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Samsui women waiting for their transport by the road (1980s).
Source: Kouo Shang Wei.

Work & Economy

Bolstered by the development of the national economy, women have taken significant strides into the formal workforce in the fifty years since Singapore’s independence. Nevertheless, barriers to equal participation and leadership remain. Pay remains unequal between women and men, women continue to drop out of the workforce at higher rates – often due to domestic duties – and are significantly underrepresented in leadership roles.

Entering the workforce

Women formed a tiny fraction of workers in colonial times. In the late 19th century, the sex ratio in Singapore was about 3,000 males to 1,000 females, reflecting prevailing trends in migration. 1 The formal economy was therefore strongly male-dominated. When women did wage work, they were largely found in heavily gendered industries, such as domestic work, or occupations such as midwifery, beauty parlours, massage parlours and salons. The notable exceptions were the samsui women, who engaged in physical labour.

Education reforms to match societal roles

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.

After independence, the Singapore government pursued an economic strategy of export-oriented industrialisation. 2 Women were encouraged to enter formal employment to meet the labour shortage. Educational reforms in the 1960s were aimed at preparing future generations of Singaporeans for an industrialised workforce, and had a significant impact on girls’ and women’s access to schooling. By 1978, girls constituted 47.1 per cent of the primary school enrollment, 51.6 per cent of the secondary enrollment, and 43.0 per cent of the university enrollment. 3

“Dr Aline Wong, Minister of State for Health and Education, noted in her 1981 report on the sexual division of labour that female workers were deemed to have special qualities – docility, diligence, and the "swift fingers" and tolerance necessary for repetitive tasks”

Increased access to education and a wider range of career options led to an increase in female participation in the labour force. Although women moved beyond traditionally feminine jobs into industries like manufacturing, gender inequality continued to mar their experiences in the workforce. The government urged employers to take on more women workers specifically for jobs termed “soft”, or not physically demanding. Dr Aline Wong, Minister of State for Health and Education, noted in her 1981 report on the sexual division of labour that female workers were deemed to have special qualities – docility, diligence, and the "swift fingers" and tolerance necessary for repetitive tasks – that made them especially suitable for unskilled work in the export-processing industries. 4 These semiskilled and unskilled positions were often poorly compensated and lacked job security.

“[W]hile the government encouraged women to join the labour force during the labour shortage of the late 1960s, they did nothing to combat the fact that over 70 per cent of the workers laid off during the recession of 1974 were women,” wrote Dr Wong in her report. She also pointed out that even educated women who worked in skilled professions earned on average $200 to $300 less per month than their male counterparts with the same qualifications. 5

In the early days of self-government, the state supported – and even set the tone for – this discrepancy in pay, paying its female civil servants 80 per cent of what it paid male civil servants. 6 This policy was scrapped in 1962 to fulfil the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) election promise of equal pay for equal work, but only within the civil service.

Nurses strike at the Singapore General Hospital.
Source: SCWO.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

In 1963, nurses went on a five-day strike for better wages and working conditions, as well as a dispute over union representation; both the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees and the Singapore Medical Services union claimed to represent the majority of nurses in Singapore. 7 The strike came to an end after the two unions agreed to refer to arbitration to determine which union would represent the workers’ interests. 8 A retired nursing officer said in 1998 that nurses at Woodbridge Hospital who had participated in the strike had their wages cut. 9

Such a form of collective action by workers was no longer possible with the establishment of the National Wages Council (NWC) in 1972. The NWC aimed to provide a “non-confrontational approach” to tackling differences in opinion on wages; as such, their recommendations were non-binding and optional for employers to take on.

The Singapore government again moved toward eliminating pay difference by ratifying the International Labour Organisation’s Convention on Equal Remuneration in 2002. Though this was not coupled with legislative changes, the Ministry of Manpower, along with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the Singapore Employers Federation, issued a declaration affirming their commitment to pay equality, and henceforth required employers and trade unions to include an ‘equal remuneration clause’ in their agreements. But this did not actually guarantee equality in pay nationwide: in 2009, women earned, on average 91.8 per cent of what men did. In 2013, women earned 88.9 per cent of what their male counterparts did. 10

Balancing work and home

Even as women proved their chops in the formal workforce, they continued to be hampered by the expectation that they would remain primarily responsible for domestic and care labour. A 1973 study by the International Labour Organization found that most women believed that children were essential to the success and happiness of marriage. 11 As late as 2015, 46 per cent of respondents in an international survey likewise agreed that “A wife’s first role is to look after her husband”. 12

This was a view shared even at the highest levels of government. In 1975, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew noted his concerns:

“Our primary concern is to ensure that, whilst all our women become equal to men in education, getting employment and promotions, the family framework in bringing up the next generation does not suffer as a result of high divorce rates, or, equally damaging, neglect of the children, with both parents working.”

