See things from a woman's point of view, stop mansplaining: Ong Ye Kung

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said pushing for greater equality between men and women is a nuanced and long-term exercise. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - Health Minister Ong Ye Kung's elder daughter was a young girl when she learnt - and was shocked by - the concept of marriage dowries.

In response to her mother explaining the traditional stereotype of a woman marrying "out" of her family and into the groom's, the older of Mr Ong's two daughters asked: "So this is like a transaction - I will be sold?"

Mr Ong recalled trying to make things better by explaining that the money could flow both ways, and that in some cultures, it would be the bride's family providing the dowry "in recognition that the husband will incur costs in taking care of the bride".

"It wasn't a helpful intervention… I would say this was a very badly answered SQ," he quipped, referring to the supplementary questions posed by MPs in Parliament.

The minister was speaking in the House on Tuesday (April 5) during a debate on a White Paper released late last month that outlined 25 action plans to improve the lives of women here.

Among others, it seeks to allow elective egg freezing, enhance respite care options for caregivers and strengthen fairness in the workplace for women.

Mr Ong said it was through his daughters' eyes that he better understood the lived experience of social expectations and prejudices - deeply embedded in social practices and constructs like the patriarchal structure.

"Expectations of having sons carry the family line, daughters marrying out… sons having a greater share of inheritance often - (these) protected and reinforced the system," he added.

Mr Ong said a future Singapore society must be one that does away with such unconscious biases, promotes mutual respect between all individuals, and supports women in whatever they set out to do.

"Our duty to women should be equal to our duties to all our fellow citizens, and the choices open to women must be equal to those open to men," he said.

"In my mind, this equality to freedom of choice is the heart of this White Paper, and the reason why I strongly support it."

The minister highlighted how three major driving forces have combined to challenge the entrenched practices of yesteryear: better education opportunities, technological advancements blurring perceived lines between male and female-dominated occupations, and societal efforts to change the status quo.

"The patriarchal structure will evolve faster if people now conclude that as a society, if we treat women and men more equally, it is better for the welfare of our families and our loved ones," said Mr Ong.

He had earlier shared how, while growing up, his extended family distinguished "men's work" from "women's work" and established distinct roles and protocols for the two genders.

"From young, I felt there was some dissonance, because I was in primary school then and at that time, there was hardly any differentiation between the boys and girls," he said. "If anything, the girls were often the better students while the boys were more playful and many of us were struggling to keep up."

That dissonance he felt has developed into a deeper understanding of the struggles and aspirations of women, Mr Ong added. "I'm not sure I totally get it, but I'm trying to get it."

He also noted that the Government can help accelerate change through policymaking; and employers can decide - without being compelled by the law - to get rid of gender biases in hiring, promotion, appointment to boards and succession planning.

"Society must also play a part," he added. "I can see many husbands are now significantly involved in household and child-minding responsibilities. Some families even have a breadwinning mother and a stay-at-home father because this is the best play of the family's strength - unheard of in my growing-up years."

Earlier, Workers' Party MP Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) expressed his disappointment in the lack of concrete policy recommendations in the White Paper to encourage fathers to take a more active role in household and caregiving responsibilities, especially around a more equitable distribution of statutory parental leave.

Fathers in Singapore currently get two weeks of paid paternity leave, and can also share up to four weeks of their wives' 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Contrasting the two-week entitlement with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average of 10 weeks, Mr Chua said: "(This) means that even the most well-meaning of fathers who wish to take on a more egalitarian share of the child-rearing responsibility must make direct financial trade-offs, such as via unpaid leave."

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Other MPs also called on men to step up and contribute to scrubbing out discrimination and biases against women.

Specific to protection against violence and online harms, Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said men could help make it easier and safer for victims and whistleblowers to report incidents; help change mindsets that misogynistic behaviours have no place in society; and be more involved in rehabilitation efforts relating to family violence.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) urged men to reflect on how they think about and speak to women.

"How many times have we interrupted women as they speak; explain to them matters which they already know, sometimes better than us, maybe most times better than us? How many of us do this to women, more than men? How is this OK?" he asked. "We must not only forbear from openly disrespectful behaviour such as those I listed above, but also patronising ones.

"For example, I am sure all of us would have experienced some senior corporate leaders, including senior civil servants, thank a male emcee by name, and the female emcee by referring to her as 'a beautiful young lady'," Mr Seah added.

In his speech, Mr Ong also asked men to understand and see things from a woman's point of view. "Stop mansplaining, using diminutives, or doing things in the presence of women that they feel embarrassed by," he said.

He noted that pushing for greater equality between men and women is a nuanced and long-term exercise.

Concluding, he said that when his daughters grow up and start their own families, they will likely face the same dilemma as many women today - juggling multiple responsibilities, and feeling guilty if they fall short of being the "superwoman" who can handle it all.

"If my daughters decide it's their life priority to start a family and spend more time as mothers to bring up their children, even at the expense of their career progression, I will be immensely proud of them.

"And if they decide they prefer to be single and use their talents to contribute to community and society, I will also be immensely proud of them," Mr Ong added.

"But whichever priority they put greater weight on, whatever life course they choose, they should not be pressured to do so. This shall be their choice.

"I see our collective duty to support women in whatever they set out to do, and accelerate away from our antiquated past of women and men stereotypes, at home, at work, and in society."

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