July 18th, 2011

Is a female President impossible?

Sparse female representation at the highest levels of Singapore’s public and private sectors effectively makes this a pipe dream.

By Grace Ke

The build-up to the Presidential elections in Singapore has prompted some optimistic speculation about the possibility of a woman occupying this office.

After all, strong female candidates featured prominently in the recent General Elections. In a year that has already seen remarkable political developments, why shouldn’t a female President be within the realm of possibility?

A blogger wrote that a female President would “bring a fresh perspective to the office of the President, serving as a softer mother figure of the nation, neutralising and possibly transforming the still prevalent harsher, for-your-own-good paternal style of the parliament”. A Straits Times Forum letter suggested that a female President “would be a momentous event, in my opinion, to recognise the importance of the role of Singaporean women in improving democracy”.

This chatter is all very well and good, but also somewhat beside the point. The issue at hand is not whether Singapore would benefit from having a female President, or if citizens are ready to cast their vote for a woman – at least not yet.

The plain truth is this: The professional credentials of an eligible Presidential candidate are held to such exacting standards that current levels of female representation in the highest echelons of the public and private sectors in Singapore are simply inadequate.

In other words, much more must be done to encourage and ensure the presence of more women at these levels of leadership, before a female President becomes a real prospect.

Let’s look at some of the professional criteria that a potential female President must meet. According to the Elections Department, a Presidential candidate must have “held office for a period of not less than 3 years in position of seniority and responsibility” in at least one of following ways:

1. As Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, Auditor-General, Accountant-General or Permanent Secretary

The current Accountant-General, Chua Geok Wah, is a woman, as are Permanent Secretaries Tan Ching Yee (Ministry of Education), Chan Lai Fung (Ministry of Finance), Yong Ying-I (Ministry of Health), and Lim Soo Hoo (Public Service Division).

But in 46 years of independence, Singapore has had only 1 female Minister – former Minister under the Prime Minister’s Office, Lim Hwee Hua, who held this post for only 2 years.

And we have never had a female Chief Justice, Speaker, Attorney-General, Public Service Commission chairman or Auditor-General.

2. As chairman or chief executive officer of a statutory board to which Article 22A of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore applies

There are 64 statutory boards in Singapore. Of these, only 12 are currently headed by women:

  • Accounting & Corporate Regulatory Authority: Chan Lai Fung
  • Board Of Architects: Soh Siow Land, Rita
  • Civil Service College: Lim Soo Hoon
  • Energy Market Authority: Chan Lai Hong
  • Hotels Licensing Board: Hoo Sheau Peng
  • Infocomm Development Authority Of Singapore: Yong Ying-I
  • National Environment Agency: Chew Gek Khim
  • National Parks Board: Christina Ong
  • Singapore Examinations & Assessment Board: Ho Peng
  • Singapore Nursing Board: Nellie Tang
  • Singapore Tourism Board: Aw Kah Peng
  • National Library Board: Yeoh Chee Yan

3. As chairman of the board of directors or chief executive officer of a company incorporated or registered under the Companies Act (Cap. 50) with a paid-up capital of at least $100 million or its equivalent in foreign currency

For the purposes of this article, let’s just look at the companies on the Singapore Exchange Top 100 list. There are only 7 companies on this list that are currently headed by women:

  • SingTel: Chua Sock Koong
  • Capital Commercial Trust: Lynette Leong Chin Yee
  • SMRT Corp: Saw Phaik Hwa
  • M1 Ltd.: Karen Kooi Lee Wah
  • Hyflux Ltd.: Olivia Lum
  • K-Asia REIT: Ng Hsueh Ling
  • Mewah International: Michelle Cheo Hui Ning

4. In any other similar or comparable position of seniority and responsibility in any other organisation or department of equivalent size or complexity in the public or private sector which, in the opinion of the Presidential Elections Committee, has given him such experience and ability in administering and managing financial affairs as to enable him to carry out effectively the functions and duties of the office of President.

You might think that this last criterion offers more hope to aspiring female candidates who have not held top posts in the civil service, nor headed statutory and corporate boards.

But even if you look at female representation at a slightly lower level of leadership, the numbers don’t look very encouraging.

According to a 2011 NUS Business School and BoardAgender study, only 6.8 per cent of board members for publicly-listed companies in Singapore are women. That means a total of only 345 women, out of a total of 5,088 board members.

A whopping 61.9 per cent of all SGX-listed companies in Singapore do not have a female director. Only 31.7 per cent have 1 female director. A measly 4.5 per cent have 2 female directors and less than 1 per cent have more than 3 female directors on their boards.

