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Mr Speaker

1     Today we debate an issue close to my heart.  I speak not just as a member of the house or a member of the front bench, but also as a son, a father and a husband. 

2     At the core of this debate, are the relationships that all of us have with the women in our lives, at our workplaces, and in our country. Our duty to women should be equal to our duties to all our fellow citizens, and the choices open to women must be equal to those open to men.

Growing Up Amidst Changing Times

3     First, let me ask: What is the place of women in our lives? 

4     I’ll share a bit of my own circumstances. My grandfather and grandmother had nine sons, I had no aunties, and my father was the second eldest son. They lived in a Kampung in Lorong Chuan, now part of Aljunied GRC. I grew up watching the men in my family breed fishes, plant vegetables, rear livestock, repair cars at the workshop in our kampung, and the women cook, clean and look after the children.  There was “men’s work” and there was “women’s work”.

5     When my grandfather was gravely ill, I saw that it was my aunties, my uncles’ wives, who took care of him.  After he passed away, during his last rites, the sons and daughters-in-law had distinct roles and observed protocols for women and men. 

6     From young I felt some dissonance, because in my primary school, there was hardly any differentiation between the girls and boys.  

7     If anything, the girls were quite often the better students while the boys were more playful and struggled to keep up. School lessons already included stories like Hua Mulan and Marie Curie. And so from a young age, we had both women and men as role models. 

8     My parents moved into their own flat in Toa Payoh in the 1970’s. The household composition did not change. I had an elder brother, so my mother was the only woman in the family.  

9     What changed was the role of my mother.  She was a teacher, which meant she had to go to school very early in the morning, mark exam papers and homework when she came home, and also cook, clean and look after my brother and me as well as make sure we were up to speed with schoolwork.  

10     In her I saw a very strong woman, who carved out a role as an equal in the family, even though her role was different from my father’s.  To me and my brother, she was our disciplinarian and our anchor. 

11     Growing up therefore, my family was mainly men, and women were the outliers.  When I got married, and my wife and I had our own children, the situation changed completely.  Both our children are girls.  I became the outlier. 

12    So today, after my parents’ passing, the people I love most in this world are all women. The dissonance I felt as a kid I slowly  developed into a deeper understanding of the struggles and aspirations of women.  I am not sure I totally get it, but I am trying to get it. 

13     You see, as a young father, I had thought that whatever discrimination and biases there were against women, our daughters would be all right, because these would eventually be scrubbed out by the norms of a modern society. 

14    After all, in Singapore, our daughters have a good education.  They are growing up in a world where women can be CEOs, professionals and even leaders of nations.  And as parents we will support them to fulfil their ambitions and aspirations.

15    But I soon realised it was not so simple and I saw it through the eyes of our daughters.  When our daughters were just toddlers, during Chinese New Year visits, relatives would glance at them, followed by a question to my wife:

‘When are you having sons?’  

To which my wife would always reply ‘I am happy with two girls!’  

I know our daughters heard the conversation, I wonder how they felt.

16     As a young girl, our elder daughter learnt the concept of dowries and had a shock.  It was over the dinner table, she asked,

‘Why must the groom’s family give the dowry? Why the four pieces of gold (for Teochews), the roast pig (for Cantonese and Hakka)?’ 

My wife calmly answered ‘Because the Chinese tradition is that the girl marries out…’  

That got her even more upset, our daughter then exclaimed ‘So it is a transaction – we are sold?’  

17     I tried to make things better by explaining that the money flowed both ways – that in some cultures it is the bride’s side that provides the dowry, in recognition that the husband will incur costs in taking care of the bride.  

18     It wasn’t a helpful intervention. A very badly answered SQ. We left it as that.

A Contest Between Past and Present

19     All children, sons and daughters, are born into this world with no bias between women and men.  But through my daughters’ eyes during their formative years, I better understood the lived experience of social expectations and prejudices. 

20    These are beyond Government policies and legislation.  In fact, policies and legislation and especially those in Singapore are meant to remove discrimination and promote equality. 

21    Instead we have biases deeply embedded in our social practices and constructs.  They probably had their roots in nomadic bands, where men mainly hunted, and women mainly gathered. The roots probably grew deeper in agrarian tribes, where men ploughed the fields, and the women took care of domestic matters.  

22    And then the tribes decided to come together to form complex societies.  Then, the key problem statement was: how do we as different tribes live peacefully together and not kill each other?  The answer was to make everyone stakeholders of a stable and peaceful society.  

23    That stake is the betterment of the family, of whom members are bonded by blood (and DNA).  It then follows that blood lines must be drawn to define the family.  

24    The basis to do so in most societies was the patriarchal structure. Therefore the expectations of having sons to carry the family line, daughters marrying out, dowries, sons having a greater share of inheritance – protected and reinforced the system. 

25    We cannot undo all these longstanding anthropological practices and history in one generation. 

26    But no matter how entrenched, that past is challenged by the present.  I think there are at least three major driving forces.  The first is education, and the second technology. They combine in a powerful way to force a rethink of the status quo. 

