We need more women in Singapore politics
International Women’s Day (March 8) serves as a reminder that we must take proactive steps to achieve gender parity across our social, economic, cultural and political spheres. Currently, 23 per cent of our parliamentarians are women and they make up only around 10 per cent of the Cabinet (two out of 21).
Singapore’s next generation of political leaders have much on their mind, not least the need to pick the next Prime Minister from amongst themselves.
Each time the baton was passed in Singapore’s short history, the new Prime Minister and his team have sought to adjust the government’s approach to politics itself.
Mr Goh Chok Tong made the government more consultative and compassionate while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong built on this and made the government more inclusive and focused on tackling inequality.
The next Prime Minister, I believe, should make the government more representative by increasing the number of women in politics.
International Women’s Day is celebrated today (March 8) to recognise the progress made and reflect on the challenges faced by women around the world.
The day serves as a reminder that we must take proactive steps to achieve gender parity across our social, economic, cultural and political spheres.
Currently, 23 per cent of our parliamentarians are women and they make up only around 10 per cent of the Cabinet (two out of 21).
While the number of women participating in politics has progressed in the last two decades, more can be done to address the underrepresentation of women in Parliament.
Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, often said that having more women in the Cabinet or in Parliament did not mean policies were deliberated differently or had a different focus.
She argued, instead, that if the gender balance of a cabinet or parliament does not reflect that of the population, the quality of the debates will simply not be as good as it can be.
It means that the best people for the job are still not found.
In Singapore’s case, I hope we will soon have more female ministers and that one day, it would not be a given that the next Prime Minister is male.
An argument often used to explain the low number of women represented in higher office is that not enough of them put their hand up to be considered.
While this assumption itself should be challenged, a conscious effort should also be made to encourage more women to get into politics.
The Economist recently reported on a study where researchers observed 247 departmental talks and seminars in biology, psychology and philosophy that took place at 35 universities in 10 countries.
They found that during the Q&A session, men were over two and a half times more likely to pose questions to the speakers at a seminar even though half of each seminar’s audience was female.
The interesting bit was that this male skew was only observed when a man asked the first question.
When a woman opened the Q&A session with a question, the gender split in question-asking was proportional to that of the audience.
In other words, simply handing a woman the microphone first had a significant impact on the rest of the women in the room. It made them less hesitant to put their hand up to ask a question.
Often, all that is needed is a nudge.
MINORITY REPRESENTATION IS NOT NEW IN SINGAPORE
The importance of ensuring minority representation in politics is not a new concept to Singaporeans.
After all, we recently had our first Presidential election reserved for Malays. Controversial as it was, it also gave us our first female President, the significance of which should not be lost on us.
We also have Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) to ensure minority candidates are elected to Parliament.
Furthermore, the Government established the Diversity Action Committee to increase women directors on listed company boards in Singapore.
Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and the only female Minister in full charge of a ministry, urged companies to get more women on boards to meet the committee’s target of 20 per cent female representation on the boards of listed companies here by 2020.
She noted that Singapore’s female labour force participation rate grew from 57 per cent in 2011 to 60 per cent in 2016, with women making up more than 45 per cent of the labour force today. “But women occupy only just over 10 per cent of board seats. This is far from optimal”, she said.
The intention is noble but the Government should try to lead by example and improve the 10 per cent female representation in its own Cabinet as well.
A simple commitment by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) at the next general election to field more female candidates would go a long way to correcting the current gender imbalance in Parliament. Smaller political parties could then follow its lead.
At the 2015 elections, PAP fielded at least one female candidate in all but two of the 16 GRCs (Aljunied and Sembawang). Less than one quarter of its candidates were women.
It should strive to have female candidates contest in all the GRCs in the next election.
In Taiwan, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party set quotas for its nominees for elected office and party positions, decreeing that at least a quarter of them had to be women. This was done in the late 1990s. The Kuomintang also introduced similar quotas in 2000. In 2005, the Constitution was changed to set aside 15 per cent of the seats in the legislature for women.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that since the changes, women representation in the legislature has climbed steadily. In 2016, Taiwan also elected its first female president.
Every one needs role models. As Hillary Clinton explained in her book What Happened, aspiring to become the first female President was about breaking the glass ceiling for women as much as it was about her own personal ambition.
In the same book, she succinctly summarised sexism as “big and little ways society draws a box around women and says you stay in there.”
No more boxes please, let’s hand women the microphone instead.
Our politics will be all the better for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chirag Agarwal, a former Singaporean diplomat who writes about sociopolitical issues in Singapore, is currently working as a public policy consultant in Australia.