Singapore and the Women’s Movement
Much progress has been made over the past 50 years in terms of women’s opportunities and status in Singapore society. The lives that women here lead today are vastly different from that of previous generations of women, from education and access to the workforce to activism and advocacy for women’s rights.
As Singapore marks its 50th year of independence, this website celebrates the achievements of the women’s movement in Singapore by reflecting on the journey that women have been on. It is only through knowing this history that we can look into the future and think about the work that is yet to be done.
Patriarchy in Singapore
Women have played an integral role in Singaporean society – as part of the electorate, the workforce, politics and civil society – throughout our independent history, but have not always been recognised for their achievements. Due to women’s marginalisation in many spheres of public life, and history’s habit of focusing primarily on decision-makers in positions of formal authority, the contributions of women in laying the foundations for pivotal events, such as the passing of the Women’s Charter, have often been overlooked. 1
Prior to 1999, Singaporean men were able to sponsor their foreign wives for permanent residency while foreign husbands of Singaporean women could only achieve permanent residency by finding full-time employment and first obtaining a work visa. Similarly, children born overseas to Singaporean fathers received citizenship by descent, whereas children born to Singaporean mothers had to apply for citizenship. The law was only made gender neutral in 2004.
Family migration continues to be an issue for Singapore, especially as more and more marriages between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans take place. Many transnational couples say that immigration policies governing applications for visas and permanent residency remain opaque.Related themes Migration
The patriarchal mindset that permeates into most aspects of Singaporean life has had a huge impact on women and their status in society. For example, it has been common for the government to base its policies on the concept of the man as the “head of household”, at one time allowing male civil servants to cover their family members with their medical benefits, while female civil servants were not able to do so. This mindset also led to double standards in immigration policy: Singaporean men could sponsor their foreign brides for citizenship far earlier, but Singaporean women were only allowed to do so in 1999.
Although men are no longer overtly acknowledged as the head of the household, this assumption is still often implied by certain policies. For instance, the paternity leave introduced for new fathers in 2013 offered only a week of paid leave from work – showing that childcare was still largely seen as the responsibility of women, while men’s roles were more associated with work and earning an income. This is in contrast to other countries offering not only more generous leave, but also the option for parents to split leave periods as they decide – shaping their own roles within the family, rather than being squeezed into a gendered one-size-fits-all approach.
This reflects a reality beyond the realm of policy. Women in Singapore, as in so much of the rest of the world, have long been denied equal respect and participation in society, because of widespread and ingrained discriminatory attitudes toward gender. Our many strides forward in the last 50 years have been made against this backdrop of historical and ongoing inequality.
One Man, One Wife
The 1959 General Election was the first in which Singaporeans were able to elect all members of the Legislative Assembly. The People’s Action Party (PAP) campaigned with the slogan “One Man One Wife” to appeal to female voters, promising to abolish polygamy and to establish equal pay for equal work.Related themes Politics
The needs of women voters were highlighted in 1959, when Singaporeans were first able to fully elect their own government. In an effort to court the female vote, the People’s Action Party (PAP) – at the urging of the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) – campaigned with the slogan “One Man One Wife”, promising to do away with the practice of polygamy that left women in disadvantaged positions with no right to property.
An introduction to the Women’s Charter
The Women’s Charter was a piece of legislation passed to protect the rights of women and girls in Singapore. It deals with issues such as polygamy, divorce and the division of matrimonial assets. It also provides for protection against domestic violence. It applies to all Singaporeans, with the exception of those married under Muslim law when it comes to divorce.Related themes Civil Society Politics Violence Family
Following the PAP’s victory at the polls, the Women’s Charter was passed in 1961 – the culmination of years of advocacy work done by the Singapore Council of Women and other outspoken women activists, including well known activist Chan Choy Siong from the PAP.
Singapore Council of Women
The Singapore Council of Women was established in 1952 and was set apart from other women’s organisations at the time because of its focus on lobbying for better rights and protections for women in Singapore.Related themes Civil Society
The Women’s Charter was a major milestone for women in Singapore, guaranteeing them and their families to rights and protections following divorce, as well as giving women right to property.
The government's policy regarding education for girls' often depended on what was perceived as the needs of the nation. One clear example of policy being dictated by perceptions of women's roles in the economy and at home is that of the constant changes in technical studies and home economics for girls in schools.
Technical education was emphasised in the 1960s to build a skilled workforce for Singapore's developing economy. A technical studies curriculum introduced in 1968 was compulsory for all boys, and 50 per cent of the girls.
However, the expectation for women to be responsible for domestic tasks meant that home economics – including cooking, sewing and cleaning – was made compulsory for girls but not for boys. As the economy grew and the government began to look at social concerns, education policy was changed once again so that technical studies would not be compulsory for girls. In 1985, home economics was made compulsory with the option of technical studies removed, only for both courses – named Home Economics and Design & Technology – to be made compulsory for both boys and girls in 1994.Related themes Education
Women played a vital role as a newly independent Singapore began to focus on economic growth and development: they were encouraged to go to school and gain the education necessary to participate more fully in the workforce.
