Gender equality goes beyond performance matrices, should be instilled in children from young: Shanmugam

Women have advanced in many areas including education, workforce, boards and politics, but cultural, social, structural hurdles remain, said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - The idea of gender equality goes beyond matrices of performance in specific fields, and must "be imprinted deeply into our collective consciousness", said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Sunday (Sept 20).

When every boy and girl is taught from an early age that both genders are to be treated equally and with respect, and this mindset change is internalised, society's whole outlook on a variety of gender issues, such as sexual violence, will be easier to change, he added.

This is the thinking that led to the Government's decision to work with Singaporeans to undertake a comprehensive review of women's issues in a bid to address gender inequality. The review will culminate in a White Paper that will be tabled in Parliament in the first half of next year.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at a virtual dialogue session titled "Conversations On Women Development", the first of a series of upcoming engagement sessions that aims to gather feedback on issues that affect women at home, in schools, workplaces and the community.

He said: "Women and gender equality is something that has been important for us, for a long time. Many steps have been taken... However, despite the progress, it is still a work in progress."

Women have advanced in many areas including education, workforce, boards and politics, but cultural, social, structural hurdles remain, he said.

"Gender equality is going to take a lot of effort. But I believe we can do it. It is going to require a change in our cultural and value system."

He cited penalties for sexual violence - which will no longer be "just an offence a man commits against a woman" - as an example of how this would work.

"It should not be approached simply as penalising an offence. It must also be seen as penalising a gross violation of fundamental values."

This means that usual mitigating factors will have less force when they are viewed in the light of an act that is a breach of fundamental values, said Mr Shanmugam.

"The starting point should be that this should not have happened... Excuses that a person is young, he is in university and so on, should be of less weight.

"For that to be so, the understanding, learning, should be deep. It has to be built up, and taught from an early age. Society has to put a premium on that. Every boy and girl should grow up knowing this is completely unacceptable," he said.

Mr Shanmugam added that the Government takes a very serious view towards offences against young children, noting that while young boys are targeted too, proportionately, more girls are victims.

There are a few points that will have to be looked at specifically, such as the context of the offence that could let perpetrators get away scot-free.

"Sometimes offences are in family situations and children are too fearful to report (them). Evidence from young children often is difficult to rely on. We have to deal with this," he said.

The stiffness of penalties will also have to be scrutinised.

While amendments were made to the Penal Code last year to enhance penalties and provide young children with even more protection, Mr Shanmugam said that "if the review suggests we should make them even stiffer, we will do so".

It will also be important to track what happens to perpetrators after their release, he added.

Mr Shanmugam noted that the series of voyeurism cases in the universities that surfaced from last year, as well as the case relating to a National University of Singapore dentistry student earlier this year, stirred hot debate on the penalties the defendants should face.

There was also much discussion on the relevance of factors, such as the defendant having a bright future and whether it was a single rash act, and how much these should count in mitigation.

While the penalties have been made stiffer for a series of offences, and new offences such as sexual grooming have even been created, "that is the relatively easier part", said Mr Shanmugam.

"It set me thinking - what is the framework, the perspective we need, in approaching these cases... Is there a more philosophical, fundamental way of thinking about this issue beyond just increasing the penalties?" he added.

"This event, and the idea of a thorough review - the idea of analysing the issues from the perspective of gender equality and respect being a fundamental value, arose from that thinking."

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