White Paper has 'moved us further along the path' to gender equality: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam made the point that gender equality and respect cannot be left to chance. PHOTO: GOV.SG

SINGAPORE - An MP leaned over, grabbed the victim and stuck his tongue down her throat. Another senior party member put his hand up the victim's skirt.

These incidents would be quite unthinkable in Singapore, but they were recorded in a report on workplace harassment in the Australian Federal Parliament last year, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said on Tuesday (April 5).

Had they taken place here, the offender could be convicted of molest and fined, caned, or jailed up to three years, he noted.

The minister made the point that gender equality and respect cannot be left to chance, saying: "The road we are on, was and is not pre-ordained. It is because of the choices we make, and the work we have put in, to treat women properly with respect."

He was speaking in Parliament during the debate on the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development, which sets out a road map for greater gender equality.

Mr Shanmugam said the White Paper, and discussions around it, have had a significant psychological impact and "moved us further along the path" to gender equality.

"The current situation in Singapore may look like, well this is normal, this is the natural order of things. But it isn't," said Mr Shanmugam as he cited examples that made headlines in other countries.

He noted how in the United States, some women now have to travel outside their states to get abortions because of tighter and tighter rules where they live.

"The issue of a woman's right to have a medical procedure, autonomy of her body versus a life. This is subject to laws in many countries, including Singapore," he said.

"But it gets difficult when the issue becomes politicised, and if you tilt too far away from giving autonomy to a woman over her own body.

"And in Singapore, a woman's autonomy is given considerable weight."

Mr Shanmugam also turned to Malaysia, where he noted the Ministry for Women, Family and Community Development had posted infographics on social media on how to ensure harmonious households during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This included advising wives to mimic the voice of Japanese cartoon character Doraemon when speaking to their husbands, giggle coyly, avoid wearing home clothes and put on make-up.

"Doraemon is a male robot cat. So, not quite sure why women should speak like a male robot cat," said Mr Shanmugam, as he played a video of a woman's jestful take on the advice.

He added that a deputy minister from the same ministry had in February this year advised husbands to try the "physical touch" approach by striking their wives "gently" to discipline them if they do not stop "unruly" behaviour.

Wives were advised to get their husband's permission before speaking, and speak to them when they are calm and relaxed, after they had eaten and prayed.

"In Singapore, let me tell you, that if you beat your wives - or vice versa - the police will come looking for you. And Members will not even consider it possible for either MCCY (Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth) or MSF (Ministry of Social and Family Development) to issue such statements," said Mr Shanmugam.

He also said there is still much that Singapore can learn from other countries.

"The impact on norms, values, the internalisation of the idea of equality - I see that as among the most important outcomes from this process," said Mr Shanmugam of the White Paper and debate.

He also addressed the proposed changes to strengthen gender equality here, including empowering the Director-General of Social Welfare to apply for a personal protection order on behalf of those at risk in certain situations, as well as enabling the Ministry of Home Affairs and MSF to respond to cases where there is a threat of family violence. In these cases, the wife may be offered a safe space to move to if she wishes.

"This will be very resource intensive, and therefore it will take time to implement. Members can see, however, what we hope to achieve," he said.

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