Asia

More to be done to change mindsets and improve gender equality here: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE – There should be something “aspirational” in the Constitution that Singapore recognises the equal rights of men and women, said Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam at a panel discussion on Monday (March 8).

He added that it was a personal view and that he was not speaking for the Government.

He was responding to a student who asked if it was possible to amend the Constitution to express gender equality.

The panel was part of the Tembusu forum on women, organised by the Tembusu College of the National University of Singapore. It was moderated by Professor Tommy Koh, rector of the college.

Mr Shanmugam said: “My personal view on this is that we should have something aspirational in the Constitution because the Constitution sets out our values (and) where we want to see society going.”

But he also said that it was not a simple issue to just make the amendment, as various trade-offs have to be assessed.

“At another level – these are the constraints on policy-making – you don’t want to hurt the very people you’re trying to help.”

Referring to how this change can affect firms, he added: “What you don’t want to end up (with) is a lot of litigation affecting the very companies and the very economy of Singapore.

“Anytime we impose on companies, we need to think about the trade-offs. So when you come to putting it in the Constitution, the question is, does it impose certain inflexibility or makes our companies and economic sector face additional litigation, on the basis of discrimination … But having said that, if we can marry the two. I think it would be ideal.”

Ms Corinna Lim, Association of Women for Action and Research executive director, who was also a speaker on the panel, noted that when the Women’s Charter was created in 1961, some wanted it to include anti-discrimination provisions.

“Those objections were not heeded. It’s actually been a long-time debate about whether or not we should have protection against discrimination.”

In his opening address, Mr Shanmugam said that with regards to the position of women in Singapore, the glass is “perhaps two-thirds full, maybe a little more.”

He noted that while Singapore does well with female education for instance, it is a work in progress in areas such as helping women juggle multiple roles particularly in adult life. There is also the serious issue of family violence, he added.

Most importantly, changing attitudes are important.

“From a very young age, these attitudes get hard-coded. There are differences between … men and women, but I think the right approach is not to say that everything can be done equally, but to say that everyone has equal rights.”

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Panel speaker Ms Junie Foo, the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations president, noted that there was also some way to go.

The Women’s Charter was first passed in 1961, “and 60 years later, we are still talking about it”, she said. “I think we lost our way because there are still some aspects of gender issues that we have to come to grips with.”

SCWO has pushed for more women on company boards since 2011, but Singapore still has not reached 20 per cent of women on boards, she added.

Ms Lim also said that merit is key to achieving leadership positions, but that the playing field has to be levelled.

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