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Parliament endorses first ever White Paper addressing women's issues

SINGAPORE — A White Paper tackling wide-ranging issues on women’s development in Singapore was endorsed by Parliament on Tuesday (April 5), even after some Members of Parliament (MP) said that more could be done to level the playing field here. 

Parliament endorses first ever White Paper addressing women's issues
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  • The first White Paper on women's development was passed in Parliament
  • It received all-round support from MPs after close to 10 hours of debate
  • MPs offered more suggestions on how to support women such as offering tax breaks for caregivers
  • They also proposed raising the legal age for elective egg freezing
  • PM Lee Hsien Loong said the outcome is a promising start towards building a fairer and more inclusive society

SINGAPORE — A White Paper tackling wide-ranging issues on women’s development in Singapore was endorsed by Parliament on Tuesday (April 5), even after some Members of Parliament (MP) said that more could be done to level the playing field here. 

Some of their suggestions included bringing forward the action plan to entrench flexible work arrangements in workplaces as a norm by 2024.

The debate, which ran for close to 10 hours, saw inputs from a total of nine political office-holders and 27 MPs from both sides of the House.

Three Nominated MPs and one Non-Constituency MP, Ms Hazel Poa of Progress Singapore Party, also jumped into the debate. 

Various MPs peppered their speeches with personal anecdotes on the influence that women had on their lives.

Dr Wan Rizal Wan Zakaria, MP for Jalan Besar Group Representation Constituency (GRC), for instance, talked about how his grandmother raised seven children while holding down multiple jobs.

Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for Social and Family Development, teared up when he spoke about respecting mothers, whom he deemed as the “most important” women in people’s lives. 

Some female MPs recounted their personal struggles. MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling remembered how people had questioned if she would be distracted from her parliamentary duties when she gave birth to her first child in 2015.

The White Paper, which was the first such paper tabled by the Government, aims to build a “fairer and more inclusive society” for men and women here over the next 10 years through a series of 25 action plans.

Among some of the proposals in the 115-page paper were recommendations to increase financial assistance for caregivers, entrenching flexible work arrangements and allowing women aged between 21 and 35 in Singapore to freeze their eggs for non-medical reasons.

AGE LIMIT FOR EGG FREEZING

Several MPs, including Tampines GRC MP Cheng Li Hui and Nominated MP Janet Ang raised concerns over the proposal to legalise elective egg freezing.

Ms Cheng called it a “huge pity” that the age limit for the procedure is to be set at between 21 and 35.

She proposed that the limit be extended to 40 years old since it is relatively common for women to conceive even in their early 40s. 

Ms Ang said that legalising this may have consequences, including how workplaces may view women who choose to bear children naturally.

“Will the workplace consider women who choose not to postpone childbearing by freezing their eggs as not being sufficiently committed to their career, thus harming their progress?” she asked.

Responding to Ms Cheng, Ms Sun Xueling, Minister of State for Social and Family Development, said that the upper age limit of 35 was pegged to the existing age limit for donor eggs in assisted reproduction treatment and because egg quality tends to decline significantly after the age of 25.

To Ms Ang, Ms Sun assured her that the Government will continue to support Singaporeans in fulfilling their marriage and parenthood goals early to increase their chances of conceiving naturally.   

WOMEN REPRESENTATION IN VARIOUS FIELDS

Several MPs including Ms Nadia Samdin (Ang Mo Kio GRC), Ms Poh Li San (Sembawang GRC) and Ms Ang also called for greater women representation in various fields such as the board room of organisations, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) industry and defence industries.  

Ms Nadia noted that women account for only a third of employed residents working in the Stem industry, despite there being many fast-growing and well-paying jobs in the sector.  

Ms Poh would like to see more women being part of uniformed services such as the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Singapore Police Force. 

She said that when she served as a helicopter pilot in the Republic of Singapore Air Force 25 years ago, there were just five women pilots in the force.

Although more women had joined SAF since then, and in a greater variety of roles, the total number of women service personnel in SAF stands at only about 7 per cent, she added.

In the political sphere, she hopes that Singapore will be able to increase its women representation in the Cabinet in future beyond the present three out of 20. 

FLEXIBLE WORK ARRANGEMENTS

MPs fully supported the normalising of flexible work arrangements at workplaces by 2024.

However, several, including Dr Wan and Radin Mas MP Melvin Yong asked that the arrangement come into force sooner rather than later.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembwang GRC) asked that flexible work arrangements be made equally available to men and women so as to allow men to play a bigger role in caregiving. 

“Otherwise, if flexible work arrangements apply only to women, it may have the perverse effect of forcing women to continue to bear the caregiving load through these arrangements.”

Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Communications and Information, said that the Ministry of Manpower will promote greater adoption of existing tripartite standards to “boost momentum” for the eventual execution of the new set of tripartite guidelines by 2024 — which will require employers to consider flexible work arrangement requests fairly and properly. 

MORE SUPPORT FOR CAREGIVERS

Caregiving was another topic raised by the MPs, with Ms Carrie Tan (Nee Soon GRC), Ms Rachel Ong (West Cost GRC) and Yio Chu Kang MP Yip Hon Weng proposing to improve support for caregivers, on top of those listed in the White Paper.

Ms Tan suggested including vocations related to caregiving in National Service such as medical escorts and respite caregivers so that both men and women may support the community when such needs arise.

Mr Yip said that the Government could consider providing a grant for employers to offer paid leave to caregivers, and offering tax breaks to caregivers for items they need to buy for people under their care.

STANDING SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH WOMEN

Beyond legislation and action plans, the way men treat women in various settings, be they at home or at work, will need to change. They can play a role in supporting these changes, some MPs said.

Mr Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) said that men can contribute to ending family violence and preventing online harm by making it easier and safer to allow victim-survivors and whistle-blowers to report such incidents.

Mr Seah Kian Peng (Marine Parade GRC) said that men can avoid engaging in disrespectful and patronising behaviour to women.

For example, he observed how senior civil servants thanked male emcees at events by their names, but addressed female emcees as “a beautiful young lady” instead.

He also highlighted how “mansplaining”, where men interrupt women to explain to them matters that they already know, has become commonplace. 

A COMPASS FOR FURTHER DEVELOPMENT

Thanking the House for offering its broad-based support for the White Paper at the end of the debate, Mrs Teo said that the paper and the values underpinning it will serve as the Government’s “north star” when it seeks the next milestones in women’s development.

"At its core, the White Paper is about enabling all the women around us to be the best that they can be, so we in turn empower each other, as role models, as teachers and mentors, as advocates and champions, as helpers and supporters.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also said in a Facebook post shortly after the debate concluded that he was glad the White Paper received wide support from the MPs.

“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,” he wrote.

Related topics

women Parliament White Paper flexible work caregivers egg freezing

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