From The Gallery

Debate that unites and issues that divide

There is a Tamil aphorism about women that goes like this: A woman will make butter out of buttermilk and use it to pay for her son's wedding.

It speaks of the remarkable abilities of women, including churning creamy butter from an ingredient that is almost bereft of fat and making enough of it to pay for a wedding.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) cited it in Parliament yesterday as he celebrated the great strides made by women who "want to have it all".

They are the ones who cook for their families, take care of a sick child, and still manage to climb the corporate ladder and pursue their interests.

The House heard many examples of mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters and daughters who have done all that and more, during a two-day debate on the aspirations of Singapore women.

Mr Nair was among 18 MPs and five ministers who spoke on the motion. Ironically - or perhaps it was a point to cheer - most of them, 13 out of 23, were men. This was hailed by MPs as a sign of unity.

Many who spoke had practical suggestions to help women achieve their multifarious goals.

How to balance career and family was a key theme during the debate, and they proposed flexible work arrangements and having childcare centres stay open later, so mothers do not have to rush off early from work to pick up their children.

All of them also acknowledged that equality can truly be achieved only with a mindset change and cultural shift.

As Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin put it: "We need to change the paradigm relating to the roles men and women play. As husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, we should step up to play our part at home."

MPs were clearly united in their support of women's aspirations, whether men or women, People's Action Party or Workers' Party, elected or nominated.

As Ms Tin Pei Ling (MacPherson) said of the motion she mooted, it was a topic that brought all sides of the House together.

But the discussion took a divisive turn when Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) raised the issue of some Muslim women not being allowed to wear the tudung at work.

He was taken to task by Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli over whether the debate in Parliament was the right occasion to raise issues that were sensitive for the Malay/Muslim community.

Mr Faisal brought up the issue of Muslim women in nursing and the uniformed services not being allowed to wear the tudung, or headscarf, at work, suggesting that this prevented them from fulfilling their career aspirations.

Mr Masagos had a stern response: "There is a right time, a right place and right way to discuss this...

"I do not believe things like this should be discussed openly, publicly and then left hanging without answers."

Describing Mr Faisal's approach as "worrisome" and "strident", he questioned the WP MP's intention in bringing up divisive issues in Parliament that "linger in the minds of our community, not only to make them feel different, even to make them feel unjustifiably treated unequally".

He said that government and community leaders have been discussing the issue behind closed doors, adding that Singapore's approach all these years has been to slowly but surely win people over through meaningful interaction.

"I caution the member from making this a state versus religion issue," he said.

Mr Faisal vigorously refuted the charge that he was "causing discord and divisiveness".

"I choose to use Parliament as a platform, an official platform as an elected member, to voice out the community's concerns," he said.

Responding, Mr Masagos argued that while an MP has a right to raise issues in Parliament that are pertinent to his community, he also has the responsibility to make sure it will not "raise the temperature and make the problems harder to solve".

Citing the recent example of the Islamic religious leader who made offensive remarks about Christians and Jews and was fined $4,000, he said the imam had likewise not set out to sow discord, but still ended up hurting the feelings of other religious groups.

He warned that the impact of sensitive discussions on race, religion and language would have reverberations beyond the House.

No doubt in the case of the debate on what women want, discussions in the House are likely to spur action in families and the wider community, with several ministers also pledging to follow up on various issues and Mr Tan urging men to "walk the talk".

But Parliament is, and has always been, the forum where MPs raise all manner of public concerns, including sensitive ones. There have been robust debates on race, religion and other thorny issues, and no topic has hitherto been considered taboo. The important caveat when it comes to these issues, however, is to handle them with care, sincerity and with a view to shedding light, rather than simply turning up the heat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Debate that unites and issues that divide'. Print Edition | Subscribe