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 Family Politics

This perspective was reiterated in his 1983 National Day Rally speech, which sparked off the Great Marriage Debate:

“...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 doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children.”
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

The outsourcing of domestic labour

With little societal support for a shift of domestic responsibilities toward men, alternative forms of domestic and care labour were needed to replace the unpaid work traditionally performed by female family members so that Singaporean women could go to work.

Domestic work has not stopped being ‘women’s work’ – it has simply been increasingly outsourced to other women.

As Dr Aline Wong noted in her 1976 report, the absence of institutional support – such as adequate child-care facilities and paid maternity leave – prevented women from seeking and keeping employment even if they had wanted to do so. 13 Recognising this difficulty when the labour shortage hit home in the 1970s, the government set up NTUC Childcare in 1977, which provided affordable childcare facilities in housing estates and big companies. Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, former NTUC Chairman, was instrumental in the setting up of NTUC Childcare to cater to career women. In a recent interview for this feature, she said, “[in the mid-1970s] I said that if we want the women to come out to work, we must do something. So NTUC was the pioneer in setting up childcare centres.” 14

Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts.

Foreign Domestic Workers

Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) live and work in many Singaporean households, performing housekeeping and caregiving roles that were traditionally given to the women in the family. These workers often come from developing countries in the region, such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar.

But this paled in significance to the effect that the introduction of the Foreign Domestic Workers Law in 1978 had on enabling women to resume paid work. Its popularity can be seen by rising numbers of foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore, which is increasing even today. Nevertheless, the enabling of Singaporean women to work has sometimes come at the expense of the rights of domestic workers.

The importance of alternative sources of childcare to a working woman is perhaps exemplified by Mrs Yu-Foo herself. As a working mother, she often had to “rely on her relatives to care for her children”. She relied on “her parents-in-law, who lived with her, her siblings, who took her children out swimming, and on her domestic worker”. 15 Domestic work has not stopped being ‘women’s work’ – it has simply been increasingly outsourced to other women.

This episode was highlighted in 2015 when advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather released their ‘Mums & Maids’ video campaign, with the endorsement of migrant rights group Transient Workers Count Too. The short video featured mothers answering questions about their child, juxtaposing their answers with that of their FDWs. When the FDWs invariably got the answers right, the ad asked, “Shouldn’t we spend more time with our children?” before urging employers to give their FDWs their legal days off. 16

Although the campaign was trying to raise an important issue about ensuring FDWs received weekly day off, the ad came under fire for unfairly singling out mothers. By only pitting mothers against domestic workers the implicit message was that it is the mother’s responsibility – far more than the father’s – to spend time with and know everything about her children.

Work and the falling birth rate

As the birth rate began to fall beyond what the government had intended in the late 1980s, policies were implemented to make it easier for working women to start families. Educated women in particular were actively encouraged to have more children.

Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme

Under this scheme, the offspring of university-educated women with three or more children would get priority in primary school registration. In the same year, the government announced that $10,000 would be given to low-income, less-educated women below the age of 30 who sterilised themselves after the first or second child.

Related themes Family Reproductive Rights Civil Society

The Graduate Mothers’ Scheme was announced in 1984, favouring the children of mothers with a university degree in primary school registration. The Social Development Unit was also established in the same year to promote romance and marriage between educated Singaporeans.

Elitism & eugenics in population policy

Following a census in 1980, the state grew worried that better-educated women were reproducing at a lower rate than lower-educated women, and that this trend would lead to a depletion "of the talented". Policies were thus introduced to encourage better-educated women to have children, while lower-educated, poorer women were offered incentives to get sterilised after their first or second child.

Although overt eugenicist rhetoric was walked back under Have Three or More (If You Can Afford It), specific policies continued to discriminate against lower-educated Singaporeans.

Related themes Family Reproductive Rights

In 1986, the government scrapped its Stop At Two policy, replacing it with Have Three or More (If You Can Afford It) in 1987. 17 These pro-natalist policies were specifically targeted at middle-class families while low-income families were actively discouraged from having children.

The next wave of policies encouraging work-life balance emerged within this pro-natalist context. In 1987, The Ministry of Community Development announced $100 childcare subsidies for all families. That same year, the government also encouraged employers to promote part-time and flexi-time employment for working women with young children. They also encouraged the extension of (no-pay) maternity leave and retraining of women who rejoined the workforce.

Few other public policy initiatives have tried to address the gender imbalance in participation in housework and childcare

From 2000, the government slowly increased maternity leave entitlements, as well as the monetary benefits accompanying each birth for married women. This was eventually paired with maternity leave protection in 2008, which meant that employers were required to pay maternity leave benefits if the woman had been dismissed without sufficient cause within six months before the birth of the child or retrenched within the last three months of pregnancy.

