Gender equality to be deeply imprinted in society: Shanmugam

Kids must be taught early that both genders must be treated equally, with respect, he says

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

The idea of gender equality goes beyond measures of performance in specific fields, and must "be imprinted deeply into our collective consciousness", said Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

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 said yesterday.

He was explaining the thinking that led to the Government's decision to work with Singaporeans to undertake a review of women's issues, in a bid to address gender inequality.

The review will see a White Paper tabled in Parliament in the first half of next year.

Mr Shanmugam was speaking at a virtual dialogue, the first of a series of upcoming engagement sessions to gather feedback and recommendations on issues that affect women at home, in schools, at workplaces and in the community.

The minister said the topic of women and gender equality "is something that has been important to us, for a long time. Many steps have been taken... But, despite the progress, it is still a work in progress."

He noted that women have advanced in many areas, including education, the workforce, boards and politics, but cultural, social and structural hurdles remain.

"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 another offence" - 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. No excuses, period. 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, internalisation 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.

The minister 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," Mr Shanmugam 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 more protection, Mr Shanmugam said that "if the review that is going to be undertaken 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.

The minister noted that the series of voyeurism cases in universities that surfaced from last year, as well as the case relating to a National University of Singapore dentistry student earlier this year, stirred much debate on the penalties the perpetrators 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 penalties have been made stiffer for a series of offences, and acts such as sexual grooming have been classified as offences, "those are the relatively easier parts", 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 approaching this - to deal with the problem, beyond just increasing the penalties? To try and make sure that, in the first place, people are aware that they shouldn't do it, and how society views these offences?" he added.

"Today's 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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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2020, with the headline Gender equality to be deeply imprinted in society: Shanmugam. Subscribe