“Is there a feminised symbol of a nation more globally recognised than the Singapore Girl?” asks Chris Hudson in his recent thought-provoking book, Beyond the Singapore Girl: Discourses of gender and nation in Singapore, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen.
Before independence, women participation in the labour force in Singapore was low. Thus, the only way to improve their overall societal situation was to legislate family laws. Realising this, the People’s Action Party (PAP) campaigned in 1959 under the slogan “one man, one wife”, and rights of women known as the Women’s Charter was legislated in 1961, which outlawed polygamous marriage, except among Muslims.
The Women’s Charter
The Women’s Charter is chapter 353 of Singapore’s statutes. It provides the legal basis for equality between husband and wife. It makes polygamy illegal; recognises the wife’s right to a different domicile from her husband; states the rights and duties of both husbands and wives in the management of the home and children; makes it obligatory for parents to maintain their children, and for a husband to maintain his wife; governs divorce proceedings and entitles the divorced man or wife to a share of matrimonial assets; enables a battered spouse to gain protection from the perpetrator; and provides the penalty for offences against women and girls.
In 2011, the Charter was amended to facilitate marriages, mitigate the impact of divorce and enhance the enforcement of maintenance orders.
Source: Ministry of social and family development (MSFD)
As Singapore progressed, a massive housing and resettlement programme was launched under the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which transformed the existing familial arrangements of sprawling compounds with many families to the three or four-roomed apartments of nuclear or two-generation families. This dramatically changed the personal relationships landscape, consumption patterns and female labour force participation rate in the city-state.
Also, stringent family planning measures such as the “Stop at Two” campaign, resulted in a declining labour force. The government then renewed efforts for promoting women education and bring them inside the job market.
By 1991, Singapore’s national identity as the government saw it encapsulated “family as the basic unit of society”. This was mentioned in a document, Shared Values, tabled in the Parliament on January 2, the same year.
But if women produce the family and perform their traditional roles, “it also means that they can reproduce the inherent ambiguities in the Singapore family, and find spaces of liberation within it,” says Hudson.
Precisely this has happened in Singapore, “where buoyant by education and the expectation of labour force participation as part of their commitment to the nation and family, the younger generation of Singaporean women have found a measure of economic freedom,” he adds.
“The imperative for a nation with a small population to educate its women, and employ them as a national and economic resource, has meant an expansion of the discursive space for women, rather than a diminution of it. There is, then, a tension between the forms of liberation that Singapore women have attained and the imperatives of a patriarchal society.”
Though none can deny that Singapore women have fared much better than their sisters around the world, some issues still remain, which were brought up when Singapore presented its most recent fourth periodic report at the 49th session of the UN CEDAW Committee on July 2011. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also regarded as the international bill of rights for women, is a UN human rights treaty for women.
While applauding Singapore’s obvious success in achieving gender equality, the Committee urged the city-state to “step up on legislation to specifically criminalize marital rape, trafficking in persons and sexual harassment, prohibit discrimination against women on all grounds, completely ban polygamy, and extend legal protection and redress to couples in de facto unions”, informed MSFD.
The Committee also pushed for Singapore to provide equal choice of adjudication between the Syariah and Family Courts, impose stricter safety regulations in aesthetic clinics, review the legal protection afforded to foreign domestic workers, and repeal the law requiring work permit holders, including foreign domestic workers, to be deported on grounds of pregnancy or a diagnosis of sexually transmitted diseases, the ministry added.
According to the UN’s Human Development Report 2013, Singapore is ranked 13 out of the 148 countries with a score of 0.101 on the Gender Inequality Index. 25.3% seats in the Parliament are occupied by females, maternal mortality ratio (deaths per 100,000 live births) is 3, 71.3% of female population has at least secondary education, and the female labour force participation rate is 56.5%.
According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index 2012, Singapore was ranked overall 55 out of 135 countries. While in terms of economic participation, Singaporean women scored a rank of 13, in educational attainment it was 104, in political empowerment it was 89, and 85 in terms of health and survival.
The sex ratio (males per 1000 females) in 2012 was 970.
The percentage of households headed by females in 2010 was 21.6%. It was 17.8% in 1990.
The female literacy rate in 2012 was 94.4%.
In terms of average monthly earnings, women earned S$3,650 as against the male earning of S$4,964 in 2011. Thus, the gender wage gap was 26.5%.
While there are 17 male ministers, there is only one female in the Singapore’s cabinet, Grace Fu, who is the minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
There are 3 female judges in the Supreme Court, which is 17.6% of the total number.
According to the data provided by the Singapore Police Force, the number of molestation cases increased by 2% in 2012 reaching 1,420. Particularly, in buses and trains, the increase in such cases was more pronounced. (36% increase with a total of 155 cases)
Source: Ministry of social and family development