To progressives (like me), the fact that there has to be a “women’s wing” in any political party seems odd. The fact that women are still struggling for equality, to “find their place in the sun”, and have to have any kind of special political body to push their issues may be necessary but outdated. For heaven’s sake, this is Singapore, a modern society where the question of equality of the sexes should have been settled eons ago. Period.
But never mind, here we are. The Progress Singapore Party just launched its women’s wing yesterday (Jan 30). The five women who took part in the webinar to mark its launch represented a microcosm of young women who would be interesting models for different segments of Singapore society. It was a wide enough selection the very inclusiveness of which saw to it that not everyone was going to agree with the others. Anita Kapoor (TV host), Nurul Fathiah (early childhood educator), Joanne Soo (Mt Everest climber), Preetipls (internet celeb) and Hazel Poa (NCMP) had varying and inspiring journeys to share with viewers. I am not going into the substance of what they spoke about. Readers can check it out on Facebook/YouTube.
The PSP women’s wing launch compelled me to ask: When we will have a woman Prime Minister or a woman Deputy Prime Minister? Is there any reason why not?
There has been no lack of women politicians in modern Singapore. Wikipedia: “As the People’s Action Party rose to power in 1959, as many as four female PAP candidates were voted into the self-governing Legislative Assembly. They included Women League’s founders Chan Choy Siong and Ho Puay Choo. The PAP-Barisan Sosialis schism caused two women members to defect to the Barisan Sosialis”. Chan was, incidentally the wife of PAP 1G Minister Ong Pang Boon.” There were other women in other political parties, including Felice Leon-Soh, Liberal Socialist Party, and Seow Peck Leng, Singapore People’s Alliance. Indeed, according to The Straits Times, Seow and other female lawmakers – all from the PAP – fought to end polygamous marriages, paving the way for the passing of the Women’s Charter in 1961. She also lobbied for women to be paid the same wages as men.”
The PAP itself gradually put up more women candidates and, with their input, sought to correct many anomalies which worked against women and their legal and social rights in such areas as work, marriage and family. There are nine women in this term’s line-up of 37 political office-holders, with two newcomers among them.
In its own way, the Workers’ Party has been quite a trail-blazer. As an opposition party fighting the dominant PAP, it was not constrained by any kind of worry about whether the ground was ready for a woman leader or whether having a woman as its leader would work against the party. The party was not going to be the government. It just wanted to get into Parliament. Get the right mix of candidates for a GRC and the rest will take care itself. Sylvia Lim was not regarded as a token woman leader. An excellent public speaker, whether at rallies or in Parliament, she has always been the equal of any notable Singapore politician. And she has been effective on the ground. Finally, she is Chairman of the WP, regarded as a heavyweight politician.
Two more points.
The leader of the newly elected WP GRC team in Sengkang is He Ting Ru, a still relatively young female MP at 37. With her is Raeesah Khan, 27. Waiting to get into Parliament is Nicole Seah, 34, who put up a good fight in East Coast as part of the WP GRC team against the PAP team led by DPM Heng Swee Keat.
In a sense, the WP is much closer to millennial thinking than the PAP which may still be hesitating to go against the so-called heartland, more conservative, grain. Are Singaporeans still so patriarchal or chauvinist? I cringe a bit whenever anyone discusses whether men should stay at home to look after the family. We should have been long past that stage. Such choices are entirely personal and no one else’s business. If the wife earns more than her partner, so be it. It does not make sense to give that up just to satisfy some preconceived idea of a woman’s “place” as a homemaker. I have known two happy families where the husbands are the home-makers. Whether these are a small minority is beside the point. To each his or her own.
So, welcome to the club of gender equality, PSP.
And, oh, women PMs or state leaders? You want a list? Margaret Thatcher (Britain), Indira Gandhi (India), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Park Geun-hye (South Korea), Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar), Megawati Sukanoputri (Indonesia), Corazon Aquino (Philippines) and Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), among others.
Besides, there have been other women leaders who, by choice or design, are powerful in their own right because of who they are. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was Deputy PM of Malaysia in the Pakatan Harapan government. And do not forget Ho Ching, wife of PM Lee Hsien Loong and CEO of Temasek Holdings, a non-political post but probably with more clout than many other Singapore leaders.
Lawrence Wong’s worry: Draining of the asabiyya
Education Minister Lawrence Wong referred to 1G DPM S Rajaratnam when he spoke about resets forced on us by the Covid-19 pandemic. In a 1979 speech, Rajaratnam talked about “asabiyya” or group solidarity which makes or breaks civilisations. Wong was urging Singaporeans to retain asabiyya in the face of adversity or hardship.
The concept came from the work of 14th century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun. I agree with the concept. After the first stage of progress and achievement when asabiyya is at its highest, decline usually follows. Rajaratnam: “The fifth stage is one of waste and squandering. In this stage the ruler wastes on pleasures and amusements (the treasures) accumulated by his ancestors through (excessive) generosity to his inner circle at their parties. Also he acquires bad, low-class followers to whom he entrusts the most important matters (of state) which they are not qualified to handle by themselves… Thus he ruins the foundations his ancestors had laid and tears down what they had built up. In this stage the dynasty is seized by senility and the chronic disease from which it can hardly ever rid itself, for which it can find no cure, and, eventually, it is destroyed.
“He goes on to add that the end of the dynasty is clearly in sight when the hard-up ruler, unable to squeeze his subjects any further, takes part in trade and commerce and tries to monopolise it to the detriment of his trading subjects.
“By then the asabiyya, bred in the desert, has been drained of its last drop.”
At what stage are we?
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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