWO) - a partner organiser of the dialogue sessions for the review - said the pandemic has highlighted the difficulties women face in being caregivers and breadwinners at home.
“There have been more cases of stress on the family front as women work from home and give care. With the economy facing a huge downturn, women are also likely to be retrenched especially those working in small and medium enterprises,” she added.
This is why the SCWO is advocating to make childcare leave and eldercare leave interchangeable.
Currently, single women or those who do not have children cannot take childcare leave, despite them being primary caregivers for the elderly.
“Implementing flexible working hours at workplaces will allow more women or even men for that matter to remain actively engaged in the economy and provide necessary care for their loved ones,” said Ms Foo.
Ms Shailey Hingorani, who is AWARE’s head of research and advocacy, said that the Government could implement the statutory right to request for flexible work arrangements, as well as making paid eldercare leave and family care leave mandatory for sandwiched caregivers.
It could also introduce a support grant for caregivers that provides cash to them pegged to the salaries of paid care workers, as well as Central Provident Fund contributions that match the prevailing rates of employers.
Ms Nicole Lim, who runs female health and wellness podcast Something Private, said it is important for young children to see that tasks and responsibilities are not made gender-specific through everyday routines.
“If they see that their mommies are doing household chores and their daddies never help out, these are behaviours they can subconsciously learn and internalise,” she added.
Domestic woes aside, women must also grapple with discrimination and harassment at their workplaces, according to 13 women spoken to.
While companies have tried to address sexism and discriminatory practices by setting up channels for reporting, and conducting workshops to identify workplace harassment, the women spoke of how the sexism which they experienced was more subtle and therefore more difficult to address.
Ms Heidi (not her real name), who works in the public relations industry, said her boss did not do anything that would have been considered an offence in the eyes of the law. But he would often stare at her from head to toe, leaving her feeling very uncomfortable.
“He would come to me and say ‘Why are you so dressed up today? Are you going on a date?’” said the 34-year-old.
Ms Heidi, who wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of a backlash within the industry, also recounted an incident where she wore a dress with a side slit and he told her that there was “too much leg”.
As for Ms Dutt, working in the male-dominated sports industry meant that she had to work very hard in the early years to prove that she was equally knowledgeable about sports as the men.
“(The men would ask me:) ‘Do you know what this rule means? You need me to explain to you how this works?’ You needed to prove you know more and you can be better (than them),” said the 42-year-old senior producer in the sports broadcasting industry, who declined to reveal her full name out of concern that her career will be affected.
Ms Dutt also has had to confront misogyny at her workplace as there would be male colleagues who talk about women in demeaning ways in front of her. Once, a colleague talked about wanting a Hollywood actress to perform oral sex on him.
“You have to deal with innuendos on a daily basis… It’s not a comfortable environment,” she added.
To make matters worse, their complaints about such incidents to their respective companies did not result in any change at all, said Ms Heidi and Ms Dutt.
Ms Farhana, the pre-school teacher, recalled the time when she became the butt of a running joke at her previous workplace, a construction company, when a male colleague saw breast pumps in her bag.
She also experienced discrimination at the company, where she was tasked to be the “office housekeeper” even though it was not part of her job scope as an administrative personnel.
“I left the company because I felt like they didn’t take me seriously… It’s like they just saw me as the girl who topped up paper for the copy machine despite all my qualifications,” she added.
To best address discrimination at work, AWARE’s Ms Hingorani said: “The Government should enact a Workplace Equality Act that prohibits discrimination, defines clear legal liabilities for employers, and provides legal remedies for workers facing discrimination.
“This Act could also include sections on workplace harassment, to ensure that employers have in place pertinent policies, training, and grievance and disciplinary mechanisms.”
Ms Georgette Tan, president of United Women Singapore (UWS), reiterated that employers should put in effort in creating gender-neutral human resources policies.
Sexual violence has been front and centre in public discussions over gender equality since the Monica Baey case - which was followed by a series of other sexual assault crimes - erupted last year.
According to AWARE, the focus on sexual violence arose partly due to global movements such as #MeToo, and attempts here to break the silence on an often taboo subject.
AWARE’s sexual assault care centre had seen around 800 cases on average annually for the last two years.
Police figures in May showed that family violence had been on the rise since circuit breaker measures kicked in on Apr 7.