In 2007, the Flexi-Works! Scheme was launched, as was a $3 million funding scheme introduced to ease the recruitment of employees aged 35 and above on part-time or flexi-work arrangements. This evolved into a S$10 million fund called ‘Work-Life Works!’, which similarly reimbursed companies that adopted measures to help their employees achieve work-life harmony.

Though these measures enhanced women’s access to formal work, they remained grounded in gendered assumptions.

Fathers in the civil service were permitted to take three days’ paternity leave in 2000, 18 but it wasn’t until 2013 – after many years of petitioning and lobbying by groups such as the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) – that mandatory paternity leave was legislated for the economy at large. Nevertheless, the amount of paternity leave was limited to one week (with a second week, optional for employers, added in 2015). Few other public policy initiatives have tried to address the gender imbalance in participation in housework and childcare.

Discrimination and harassment at work

Women’s rights groups have noted other barriers to women staying and advancing in the workforce. Harassment, for instance, has prevented women from participating in the workplace on an equal footing with men. A 2008 survey by AWARE found that just over half of the 500 respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, with 79 per cent of the victims being women. 19 Over the years, AWARE’s helpline and legal information services assisted many women who had faced sexual harassment – experiences which in some cases forced them out of their jobs.

“Harassers are often in a higher position in the workplace hierarchy than their victims,” said Corinna Lim, who counselled numerous victims of harassment as part of her role as Executive Director of AWARE. “Many women feel that they will not be heard if they speak up – they have no recourse.” 20

A 2008 survey by AWARE found that just over half of the 500 respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace, with 79 per cent of the victims being women.

AWARE lobbied for legislation specifically outlawing sexual harassment for many years, leading to eventual passage of the Protection from Harassment Act in March 2014. However, unlike analogous legislation in other major business centres, the law did not require employers to take steps to prevent sexual harassment.

What is CEDAW?

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations. It is often referred to as an international bill of rights for women.

All states that sign on to the Convention commit themselves to taking the necessary measures to end discrimination against women in all forms. This is a legally binding obligation. States are also required to submit national reports, at least every four years, on what they have done to comply with their treaty obligations.

Singapore became a state party to CEDAW in October 1995.

Women have also faced unfair dismissals, especially in relation to pregnancy, with little in the way of clear rights to redress. The Ministry of Manpower has emerged as a forum for complaints, which it considers on a case-by-case basis: in one particularly high-profile example, the Ministry ordered a church to compensate a pregnant woman $7,000 for her lost salary and maternity benefits, after she was dismissed for committing adultery. 21 Yet there remains no explicit right to be free from discrimination on the grounds of gender – or indeed any other grounds – in the employment context. Moreover, until 2015, 22 Singapore entered reservations to Article 11 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – expressly avoiding committing, in international law, to prevent workplace discrimination against women on the basis of sex, gender, maternity and marital status.

Inequality at the top

Despite advances in the last decades, women have continued to be poorly represented in leadership positions, both in business and in politics. Historically, a political career was judged as out of the question; women, it was claimed, were "too emotional" and politics "too dirty, too tough," and "too unfeminine". Mrs Yu-Foo recalls that when she first started out in politics, some people were not as receptive to her and other female politicians. She said “the male voters on the ground were…not so open…I felt that some of them didn’t really want to talk to us.” But after a few years, Mrs Yu-Foo said they eventually warmed up to her when “they realized that women were quite efficient and can also do a good job, and were serious about their work. Then they started opening up.” 23

The business world too has seen relatively little female leadership, though there are signs that this deficit is being taken increasingly seriously. Although women only make up about 7.9 per cent of company boards, 25.1 per cent of CEOs and directors of companies in Singapore are women, which is higher than the global average of 12.9 per cent. 24

Then-Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Ms Grace Fu, publicly stated in 2014 that she should like to see boards have at least 20 percent of its members be women. She said, "Even if we are not ready for 50:50 representation, surely we are ready for something more than 8 per cent. We should at least aim for 20 per cent." 25 An inter-ministry committee was set up in the same year to look into this; and the Ministry of Social and Family Development accepted 10 recommendations by the Diversity Task Force, including programmes and training to help qualified women take on senior management positions.

A serious impact

Women’s access to work is not merely an ideological concern – it has had and will continue to have a major impact on women’s welfare, especially in an ageing population. According to Central Provident Fund statistics, older Singapore women do not accumulate as much in CPF savings as older men. In 2013, the median CPF savings for women aged 51 to 54 was about $90,000, and for males, $130,000. 26 A study conducted in 2003 by the Tsao Foundation and AWARE concluded that many women above the age of 60 would have little or no CPF savings, as they had spent much of their lives caring for their families. 27

The right to decent work, and to fair recompense and recognition for labour, can only become available to all women – including domestic workers – if the caregiving that underpins all other economic activity is genuinely valued, and given appropriate societal support.

