Is Singapore really championing gender equality?

By Zofia Reych

Singapore is often referred to as the definite Asian forerunner when it comes to gender equality. Last year’s UN Human Development Report placed the Republic 13th out of 155 countries on that measure.

The rapid diminishing of the gender gap is believed to be rooted in the high numbers of women attending secondary education. In 2011 only half of women were educated to a secondary level; this rose to 71 percent in just three years.

“This translates to women being better equipped for employment in higher wage earning capacity,” explains Mrs Laura Hwang from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children.

As well as being ethically correct, closing the gender gap is also an economic necessity. The transformation that Singapore has undergone in the last five decades would not be possible without women contributing to the small country’s productivity. However, as much as Singapore would like to be seen as a leading Asian First World city, where gender inequality has been wiped out, the UN statistics only tell half the story.

The other half can be found in World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report, where Singapore was ranked 54th. Areas identified as particularly in need of improvement are political empowerment and, despite the recent trend, representation at a professional and managerial level.

Conversely, the Philippines is ranked very high by the WEF and rather low by the UN.

The latter was also highlighted by Trina Liang-Lin, president of the Singapore Committee for UN Women, alongside four other major inequalities still faced by women in Singapore.

The pay gap remains higher than 10 percent in most professions and household inequality often forces women out of work altogether. Required to choose between career and motherhood, they are largely absent from managerial and board levels in major corporations.

Moreover, most female professionals are often expected to hire a maid to run the household. As well as lacking in social status, these immigrant women are often unfairly treated. Liang-Lin also points out that retired women in Singapore live off less money than men due to more modest Central Provident Fund savings (CPF).

The workplace inequalities don’t go unnoticed. In a recent survey, over 56 percent of female executives admitted that women are still underrepresented in boardrooms. This number was lower in other ASEAN countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, often believed to be less progressive than Singapore. Nearly half of all female mid-level managers also admit to fearing that child-rearing responsibilities would affect their career.

It was only last year when Cheo Chai Chen, a politician from the National Solidarity Party (NSP), attempted to discredit his opponent at the general election, the young Tin Pei Ling, making reference to her family obligations. “She has just given birth, so voters should let her go home and rest, and take care of her child,” said the NSP’s candidate. She was elected nonetheless, perhaps proof of Singapore’s readiness to change.

However, ‘traditional values” still linger in most households and workplaces causing a severe disparity in the gender division of labour.

I spoke to Min, a 29-year-old who recently returned to Singapore after completing studies in Europe. She told me about her earlier education at a prestigious Singaporean girls’ school, where traditional gender roles were strictly enforced.

“The values we were taught as young ladies were gracefulness, compassion, graciousness and gratitude. We were constantly reminded of our future responsibilities for the household and obligations towards our future husbands”, she said.

As a homosexual woman, her name has been changed. Min fears repercussions in her new Singaporean workplace.

Min also pointed out the “complete lack of concern for esbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights” in her home country. In fact, Singapore’s penal code still lists male homosexuality as a crime punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Between 2007 and 2013 nine gay men were convicted under the archaic Section 377(a) which was upheld by the highest court in 2014.

Strangely, there’s no law penalising female homosexuality. “It’s not there because Queen Victoria couldn’t believe that women were capable of such perversity,” explained Min’s partner, referring to an anecdotal reason popular among young Singaporeans.

A recent comment from the Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam gives hope that Singapore will soon be ready to make a step forward when it comes to LGBT rights. ‘The Government’s duty is to protect Singaporeans from the threat of violence, regardless of a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation,” said Shanmugam, after the recent fatal mass-shooting in Orlando, suggesting the possibility of more inclusive attitudes.

Aspiring to be a major urban centre of the developed world Singapore needs to attract international talent and not push young, educated people abroad. To ensure this happens, it will have no other option but to join 133 other countries where homosexuality is legal.

In order to continue its fabulous growth, Singapore needs to turn its eyes to the needs of vulnerable groups and empower them within the workforce. Women, children, racial minorities, LGBT people, the elderly and others have to be protected by accommodative policies and business practices.

Only then can Singapore truly become what its leaders envision: to be “one of the world’s most liveable cities.”