Gender Equality in Singapore: What it Truly Entails

Magda Ehlers/Pexels
Magda Ehlers/Pexels

Fill Me In

“Every boy and girl must grow up imbibing the value of gender equality. They need to be taught from an early age that boys and girls are to be treated equally with respect. It has to be a deep mindset change.”

These were the words expressed by Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam in his speech during a virtual dialogue session titled “Conversations on Women’s Development” on 20 September. In his speech, he announced a comprehensive review of issues affecting women today. These will culminate in a White Paper next year, which will come up with definitive steps to address women-related issues in Singapore, and be a “roadmap for progress”, and “a pathway towards greater gender equality”.  

Women’s rights in Singapore: A brief history

The call for gender equality in Singapore began long before Singapore even achieved her independence. Such sentiments had already begun to fester in the post-war period, where women had begun to take up more prominent roles in the rungs of society. Gender-related inhibitions were gradually getting cast away, inspired by war heroines such as Elizabeth Choy, who bravely endured torture by Japanese military police.

Women thus began to step out from the confines of their domestic duties, and started to volunteer for jury services, as well as government feeding centres for malnourished children. Women-centric organisations also began to mushroom, such as the Indonesian Ladies Club, and the Cantonese Women’s Mutual Help Association, which helped women to establish their identities in mainstream society.

Out of the plethora of women’s organisations that emerged during the post-war period, one that stood out was the Singapore Council of Women (SCW), which was officially recognised in 1952. It was founded by Shirin Fozdar, who started the council to unite the women of Singapore, and “go to the root causes of all the social evils that exist and handicap the progress of women towards their emancipation and their enjoyment of equal rights”. The SCW would eventually be the watershed for the awakening of women in Singapore. 

Progress made

The SWC was the first organisation that was racially diverse, and had multiple initiatives to boost the status of women in society, such as a Girl’s Club that taught members a variety of skills, building creches in factories to help women with work-life balance and providing counselling to women who had been abandoned by their husbands.

Notably, in 1953, the SCW drafted an ordinance, the Prevention of Bigamous Marriages, to fight for monogamous unions in Singapore. This would mark the beginning of a long-drawn battle for the SCW, who had to convince the various religious leaders before they could gain endorsement from the British. Finally, in 1957, the SCW managed to get the Muslim Advisory Board to adhere to their demands. 

The Women’s Charter of 1961

While the newly-formed political parties were jostling with the British colonists for independence, the SCW was also busy lobbying the political parties to address the injustices faced by women. Unfortunately, most of these political parties felt that including women’s rights in their policies would affect their performance in future elections.

However, one political party, the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP), chose to take a strong stand on women’s rights, partly due to the influence of female politician Chan Choy Siong. The party also adopted the SCW’s ‘one man one wife’ slogan as part of their manifesto.

Singapore ready to accept women’s civil rights?

The landslide victory of PAP in the 1959 election, as well as women’s roles in the voting process was an indicator that Singapore was ready to accept the notion of women’s civil rights. On 24 May 1961, the Legislative Assembly finally passed the Women’s Charter Bill, with the ordinance coming into force on 15 September the same year.

The Charter mandated monogamous marriages, regardless of rites. Women could now also sue their husbands for adultery and bigamy. Men were also now required to pay for the maintenance of wives and children, and could be prosecuted for offences against women and girls.

Even though the Charter still did not apply to Muslim women, the Muslim community was now pressurised to improve the welfare of women. In the revision of the Muslim Ordinace of 1957, men were no longer allowed to take another wife if they could not support her financially. This helped to limit the practice of polygamy in the Muslim community. 

Where are we now?

Singapore has definitely come a long way since then, and our progress towards gender equality is reflected in many instances. In 2019, the United Nations Human Development Report ranked Singapore 11th out of 162 countries for gender equality. According to the Global Innovation Index this year, we rank first for the proportion of women employed with advanced degrees. Finally, almost 30 per cent of our seats in Parliament are taken up by women. 

Going beyond figures

While the above figures do reflect substantial progress in the areas of employment and education for women, there is still much to be done. Although a large majority of women are able to enjoy relatively equal treatment, they still face certain issues that are a by-product of deeply seeded cultural beliefs about the role of women in society and in the family.

According to gender advocacy groups and community leaders, the top three challenges faced by women in Singapore are sexual violence, balancing work-family dynamics and sexism in the workplace.

Respect for women

When we look at these issues closely, a common denominator that ties them together is the principle of respect for women. As Shanmugam has pointed out, gender equality has to go beyond matrices of performance, and has to become something “imprinted deeply into our collective consciousness”. To further support his point, he also brought up the issue of sexual harassment: “If (gender equality) is more deeply ingrained, my hope is that (potential offenders) will be less inclined, or they will understand the consequences much more, and then they will not treat it like a prank or something to satisfy themselves, they will more carefully consider that they should not (commit the offence),” he said.

Should gender equality be reconceptualised, issues like sexual violence and workplace sexism would be perceived as “a deep violation of fundamental values”. 

“Equality must not just be formal, but substantive — and take into account the unique challenges (and) needs that women face, and the specific effects that policies have on them, to truly level the playing field,” he said.

Getting to the root of it and changing the status quo

In an interview with Channel News Asia, Mrs Contance Singnam, a long-time gender equality advocate, agreed with Shanmugam’s idea of making gender equality a fundamental value. However, she also mentioned that in order to do so, it would require changing the way we live our daily lives: “When we’re talking about fundamental values, we really have to go to the roots of patriarchal values, which is our daily living, social culture… we’re talking about how control and power is imposed through a hierarchical level — the father to the household, to the mother, mother to children and so on.” 

Although the government can put in place policies to help women boost their standing in society, from inducing harsher punishments for sexual violence, and having more female representation in workplaces, truly achieving gender equality would entail us to rethink the way we perceive gender roles. Educating the young might pave the way for a more balanced society in the future, but perhaps we also need to unpack the traditional mindsets and notions that we have been taught — which affects the things that we say, and then choices we make in our daily lives. 

Perhaps we also need to consider educating those above us, whose experience puts them in positions of power, to truly dismantle these entrenched beliefs as well. 




Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest articles and insights right to your inbox!

You might like


Latest updates


Welcome Back!

Login to your account below

Create New Account!

Fill the forms below to register

Retrieve your password

Please enter your username or email address to reset your password.

Are you sure want to unlock this post?
Unlock left : 0
Are you sure want to cancel subscription?