Foreign Domestic Workers & the Employment Act

FDWs were excluded from the Employment Act as policymakers did not feel that domestic work was amenable to such regulation. As a result, there is no stipulated maximum hours of work for an FDW, and they continue to lack protections provided to workers in all other industries.

Related themes Migration

And while Singaporean women have made gains in the workplace, these have often come at the expense of other women, namely foreign domestic workers. There has been no reimagining of domestic responsibilities as the shared duty of all genders and household chores and childcare continue to be devalued as ‘women’s work’. Domestic workers also remain excluded from the Employment Act. As a result, they have faced the denial of labour rights, including inadequate rest days, excessive working hours, the confiscation of personal documents such as their passport, and control over their personal lives.

The right to decent work, and to fair recompense and recognition for labour, can only become available to all women – including domestic workers – if the caregiving that underpins all other economic activity is genuinely valued, and given appropriate societal support. Many steps remain in Singapore’s ongoing journey towards treating women as true equals, with the full opportunity to belong – and even lead – in every sphere of economic life.

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  1. Cheng, Siok-Hwa. "Singapore Women: Legal Status, Educational Attainment, and Employment Patterns." Asian Survey (1977): 358-374.
  2. Wong, John. ASEAN Economies in Perspective: A Comparative Study of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand (London: Macmillan Co., 1979), pp. 71-75.
  3. Department of Statistics, Yearbook of Statistics (Singapore, 1978/79).
  4. Wong, Aline K. "Planned development, social stratification, and the sexual division of labor in Singapore." Signs (1981): 440.
  5. See note 4.
  6. Arora, Mandakini. ”Moves Toward Gender Equity in Singapore from the 1950s” Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A history of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore, 54-83. Singapore: Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.
  7. “Nurses Strike”. The Straits Times. 7 June 1963. Accessed [23 June 2015]
  8. Cheah, Boon Keng. “Nurses go back to wards today”. The Straits Times. 12 June 1963. Accessed [23 June 2015]
  9. Ng, Beng Yeong. Till the Break of Day: A History of Mental Health Services in Singapore, 1841 – 1993. Singapore: NUS Press, 2001.
  10. “Labour Force and the Economy: Median Gross Monthly Income and Gender Wage Gap”. Ministry of Social and Family Development. Accessed [23 June 2015]
  11. Kuo, Eddie C.Y. and Wong, Aline K, The Contemporary Family in Singapore: Structure and Change. Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1979.
  12. Wong, Casandra, “Singapore ranked 12th in attitudes on gender equality, after China and Hong Kong: YouGov”, TODAY. 14 November 2015. Accessed [18 November 2015].
  13. Wong, Aline K. “Women in Singapore: A Report.” Signs (1976): 213-218.
  14. Yu-Foo, Yee Shoon. Interview with Charmain Poh, 2015.
  15. See note 13.
  16. Ogilvy & Mather. “Mums & Maids #igiveadayoff.” 22 April 2015. Accessed [14 May 2015]
  17. Wong, Theresa and Yeoh, Brenda S.A., 2003, Fertility and the Family: An Overview of Pro-natalist Population Policies in Singapore, Asian Metacentre Research Paper Series No.12, June 2003, NUS
  18. Sun, Shirley Hsiao-Li. “Re-Producing Citizens: Gender, Employment, and Work-Family Balance Policies in Singapore”. Journal of Workplace Rights, 14(3), 351-374
  19. AWARE. “Research Study on Workplace Sexual Harassment 2008”. Accessed [23 June 2015]
  20. Lim, Corinna. Interview with Jolene Tan, 18 May 2015.
  21. Tan, Jeannette. “Church pays $7,000 compensation for dismissed pregnant staff who had affair”. Yahoo! Singapore. 28 August 2013. Accessed [13 April 2015]
  22. Singapore's Fifth CEDAW Periodic Report, UNOHCHR website, 29 October 2015. Accessed [1 December 2015]
  23. Yu-Foo, Yee Shoon. Interview with Charmaine Poh, 2015.
  24. “Singapore tops Asia in proportion of women CEOs: Report” Channel Newsasia. 25 Sept 2014. Accessed [23 June 2015]
  25. Mok, Fei Fei. “Target at least 20 per cent of board seats for women: Grace Fu” The Straits Times. 1 Feb 2015. Accessed [23 June 2015]
  26. Raghunathan, Ranjana and Tan Jian Xiang. “Experiences among ageing women in Singapore”. AWARE. 30 Sept 2013. Accessed [25 June 2015]
  27. Shantakumar, G. “Income Security and the Older Women”, 2004.