27    Take education for example.  Today, young girls in Singapore grow up in an environment that their grandmothers would not have imagined when they were children. Education has become the great equaliser in most societies. 

28    With equal opportunities for education and development, women are now able to enter vocations and professions that were historically male-dominated. 

29    Education as a driving force of equality is turbo-charged by the advancement of technology.  What used to require physical strength can now be automated or performed by machines.  

30     Neither men nor women are better at numerical calculation, or more empathetic or more meticulous.  It is individuals that have varied strengths and weaknesses. 

31    I was Transport Minister before and during that time I met many women engineers, in LTA, SMRT and SBST.  When I was Education Minister, I met many male students training to be nurses, and now as Health Minister I see many of them serving in hospitals.  

32    In my GRC, we have two successful women – Mariam Jaffar who trained as an engineer, and Poh Li San who was a Super Puma helicopter pilot.  

33    The lines that were once perceived between male and female-dominated occupations are blurring, and the overlap, I believe, will enlarge over time.  

Evolving Mindsets

34    Now let me talk about the third driving force that is challenging the past, and that is- our own effort to change the status quo.  The patriarchal structure will evolve faster if people now conclude that a society that treats women and men more equally is better for the welfare of their families and loved ones. 

35    It will take time. Government will have a key role.  By enacting policies such as universal access to education, the Women’s Charter, and all the various recommendations in the White Paper currently before the House, we can catalyse and help accelerate into that new future. 

36    Society must also play a part. That means you and I, every member, every family. I look after a constituency with many young couples, and I can see that many husbands are significantly involved in household and child-minding responsibilities. Some families even have a breadwinner mother and stay-at-home father because this is the best play of the family’s strength – unheard of in my growing up years.  

37     Employers can decide, without the compulsion of law, that it makes business sense to get rid of gender biasness in hiring, promotion, appointment to boards and succession planning. 

38     Having said that, the push for greater equality between men and women is a nuanced and long-term exercise.

39     I have highlighted the existence of societal biasness that we need to correct.  But at the other end of the spectrum, there are inherent differences between women and men that cannot be ignored and should continue to exist. That’s what I believe.

40    Let me quote Mother Teresa, from her message for the World Conference on Women in 1995, she said:
‘I do not understand why some people are saying that women and men are exactly the same and are denying the beautiful differences between men and women… As I often say to people who tell me that they would like to serve the poor as I do, “What I can do, you cannot. What you can do, I cannot. But together we can do something beautiful for God.” It is just this way with the differences between women and men.’

41    Many women I know, including my wife, are against gender biasness in society, but they will also fiercely guard the difference between women and men. 

42    Because they know daughters have a special bond with their parents that is different from the relationship that sons have. A woman, in a room full of men, is often able to articulate a different perspective.  

43    For mothers, maternal instincts are non-substitutable. It comes from carrying the child for nine months, and manifests in mothers wanting to nurse the child after birth. 

44    Let me offer another quote by a Hollywood star, Denzel Washington, when paying a tribute to his late mother, he said:

‘A mother is a son’s first true love (when he’s born).  A son…is a mother’s last true love (when she dies).’

45    Single or married, mothers or women without children – women have special roles to play in their families and society because of these differences between women and men.
46    However, where does recognising inherent differences stop, and biasness and stereotyping begin?  It is a very difficult and sensitive question, which I have no answer to.  

47 During this debate, we have heard many examples and suggestions on enhancing various schemes. However, let’s look at the broader philosophical question in mind – we want to get rid of biasness but there are also inherent differences between women and men, beautiful differences. 

48    Let’s look at leave. We only catered for maternity leave in our Employment Act decades ago, as women need to recuperate after childbirth. Infant care and child-minding were mostly performed by the women so they had maternity leave. Then in 2004 and 2008, we introduced childcare and infant care leave respectively, as we saw men performing more of such responsibilities. Then in 2013, we introduced one week of Paternity Leave. As we saw more men participating, we extended this by another week in 2017. Now in 2022, should we therefore declare all these as family care leave to be equally shared between men and women? Is this equality, or are we no longer recognising that there is still a difference between men and women? So let’s be wise when we make such suggestions and choices.

49    The recommendations in the White Paper are careful in recognising and striking this balance – championing equality especially of opportunities and progression, but yet recognising the “beautiful differences” between men and women. It is a wiser approach. There are many practical initiatives – anti-discriminatory measures in the workplace, flexible working arrangements, stronger support for caregivers, allowing elective egg freezing, and upholding stiffer penalties for sexual offences.  

50    Of particular importance are the moves to strengthen the family support infrastructure, which are empowering for women at various stages of their lives.   

51     On this, let’s also have some perspective. It is not difficult to ask for more subsidies and schemes. For example, calls to further increase the Home Caregiving Grant even after we had doubled the grant from $200 to $400, and increasing the pool of beneficiaries. 