This was reinforced by the move from kampongs to public housing built by the Housing Development Board (HDB) in the 1960s and 1970s – daycare centres and crèches built into the estates made it easier for women to go to work. The need for families to increase their household income to pay into the Central Provident Fund (CPF) as well as for home ownership also made it necessary for more women to enter the workforce.
Women were welcomed into the labour force as key contributors to Singapore’s rapid development. Access to higher levels of education and entrance into the workforce gave women increased independence from their families and husbands, leading to a shift in women’s place in society.
Yet this change in women’s positions was not accompanied by a commensurate change in patriarchal mindsets. Despite their transitions out of the home and into the workplace, women were still seen as responsible for household tasks and caring for the family. Women’s empowerment and autonomy were not necessarily seen as desirable ends in themselves, but as instruments for achieving economic growth.
The continuing subordination of gender equality and women’s rights to other state goals was especially clear in population policies, which have had a deep impact on women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Stop At Two
The Stop At Two campaign was a huge public education campaign that encouraged Singaporeans to stop at two children, regardless of whether they were sons or daughters. The campaign had a knock-on effect for girls’ access to education, as parents could better afford to educate their daughters.Related themes Education Reproductive Rights
When the government introduced the Stop At Two campaign in the 1970s to address concerns about overpopulation, women were disproportionately affected by the anti-natalist movement. Although key pieces of new legislation – the Abortion Act and the Voluntary Sterilisation Act – had the effect of allowing women more autonomy over their bodies, this freedom was merely a by-product of the wider goal of reducing the size of Singaporean families.
Lower-income families with lower levels of education were especially targeted by these policies; financial incentives were provided if couples would undergo voluntary sterilisation. In many of these cases, it was women who underwent sterilisation, even though the procedure was more invasive for them than it was for men.
Conversely, when the government later became concerned that the birth rate had fallen too low, women’s lives and choices once again came under scrutiny.
“Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers. … You just can’t be doing a full-time heavy job like that of a doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children,” said Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1983. 2
The Great Marriage Debate
The Great Marriage Debate refers to a period in 1983-1984 when the PAP government tried to encourage highly-educated women to get married and have children. For example, it formed the Social Development Unit in 1984 to help university-educated men and women in the public service to socialise, in the hopes that this would lead to marriage. It also introduced a series of financial and social incentives to encourage graduate women to marry and have more children. This rhetoric irked many young graduate women, who came together to speak out against such pronouncements.Related themes Civil Society Politics Family
Lee’s comment and the subsequent Great Marriage Debate demonstrated how the state saw women’s roles: workforce participation was desirable, but women were still first and foremost meant to be wives and mothers, with responsibilities in the home and to the family. In both cases, individual self-determination was a secondary consideration; what mattered was the state’s economic and demographic goals. It was in vehement opposition to this value system that Singapore’s primary gender equality advocacy group – AWARE – was formed.
CEDAW, Singapore and discrimination
Yet with changing societal roles and realities, some shifts in thinking did take place. For instance, the government has gradually removed some of the most overt discrimination against women, giving women civil servants equal pay for equal work in 1962. This was eventually extended to women outside the civil service when the government ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Equal Remuneration in 2002. Although the principle of equal pay was never enshrined in legislation, the employers and trade unions were required to include an “equal remuneration clause” in their contracts.
In 1995 the state committed itself – at least in international law – to gender equality as a formal aspiration, by becoming a member state of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Significantly, this was one of the first human rights treaties to which Singapore became a party.
Violence Against Women
Violence against women in Singapore, particularly domestic violence, has often been seen as a “private affair” to be resolved within the family. However, progress has been made to extend certain protections to victims of violence.
As a member state of CEDAW, Singapore is required to produce regular reports demonstrating progress on a number of women’s issues, including violence against women. Civil society groups would also be able to submit their own shadow reports, allowing the UN a way to scrutinise any discrimination against women in Singapore. In this way CEDAW has been a crucial tool for women’s groups to further their advocacy both in Singapore and on the international stage.
The quota restricting women to one-third of the intake into medical school, first introduced in 1979, was also rescinded in 2002, allowing more women to pursue careers in medicine. 3
Women’s rights groups
Activism and advocacy on women’s rights had receded somewhat following the success of the Singapore Council of Women with the Women’s Charter, but the 1980s saw a resurgence of activity.
