Parliament backs White Paper to improve equality, opportunities for S’pore women after 9.5-hour debate

The 115-page White Paper had proposed that by 2024, employers must consider staff requests for flexible work arrangements fairly and properly, under a new set of guidelines.

Goh Yan Han

Goh Yan Han

The Straits Times


The motion on the White Paper on Singapore Women's Development was passed unanimously by all MPs present. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

April 6, 2022

SINGAPORE – A 10-year road map to ensure all Singapore women have greater access to opportunities, and more equal partnerships with men, was endorsed by Parliament on Tuesday (April 5), with 40 MPs speaking on the topic.

The motion on the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development, presented to Parliament on March 28, was passed unanimously by all MPs present.

Opening the 9½-hour debate, Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo acknowledged that while women here have made much progress, the country must not shy away from dealing with the various daily challenges they face – from sexual predators to social expectations.

MPs from both sides of the House spoke on promoting flexible work arrangements, enhancing support for parents and caregivers, and changing mindsets – three key pillars of the White Paper – among others.

Some called for an accelerated timeline to entrench flexible work arrangements as a workplace norm, such as Mr Melvin Yong (Radin Mas) who said: “We should strike when the iron is hot… and roll out the guidelines when many employers are still fresh from having the majority of their workforce telecommuting.”

The 115-page White Paper, which drew on views from some 6,000 participants over a year, had proposed that by 2024, employers must consider staff requests for flexible work arrangements fairly and properly, under a new set of guidelines.

Other MPs also highlighted the importance of the dos and don’ts of flexiwork to protect privacy and family time at home.

Recognition of the disproportionate burden that female caregivers bear was also a common thread in MPs’ speeches.

Ms Rachel Ong (West Coast GRC), who focused on single women caregivers, suggested family care leave be made mandatory instead of just encouraging employers to provide for it.

Workers’ Party (WP) MPs Jamus Lim and Louis Chua (both Sengkang GRC) pushed for more parental leave so that fathers can also spend more time with their children and take on more of the care work.

They put forward WP’s proposal of a shared parental leave scheme that entitles parents to 24 weeks of shared government-paid leave with a minimum of four weeks to be granted to the father and 12 weeks to the mother.

The current government policy is 16 weeks of maternity leave, of which fathers can apply to share up to four weeks, and two weeks of paternity leave.

Associate Professor Lim said: “By imposing a maximum that the father can take, the law as currently construed embeds, if you will, an implicit assumption that the father is in fact the primary breadwinner.”

More protection for women who face various types of harm – such as online, physical or sexual – was also called for.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann spoke on the need to close the digital safety gap so that women and girls can feel as safe and confident online as they do in real life.

Ms Sim, who co-chairs the Sunlight Alliance for Action that looks to address online harms targeted mainly at women and girls, said there will be a workshop to equip young people to support peers who may be experiencing online harms and a pilot programme to provide counselling intervention to victims.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said the response and attitude of law enforcement to reports of family violence is critical. She noted the White Paper had proposed that responders to family violence cases include social service professionals, and agreed that tackling family violence benefits from a comprehensive approach.

But she was concerned that a “softer” approach may lead to perpetrators thinking that they can try to explain their actions away, to which Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling later refuted, adding that social service professionals will be empowered to move victim-survivors out of their homes temporarily where necessary.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam highlighted the psychological significance of the White Paper.

“How many will dare to say men and women should not be equal? … It is an achievement that regardless of whatever one may personally think that if people realise that expressing a contrary view would be against social norms, that means people understand what the norms are,” he said.

“The impact on norms, values, the internalisation of the idea of equality – I see that as among the most important outcomes from this process,” he added.

There was also emphasis on the role that men have to play.

Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli appealed to men to step up and do more to make a difference, while Health Minister Ong Ye Kung called for men to be more proactive in supporting the women in their lives.

Said Mr Ong: “At the most basic level, let us respect women through our words and actions. Offences against women are clearly wrong, and the vast majority of us agree with that. Perhaps what is less obvious is the occasional insensitive remark that reflects an unconscious bias or stereotype.

“Understand and see things from a woman’s point of view. Stop mansplaining, using diminutives, or doing things in the presence of women that they feel embarrassed by.”

Rounding up the marathon sitting, Mrs Teo said the greatest contribution of the debate “is in upholding the values we hold dear as a society, and which will serve as our north star as we seek out the next milestones in women’s development”.

These values are equality for men and women – women should have equal opportunities to pursue their aspirations, as much as men; partnership – women should be regarded as equal partners of men, not only at work but also at home; as well as mutual respect between both genders.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who met some of the participants who shared their views for the White Paper in Parliament, said in a Facebook post that he was heartened by their optimism and conviction that Singapore was making progress in changing mindsets, improving conditions for women at home and at the workplace, and advancing women’s interests.

“This is a promising start towards building a fairer and more inclusive society, where all Singaporeans can pursue their aspirations freely and to the fullest. My thanks to all who contributed to the White Paper, and to this ongoing collective drive for gender equality,” he wrote.

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