52     From a technical perspective, the Home Caregiving Grant is not universal, but is broad-based. No doubt if we were to transfer someone from a nursing home to a home care environment, this would allow the Government to save on subsidies. And we can think about how to help such individuals and families more. However, when we implement a Home Caregiving Grant, it does not only cater to this group. It is broad-based and whoever meets the mean-test criteria is eligible. It is therefore quite a big scheme. If we wish to further expand its coverage, we will need more budget and this would have to come through some means such as raising taxes. If we object to raising taxes, then where will the budget come from? 

53     So we will continue to find ways to support families – from housing, to education and to generally providing a safe and peaceful environment to raise children as well as for home care.

A Message for Men

54     Mr Speaker Sir, I have been speaking as a son, father and husband.  Now let me speak as a man, to fellow men. 

55     I say: let us all be stakeholders in a fair and equal society.

56     At the most basic level, let us respect women through our words and actions. Offences against women are clearly wrong, and the vast majority of us agree with that.  Perhaps what is less obvious is the occasional insensitive remark that reflects an unconscious bias or stereotype. 

57    Understand and see things from a woman’s point of view. Stop mansplaining, using diminutives, or doing things in the presence of women that they feel embarrassed by. 

58    Let us be more proactive in supporting the women in our lives, just as they support us. This could mean undertaking the roles that society often expects women to do – like household chores, parenting, arranging for food during a gathering or conference or parliament sitting.  Many men already do these things, and we can certainly do more as equal partners in society, and in solidarity with women.  
59     Finally, while we accord women respect, let us take a step further to be chivalrous.  I may be old-fashioned, but I personally think there is much virtue in men extending a special courtesy to women. 

60    To be honest, I often feel uneasy that just because I am a Minister, people, including my female staff, will attempt to offer to carry my bag or open the door for me.  

61    I will always try to stop them and offer to open the door for them instead, often reminding them that ‘etiquette comes before protocol.’

62     Such courtesy is timeless. It does not lessen the person at the receiving end or imply that they cannot do it themselves. They are perfectly capable of doing it themselves!  Instead, it adds a certain appreciation and complementarity to the relationship between women and men. 

63    I want to make a special shout out to our youths, having met many of them during my time as Minister for Education. 

64    I say to them, be kind to all your friends.  Accord respect and courtesy to one another.  Listen to the views of everyone, boys and girls.  Keep the games and jokes appropriate and tasteful – not from your point of view, but from theirs.  

65    Sexual offences are a rising problem amongst your generation.  The boys might be uncomfortable hearing this, but I think it is important you hear this.  Never be part of the problem, but be part of the solution.  When in doubt, always do the right thing.  Watch out for the girls.  If it is late at night, offer to walk them to the bus stop, MRT station or even their destinations.   

66    Most of you take wefies now.  But on those rare occasions where you take a photo with your class, CCA group or with a Minister, do not let the girls kneel in front and the boys stand at the back.  Boys, volunteer to squat in front or at least position yourselves freely as equals.  

67 SMM restrictions are now lifted, and we can take big group photos again, without 1m spacing. So make this a new post COVID-19 normal! 

The Ballad of Mulan

68     Mr Speaker Sir, to end the speech let me talk about a familiar character in Chinese history which is Hua Mulan.  

69     Members are familiar with the story. A poem was written about her, called the Mulan Ballad 木兰辞.  I thought the last few lines are particularly meaningful. In Chinese, it goes:


70     Roughly translated it means: When you catch hold of a rabbit, the male rabbit kicks its legs. If you catch hold of a female rabbit, it will close its eyes.  But when they are running side by side, you cannot tell which is male, which is female. 

71     This was written in 400AD, during the era of Northern Wei. Even in highly patriarchal ancient China, there was recognition that there are inherent differences between men and women. But there are many roles that can be equally performed by both women and men. 

72     As our daughters grow up and start their own families, they will likely face the same dilemma as many women today, juggling multiple responsibilities, and feeling guilty if they fall short of being the “superwoman” who can handle it all.  

73     But if my daughters decide as a life priority to start a family and spend more time as mothers to bring up their children, even at the expense of their career progression, I will be immensely proud of them.  

74     And if they decide they prefer to be single and use their talents to contribute to society and community, I will also be immensely proud of them.  

75     But whichever priority they put greater weight on, whatever life course they choose, they should not be pressured to do so. This shall be their choice.

76      As a son, father and husband, and a member of this House, I see our collective duty to support women in whatever they set out to do, and accelerate away from our antiquated past of women and men stereotypes, at home, at work, and in society.    

77    The future that we envision, must be a society that dispels unconscious bias, promotes the right value of mutual respect between all individuals, upholds meritocracy, and provides as much support as we can to enable caregivers to find better balance in their roles.  

78     In my mind, this equality to freedom of choice is at the heart of the White Paper, and the reason why I strongly support its recommendations.   

79     Thank you, Mr Speaker. 

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