Between Apr 7 and May 6, there were 476 police reports filed for offences commonly associated with family violence, compared with the monthly average of 389 for such cases before the circuit breaker period.
“If women are valued or perceived as equal to men and they are recognised for their value, we would not have this issue of domestic violence,” said Ms Tan from UN Women, adding that it was exacerbated by high stress levels due to the COVID-19 crisis.
READ: Commentary: Isolated with your abuser? Why family violence seems to be on the rise during COVID-19 outbreak
AWARE also warned about the growing online communities of “incels”, or involuntary celibates, in which men position themselves as the dominant gender, deserving of sexual pleasure by virtue of being male.
It pointed to the existence of communities, such as SG Nasi Lemak on messaging platform Telegram, which actively encourage the overt commodification of women’s images for non-consensual sexual gratification. The chat group is now defunct, with three men and a male teenager hauled to court for their involvement.
“Given the magnitude of sexism and misogyny in Singapore, and inadequate comprehensive gender/sexuality education programmes in place, it is counter-productive to assume that new generations will be somehow more progressive than earlier ones,” said Ms Hingorani.
Social activist Noor Mastura, 30, said although the global #MeToo movement has encouraged thousands of women to come forward and report sexual abuse and assault, discussions in Singapore are mostly limited to activist circles.
“Generally, you don’t see parents speaking to their kids about this. The effects of that are extreme because we are still seeing women and young girls being sexually abused,” said Ms Mastura, referring to the spate of sexual violence and voyeurism cases in the universities.
She added: “Everytime we read about these cases where the perpetrators are from (the same university) in the media, we think to ourselves that it’s just another case. It has become normalised and we have become desensitised. This should not be the case.”
Student groups, such as Girl, Talk at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Students for a Safer NUS (National University of Singapore), were formed as a result of the spate of sexual crimes.
Both groups hope to empower women to respond to campus sexual harassment.
Ms Carissa Cheow, co-founder for Students for a Safer NUS, said that sexual violence arises from the current unequal structures of power, which need to be examined.
Girl, Talk is set up by Ms Danelia Chim, 23, Ms Dawn Kwan, 23, Ms Heather Seet, 23, and Ms Seow Yun Rong, 24. The group said there is an urgency to address issues of sexual violence as they are often brushed aside and not treated with “sufficient gravity”.
Through their research, they found that many women had experienced some form of harassment but gave it little thought, oftentimes because they internalised their distress or brushed off the incident despite their initial discomfort.
“The internalisation is insidious. From the conscious or unconscious avoidance of groups of men at night, to not reporting a sexual harassment incident for fear of retaliation, victim-blaming or being rendered a ‘false accusation’, we subconsciously pick up ‘lessons’ about what it means to be a woman today,” the group said.
And shame is one reason why victims of sexual violence may not want to talk about their experience, said Ms Mastura.
“It is entrenched in our community that are motivated by shame - like we want our children to get good grades so that we can tell the neighbours.
“But shame protects perpetrators and the only way to weaken it is to talk about it,” she pointed out.
AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: NATIONAL SERVICE
For mindsets to change on the issue of gender equality and women’s rights, a buy-in from the opposite sex - men - is equally needed.
And one grouse that some men like to raise whenever the topic is broached is that Singaporean males have to serve two years of National Service (NS), while the women are “spared”.
However, Mrs Singam pointed out that men are compensated for their two years of military service with higher starting salaries, while women do not receive similar compensation for bearing and looking after children.
Over the years, several gender equality advocates have called for NS to be redefined and for the Government to allow both men and women to serve - in a reimagined NS.
Instead of just viewing it as military service, Mrs Singam said all acts of service to society can be part of NS.
While women can serve NS in many other ways, Ms Tan from UNWomen pointed out that they can also be just as good in combat positions, such as fighter pilots and officers.
In a recent commentary for TODAY, SCWO’s Ms Foo said allowing women to serve in a different type of NS “would remove one of the obstacles to full gender equality”.
Young advocates from NUS also offered similar suggestions.
In a virtual interview conducted over teleconferencing platform Zoom, undergraduates heading the various committees in Students for a Safer NUS said that NS can be redefined to include environmental or economic protection, for example.
