October 27th, 2011

Parliament Primer: Roadblocks to gender equality

Workplace support for women, boosting the fertility rate, and help for single mothers and caregivers were some of the issues discussed during the Oct 17 to 21 Parliamentary debate. Here’s a summary of the key points.


Grace Fu
Senior Minister of State for the Ministry of Information Communications and the Arts, and the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources; Member of Parliament for Yuhua; Chairman of the PAP Women’s Wing executive committee

Surveys have shown that gender ratio equality in the workplace is maintained only at the entry level. As we move up the corporate hierarchy, the number of women is significantly fewer than men. Men are progressing faster and further than women. We are under-represented (3 to 8) in the senior leadership positions. Similarly, women only made up 7% of boardroom positions in listed companies in Singapore.

Women are expected to undertake the primary role in caring for the husband, children, and the parents. While we are fortunate to have the support of domestic helpers, women are often expected to make the career adjustments to suit the family circumstances. Many chose to take a slower pace in their career or drop out of the workforce completely.

The younger generation are postponing marriage and parenthood. With good education, women are excelling in the workplace and enjoying financial independence and satisfaction from their jobs. They are delaying the drudgery of a marriage if it means having to sacrifice many of their lifestyle choices.

Women today do not wish to see employers writing them off once a baby is on the way; neither do they wish to rely solely on the promise that their spouses will provide for them for the rest of their lives. They want a workplace where employers, recognizing the multiple roles they play, manage their career with flexibility over their life phases.

A female employee choosing to work part-time when she is caring for a young child should not be excluded from training opportunities nor future progression opportunities.

35 per cent of employers offer some form of work-life arrangement. Women, especially those with children, want to see more options such as more part-time work opportunities, flexible work hours and tele-commuting arrangements.

For those wishing to re-enter the workforce when their children are older, the government can provide training to ease their transition back into the workplace.

Companies can also offer transition arrangements where women re-entering the workforce do part-time work or take up internships, before moving into full-time positions.

Read her full speech here.

Foo Mee Har
Member of Parliament for West Coast; assistant secretary of the PAP Women’s Wing executive committee

There are 58,000 women with university degrees not working, 3 times more than that of men. Women’s labour force participation remains low at only 57% as compared to that of men at 77%. Close to 90% of women stop work due to family responsibilities.

61% of women who are not working, have indicated they would work, if flexi- and part-time arrangements were made available. Being one of the most highly connected and technologically advanced countries in the world, Singapore has all the natural levers to support flexi work. Not leveraging this to enable women to stay in the workforce is truly a missed opportunity.

More can also be done to help women to go back to work, especially those in the lower income group, as this will mean helping their families with extra income to lift living standards.

NTUC’s Back to Work programme, has helped 8,000 women return to the workforce, but there are still more than 235,000 economically inactive women between the prime ages of 25-54 that could be re-inducted.

Consider a special grant to encourage employers to offer re-induction to women returning to the workforce. Under this scheme, companies can obtain grants from the government for a limited period of time, perhaps 3 to 6 months, for hiring female returnees to the workplace. This is to ease the re-induction of women into the workplace. This is an investment that is completely targeted to developing the vocational skills of the worker for the task she is already employed to do, rather than training given in the hope that she will find a job.

We have only seen a mere increase of 5 percentage points in women labour force participation in 20 years. In the meantime, our fertility rate has slid to a historic low of 1.16. This contrasts starkly with countries such as Norway, where gender equality and female friendly employment policies make it easier for women to raise families whilst enjoying successful careers and financial security. Norway’s women labour participation is at a high of 80%, whilst the fertility rate a respectable 1.96. Our lack of progress in this field is all the more conspicuous when stacked up against our achievements and progress in many other areas such as the economy, education, environment and heath.

Can women and family not be represented by a dedicated Ministry, as in other countries such as Sweden, New Zealand and Malaysia? There should be enhanced levels of resources, a strong mandate and authority to prescribe and enforce, rather than to be left to the best efforts of the occasional campaign or promotion by different agencies. The integration of work and family is a national concern, and deserves to be addressed with the right policies, and a comprehensive strategy. Success will mean higher household incomes, more fulfilling lives, and happier families. And very likely, it will also mean more babies. And we will have provided employers in Singapore an enlarged pool of talent who bring unique skills.