The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations
The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) was incorporated in 1980, with board members from different women’s groups. In 1999, SCWO set up Star Shelter, the first secular women’s shelter. SCWO was granted special consultative status by the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council in 2014.Related themes Civil Society
The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) was incorporated in 1980, acting as an umbrella organisation for a large number of women’s groups, including the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Women’s Programme Committee and the People’s Association (PA) Women’s Executive Committee. The organisation has looked at a variety of women’s issues in Singapore.
The founding of AWARE
Frustration with the Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme – along with a number of sexist comments made during the Great Marriage Debate – was a major contributing factor to the formation of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), which today is Singapore’s largest gender equality organisation.Related themes Civil Society
The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) was launched in 1985 as an organisation dedicated to research and advocacy on gender equality and the status of women in Singapore. AWARE has since worked on a range of issues from workplace discrimination to sexist portrayals of women in the media.
The Family Violence Bill
The Family Violence Bill was the a Private Member’s Bill to provide legislative protection to women suffering from domestic abuse. The bill, presented by NMP Kanwaljit Soin, was prepared with the support of the Association of Women for Action and Research.Related themes Politics
Some of AWARE’s most prominent leaders also entered Parliament as Nominated Members of Parliament, speaking up and drawing attention to women’s issues. In 1995 Dr Kanwaljit Soin introduced the Family Violence Bill, which attracted public attention to the issue of domestic violence against women. Although the bill did not pass, some of its recommendations were incorporated into amendments to the Women’s Charter Bill the following year.
Women in Singapore today
Women in Singapore enjoy many rights and opportunities, yet this does not erase the fact that they also continue to live in a strongly patriarchal society. Benefits and privileges that women enjoy are often by-products of specific policy goals, rather than any commitment to principles of gender equality or feminism, and are therefore subject to change and scrutiny whenever new goals need to be met.
Despite having high levels of access to education and job opportunities, there are still very few women in decision-making roles, both in the private sector as well as in politics. There has never been more than one female Cabinet minister at a time in government, and women are also largely under-represented on the boards of major companies.
“We… need to champion for women to have greater representation in leadership positions – women are currently under-represented in top management positions,” said Grace Fu, at that time Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and chair of the PAP’s Women’s Wing. 4
Women also continue to be saddled with the bulk of the responsibility for housework and childcare. A 2015 video campaign launched by Ogilvy & Mather and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) entitled “Mums and Maids” highlighted this issue: mothers and foreign domestic workers were pitted against each other in answering questions about their children.
The ad was aimed at urging employers to give their domestic workers a weekly day off, but the framing of the issue suggested that mothers were still predominantly responsible for the care of children. Fathers were not questioned, presumably because society does not expect fathers to be as involved in the lives of their offspring.
Female participation in the workforce
The percentage of women in the labour force has been consistently increasing, yet factors remain that prevent equal participation, especially in leadership roles.
These factors include patriarchal mindsets that place the responsibility of housework and caregiving with women, the lack of flexi-work options and sexual harassment in the workplace.Related themes Work & Economy
Moving on from Singapore’s fiftieth year, more work is needed for gender equality to be achieved in Singapore, across a wide range of issues from violence to anti-discrimination in the workplace.
Future generations of women in Singapore would have grown up in a vastly different environment from that of women in previous decades. Most young Singaporeans now grow up in families with working mothers – this would inevitably lead to a change in the way Singaporeans perceive gender roles and stereotypes, paving the way for a society where tasks and roles are more equally shared between the genders.
This can already be seen in the growth of youth groups demonstrating the increasing interest that young people have for social justice issues. Student groups such as The Gender Collective and Kaleidoscope provide support to LGBT communities, as well as discuss issues from unapologetically feminist stances. Perhaps such groups will form the vanguard of change in Singapore, creating a more inclusive space for women and LGBT people.
As young people get more engaged in questioning and changing patriarchal values, women are likely to play an increasingly vocal role in both political and public life. With more women in decision-making positions – from within the civil service and political parties to the private sector – it raises the hopeful possibility that Singapore can rapidly progress as a more equal society, where people are valued for their contributions, and supported in meeting their needs, regardless of their gender.
- Chew, Phyllis Ghim Lian. “The Singapore Council Of Women And The Women's Movement.” Journal of South East Asian Studies 25 doi:10.1017/s0022463400006706.
- Lim, John. “Birth Trend Spells Trouble, Says Lee.” The Business Times, 15 August 1983. Accessed [2 January 2015]. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article.aspx?articleid=biztimes19830815-‐1.2.8
- Tambyah, PA. “Selection of Medical Students in Singapore: A Historical Perspective.” Annals Academy of Medicine 34. Accessed [10 June 2015]. http://www.annals.edu.sg/pdf/34volno6200506/v34n6p147c.pdf
- “Great progress for S’porean women so far, but more to be done: Grace Fu.” TODAY, 18 April 2015. Accessed [20 April 2015]. http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/great-progress-sporean-women-so-far-more-be-done-grace-fu?singlepage=true