Only 4 companies on the SGX Top 100 list have 3 or more female directors.

The public sector doesn’t fare very much better. Here’s a list of 10 major statutory boards and their current female board members (or lack thereof):

  • Agency For Science, Technology & Research: 0 female board members out of a total of 21 board members
  • Monetary Authority Of Singapore: 0 out of 9
  • People’s Association: 1 out of 14
  • Public Service Commission: 2 out of 13
  • Central Provident Fund Board: 2 out of 15
  • Economic Development Board: 2 out of 15
  • Defence Science & Technology Agency: 2 out of 15
  • Housing & Development Board: 3 out of 10
  • National Library Board: 5 out of 17
  • Public Transport Council: 6 out of 16

This current representation of women is not an accurate reflection of the size and capabilities of the female population in Singapore. Women currently form 51 per cent of Singapore’s population. About 44 per cent of the workforce is made up of women – 45 per cent of these are degree-holders, 28 per cent are professionals, managers and proprietors.

Yet, according to a 2011 report by global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the proportion of female corporate board members in Singapore puts us closer to emerging economies than industrialised nations. In fact, among industrialised nations, Singapore’s female representation in this area only ranks better than Japan, Portugal and Italy.

There is far more at stake here than just the possibility of having a female President. Numerous studies have shown that companies with more female directors outperform those with fewer female directors. A 2007 report by research group Catalyst Inc, for instance, showed that “among Fortune 500 companies, those with the greatest number of women on their boards performed significantly better financially than companies with fewer female board members”.

Female leadership also results in a more efficient and ethical company culture. A 2007 report by McKinsey & Company found that companies with 3 or more women holding top management positions scored higher in areas such as workplace environment, values, and accountability, compared to companies with fewer or no women holding such positions.

As these benefits of gender diversity become clearer, more governments are introducing measures that aim to increase gender diversity on corporate boards.

In 2005, the Norwegian government passed legislation that pressured Norway’s biggest companies to achieve a quota of at least 40 per cent women on their boards by 2008. France and Spain have also passed similar gender quota legislation, as has Malaysia, which recently introduced a policy that aims to see 30 per cent of decision-making positions occupied by women by 2015.

The public and private sectors here need to seriously step up their efforts to nurture gender diversity before Singapore can boast of having more than a handful of women qualified to run for President.

In AWARE’s latest Shadow Report on the Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the following measures were recommended:

  • Quotas established to place women at all levels of government, including setting aside 30 per cent of seats in Parliament for female politicians. The publicly elected Members of Parliament can appoint women to these seats. Such provisions can be created through a constitutional amendment or a special temporary measure for 5 to 10 years.
  • The Government should push for public-listed companies in Singapore to have a minimum percentage of women on their company boards.
  • The Government can introduce a management trainee programme for female graduates within the civil service to prepare women for upper management levels, as well as introduce mentoring programmes.
  • Targets can also be set for the participation of women in recruitment programmes and promotion exercises.

You might argue that the size of the recruiting pool doesn’t really matter. After all, it only takes one woman to make a female President a reality – a single high-flier with top-notch credentials, as well as the ability to connect with voters.

But why be content with one, when there are still so many other ‘firsts’ to conquer? Why not a female Prime Minister, a female Chief Justice, and more female CEOs? Why not set our sights on all the leadership roles that have not yet been filled by women?

The writer is an AWARE intern who is currently majoring in politics and public policy at Murdoch University.


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  2. Soojenn

    In Singapore, in the first place, most of these women are not aspiring to be the EP. Secondly, this EP thing is a whole charade… the PAP government for sure would want someone pro establishment, more like pro PAP, or have links to the people in power like TT.

    If you suggest Ho Jinx, this may possibly work with her intimate links with the PAA and the people in power? After all she has lost billions, what is to lose some more billions. If she can secure her position at TH without the blink of the eye even after losing billions of dollars, it will be a piece of cake for her to ascend to this position? and make a mockery of women and the system

  3. […] the Association of Women for Action and Research explains why it's almost impossible to elect a female president in Singapore. […]

  4. 来自中国福建省惠安县,希望你继续努力!

  5. Yam Ah Me

    Hi all,

    Seet Ai Mei was the first female minister of Singapore before Mrs Lim Hwee Hua become the first full female minister.

  6. Debbie

    Isn’t Singapore about meritocracy? placing a fixed qouta to appoint female board directors suggested that we practise sexual discrimanation against Singaporeans females?