Singapore to conduct review of women's issues to bring about mindset change for gender equality

More equal sharing of caregiving responsibilities and weeding out banter that objectifies women are among some of the issues affecting women which advocates want to see considered in a comprehensive review. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Singapore is embarking on a comprehensive review of issues affecting women to bring about a mindset change on values like gender equality and respect for women.

The review will engage and work with partners from the people and private sectors as well as women's and youth groups, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.

It will be led by three female political office holders, he added.

They are: Minister of State for Education and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling, and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.

The ideas and suggestions gathered through these dialogues and discussions will form the basis of a White Paper to be tabled in Parliament in the first half of next year, Mr Shanmugam said.

Speaking at the start of a virtual dialogue on Sunday (Sept 20), he said that while Singapore has taken great strides to level the playing field for women, gender equality remains a work in progress.

To tackle the cultural, social, and structural hurdles that still remain, the Government will be collecting and consolidating feedback as part of this review, he added.

The virtual dialogue session on Sunday, titled "Conversations on Women Development", is the first of a series of upcoming engagement sessions to collect feedback and recommendations on the topic.

"The White Paper will aim to address women-related issues that Singaporeans are concerned with. It will aim to be a further road map for progress, a pathway towards greater gender equality," said Mr Shanmugam in a keynote speech to an audience of about 60 participants from youth groups and women organisations.

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The initiative is coordinated by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Ministry of Home Affairs.

Mr Shanmugam said women in Singapore have advanced in areas like the workforce, politics and education, but he added that society must go beyond these matrices of performance in this areas.

He said: "Every boy and girl must grow up imbibing the value of gender equality. They need to be taught from a very early age that boys and girls are to be treated equally, and very importantly, with respect. It has to be a deep mindset change.

"When you internalise that, what then happens? Society's whole outlook on a variety of gender issues are much easier to change."

Issues like sexual violence, voyeurism, and differential treatment in the office based on gender should be considered "a deep violation of fundamental values", Mr Shanmugam added.

The review will be broadly categorised to address the mindset change needed and how to develop this from a young age. It will also tackle issues at home, such as protecting women from family and intimate partner violence, and the indispensable roles women play as wives, mothers, caregivers and homemakers, he said.

It will also examine the way women are thought about in the school and workplace, and tackle the need for equal opportunities and protection from sexual harassment, assault and workplace discrimination, he added.

The review will also examine issues in the community, like gender stereotyping and how women are addressed in the manner of speech or way of thinking, he said.

Mr Shanmugam said the spate of recent offences against women in the news had set him thinking about whether there is a more philosophical way of thinking about gender equality.

The offences, he said, were a series of voyeurism cases in the universities, and the case relating to the National University of Singapore dentistry student who physically assaulted his former girlfriend after she refused to get back together with him.

The 23-year-old dentistry student was sentenced to a 12-day short detention order, a day reporting order of five months, and an order to complete 80 hours of community service.

The sentencing drew public ire in July, and sparked online petitions and women's rights groups questioned if the sentence fit the crime.

Mr Shanmugam said there was much discussion on the relevance of factors in these cases, which included the "bright future" of the student and how it was a rash act, and how much of this should count in mitigation.

"And, the takeaway for me, it set me thinking: What is the framework and the perspective we need, in approaching these cases, these situations?" he said.

While recent changes to the law have provided for stiffer penalties for offences against women and the vulnerable, this is "the relatively easier parts", he said. The punishment for sexual violence for example shouldn't just be approached simply as penalising an offence, but it must also be seen as penalising a "gross violation of fundamental values", he added.

"That means the 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."

He noted the need to bring about a more fundamental change to how society approaches gender equality.

He said: "It must lead us to think, not in terms of accepting differentials, and then seeing what can be done to correct that. We must instead start with accepting equality, and any differential treatment then has to be justified.

"And equality must not just be formal, but substantive, and takes into account the unique challenges, needs that women face, and the specific effects that policies have on them, to truly level the playing field."

After the dialogue session, Ms Sun said: "When we say women have choices, are they real choices? Are they able to fulfil their potential, be the best that they can be, in an unencumbered fashion that does not require them to settle for second best?"

Ms Rahayu and Ms Low also addressed issues affecting women in the workplace, school and community.

Said Ms Rahayu: "Covid-19 has brought to the forefront a slew of issues that women have been facing for years, such as bearing the main caregiving responsibilities in the household, and being held to different standards at the workplace.

"These are issues that our mothers, daughters and sisters are facing on a daily basis. There may be progress on some fronts but we need everyone to chip in on the way forward for women in Singapore."

Ms Low said: "With collective action, we can close the doors of disparity and continue to widen the stride for Singapore women. As we allow ourselves to challenge old attitudes and current stereotypes, we will dislodge practices that hinder women's development and free up our society for greater progress."

Mr Shanmugam ended his speech by saying he hoped the outcome of the dialogue sessions would not just be a White Paper with recommendations.

He said: "It has got to be a clear message to every young girl today, and in the future, that Singapore will always be a place where they can achieve their fullest potential, fulfil their hopes and fulfil their dreams."

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