Mr Luke Levy noted that NS in its current state “promotes overtly masculine tropes”, such as physical dominance, and women entering NS in its current state would find it challenging.
Ms Rayna Kway reiterated that the way men talk about gender inequality needs to be examined.
“They are like ‘Oh we serve NS and you don’t. So it means we can get away with certain things and get some privileges.’ It’s also an inherent problem, in which society is set up where we are in this ‘us’ versus ‘them’ situation,” she said.
HOW CAN MINDSETS CHANGE?
Several gender equality advocates described the move to make gender equality a core value for Singaporeans a “re-steering” exercise.
They cited education and legislation as the two important avenues through which change can happen.
“A child's education begins at home. If the child sees the mother being treated with respect at home, he or she will learn to respect her too,” said Ms Lim from Daughters of Tomorrow.
Ms Mathi from Maruah said the education programmes here have to be reviewed, down to how stories are being taught to young children at the nursery level.
Teachers have to be trained to increase their level of sensitivity and deal with their own blind spots - such as how girls and boys may be talked to differently, she added.
One way of bringing about mindset change is for the school syllabi to challenge young people’s thinking on gender roles, and discuss the effects of traditional gender roles and the consequences of unequal power in relationships and other aspects of life, suggested Ms Hingorani.
READ: Commentary: Why would anyone steal underwear – and flout circuit breaker restrictions to do that?
Referring to sex education, she said that consent should be taught not just in theory but in real-life situations as well when a couple finds themselves in the “heat of the moment”.
“Sex education should also involve conversations on healthy relationships, emotional literacy, respect and bodily autonomy,” she stressed.
The group behind Girl, Talk said there must be a framework in schools that can clearly state what is acceptable and what is not in sexual violence cases.
“We’re under-equipped when it comes to a playbook on how to respond in deeply stressful and vulnerable situations … and how individuals can assert themselves in different ways are crucial to helping anyone respond to a potential harassment scenario,” it said.
Ms Mastura suggested that the Ministry of Education (MOE) work with women’s groups to come up with a sexual education curriculum.
It was previously reported in the media that schools have not engaged external vendors for sexuality education since 2017.
An MOE official had said this was “largely because schools feel that the MOE sexuality education programme is able to meet the developmental needs of students” and teachers are deemed to be “better able to support (students) and help manage their concerns, including on sexuality issues”.
Outside formal education, a legislative change which Maruah’s Ms Mathi wishes to see is for the Constitution to be amended to include gender equality, and for legislation on anti-discrimination to be passed as well.
Attesting to how education must be accompanied by legislative changes, Mrs Singam cited the example of how Scandinavian countries forced men to take parental leave and trained them to be husbands and fathers.
One major mindset change that needs to occur, said several advocates, is to stop equating demands for greater gender equality with the dilution of men’s rights.
Ms Hingorani said that any wide-ranging effort to tackle gender inequality needs to eradicate the false notion, mostly held by men, that gender equality only benefits women.
READ: Commentary: Male victims of rape deserve support and understanding, not ridicule and disbelief
Advocates say men need to be part of this journey towards achieving greater gender equality as patriarchy affects men as well.
Men are burdened with breadwinner responsibilities, and the need to conform to stereotypes that they are not supposed to be emotional or vulnerable, for example.
When asked why he decided to be part of the gender equality movement, Mr Levy pointed out that men also suffer if they do not subscribe to dominant forms of masculinity.
The fight for greater gender equality is “fighting for fellow men as well”, said Mr Levy. “Not everyone conforms to one single identity of what a man should be.”
SCWO’s Ms Foo believes that gender equality “is not about putting the men down but pulling up the women who have been disadvantaged all these years through centuries of men being in the driving seat”.
However, for a mindset change to occur, the Students for a Safer NUS group said that structures perpetuating these patriarchal attitudes need to be looked into as well.
And that involves the Government here recognising that it has had a hand in this through the laws and policies it has put in place, Ms Cheow said.
Advocates brought up the quota imposed on the number of female medical students and the graduate mothers’ scheme as some examples of how past policies have been unfair for women.
Referring again to how the Government aims to inculcate gender equality as a fundamental value, Mrs Singam said: “If you talk about fundamental changes in the value system, I am afraid that the Government has to look at its own value system. Patriarchy disempowers everybody.”
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