Read her full speech here.


Sylvia Lim
Member of Parliament for Aljunied; Chairman of Workers’ Party

In recent years, home prices have risen sharply. For couples who want children, one of the factors they consider in deciding when to have children and how many to have, is the affordability of housing. A young couple who wants children but who is stretched by high housing payments over a long repayment period may delay having them, and may even have fewer children than they would ideally like to have.

If economic growth is overwhelmingly the government’s goal, then achieving higher housing prices at the expense of fertility may not be considered a problem. But if the happiness and the sustainability of Singapore society is the overarching goal, then there is a need to unravel the exact relationship between high property prices and fertility, and what responses might arrest or even reverse the decline in fertility rates. We will have to look beyond immediate procreation incentives to the bigger picture.

Read her full speech here.

Khaw Boon Wan
Minister for National Development; Member of Parliament for Sembawang

I commit to help all newlywed first-timers earning below $10,000 per month, to get their first HDB home as soon as possible. This will help meet an important social objective of helping them to settle down and start their families.

We are building 50,000 units of HDB flats in the first two years. If the demand remains strong, we have the resources and the capacity to build more than 100,000 HDB flats during this term of Government.

We are building infrastructure ahead of demand. It will cost us money but the social cost of infrastructure too drastically behind demand as currently experienced is not trivial either.

In parallel, I am tackling the issue of affordability head on. The worry out there is that HDB prices will continue to rise. This led to alarm and some panic demand. I have now participated in three Build-to-order (BTO) launches, involving 13,000 HDB units. Since May, we have stabilised the prices of these BTO flats. We have moderated price changes such that after adjusting for differences in location, amenities and other physical attributes, the May, July and September BTO prices were roughly comparable to the prices of similar units in the April BTO launch.

The upcoming BTO launch next month will repeat this pattern. Newlyweds eyeing new HDB flats do not need to worry that BTO price will run ahead of their income. As long as construction costs do not rise dramatically, the BTO prices will stabilise. In this way, new HDB flats will always be affordable to the newlywed first-timers, provided that their expectation is realistic.


Grace Fu

More child-centric, rather than family-centric, government policies are needed. There are three distinct groups among single mothers: divorcees; widowed and divorced non-Singaporean mothers with Singaporean children; and women who have had children out of wedlock. ‘These women are caught by our pro-family policies.

One basic necessity for them is a roof over their heads. The lack of subsidised accommodation means they have to fork out monthly rent at market rates, leaving them with very little to pay for food and medical fees of their children.


Halimah Yacob
Minister of State for Ministry of Community Development, Youth And Sports; Member of Parliament for Jurong

With an ageing population and smaller families, the pressures on caregivers will escalate and the government should provide more support to families, otherwise we will need more hospitals and nursing homes or we will see more neglected elderly. Our caregivers need more holistic support to reduce the financial, emotional and physical stress on them.

We need to explore providing more subsidies for home-based care, if we truly want to ensure ageing in place for our elderly. We also need more accessible and affordable medical, nursing and physiotherapy services at home.

Another important area that is not well provided for today is respite care for caregivers, which seeks to relieve the stresses of caregiving and support their well-being. Often, we focus so much on the frail elderly that we forget about the needs and well being of those taking care of them. Increasingly, these caregivers are also ageing and are in need of medical care themselves. This is one area in MCYS that I am working on, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and we are exploring a range of solutions to support care at home. This includes assistive technology and home modification. We will also look into expanding the range of structured caregiver training programmes to meet the diverse needs of families.

Read her full speech here.


  1. Jamshed K. Fozdar

    Not until the mindset of the male Singaporean is expanded to talk of its “Founding Mothers” as it so vehemently lauds its “founding Fathers”, can there be any substantial improvement in this society.
    To forget that we have all emanated from wombs the exclusive possessions of mothers and not by the process of parthenogenesis through the “other orifice” shared by both genders, like some lizards, will we extricate ourselves from being “assholes”.

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