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Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, at the Women's Integration Network Awards 2014

30 Mar 2014

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for Health and Manpower, Mayor, South West District, and Adviser to the People’s Association Women’s Integration Network Council,
Fellow Advisers to Grassroots Organisations,
Mr Ang Hak Seng, Chief Executive Director of the People’s Association,
WIN Council Members,
Women’s Executive Committee Chairpersons and Members,
Ladies and Gentlemen

1   It is with great pleasure that I join all of you this evening to celebrate International Women’s Day.  Thank you to all the women here today and in Singapore for your untiring efforts and sacrifice, whether in the family, at work or in the community, for making Singapore a better place.

Evolving and Multiple Roles of Women in Singapore
2   Our society has evolved over the last five decades, and women’s roles have changed and been expanded dramatically.   

3   We have seen a real transformation in women’s position in society and roles in the last four decades, driven by education and opportunities for work.  The transformation in education has also meant that women who are today in their 20s and 30s have a very different position in the workforce compared to those in their 50s and older.

a)   Among both women and men in their 50s and early 60s, about a quarter have no more than secondary level qualifications; many of them in fact had only a primary level education. (About 5% went as far as to get university degrees.) The position in reversed for younger women - among those in their late 20s and early 30s (25-34), barely 5% have no more than secondary qualifications, and almost 20% have degrees.

b)   What is also striking, and unusual by international comparison, is that younger Singapore women took to science and mathematics-based subjects like swans to the water in school.  Even at the tertiary level, women are better represented in the science and maths-based disciplines compared to women in most other countries. We have not had the continuing gender gap in science and mathematics that is seen in most countries, including many of the advanced countries.  As a result too, Singapore women are well represented in all sectors of our economy, including advanced manufacturing and R&D. 
c)    Younger women have a high rate of participation in the workforce. The older cohorts of Singapore women have however always had much lower participation rates in workforce compared to men. While men with low education and skills have always had opportunities in manual jobs, there were fewer opportunities for women. With larger families in the earlier days, women also stayed out of the workforce for longer periods. 

d)   However, what has been striking in the last decade has also been the large increase in the employment rate of women in the 50s and early 60s. There are a number of reasons for this. Tripartite efforts to raise the employability of older workers; schemes like Workfare which have given strong incentive to work; and the fact that those in their 50s (who were in school in the first decade of our independence) had a somewhat better education than the earlier generation.

e)   Overall, our labour force participation rate for women (about 58%) is catching up with what is seen in advanced countries like Japan (69%), the US (71%) or Germany (72%). Participation rates are high for younger Singaporean women, and are catching up for older women.

4   Women’s participation in the workforce will surely go up further in the years to come, as education, job opportunities and progressive work practices like flexi-work catch on. It will also be supported by a much larger network of child-care centres around the island, with substantial subsidies for lower and middle-income families. I am sure we will also see a continued trend of more women taking up various leadership positions in the corporate world as well as in the community.

Evolving Roles of the Women’s Executive Committees (WECs)
5   The roles of WECs have also evolved through the decades to meet the needs of women in Singapore.  The WECs have been enriching the lives of Singaporeans since their formation in 1967, in many ways: from encouraging women to acquire employable skills to engaging them in community activities and volunteerism.  Today, our WECs provide opportunities for women to build networks of friends and contacts in the community. More importantly, they empower women, particularly those in the heartland, to identify and realise their potential.

6   At this point, I would like to introduce 80-year old Mdm Tan Heng Hua who is with us tonight. She is one of our WEC Pioneer Generation members.  Mdm Tan has volunteered for the WEC for 25 years since joining the Ang Mo Kio WEC in 1989. A home-maker with 3 children, she did not participate in community activities before joining the WEC.   After The WEC activities have enabled her to make new friends over the years.  Mdm Tan has helped to organise classes, and has helped each year since 1994 to cook for some 300 seniors during the annual “Lunch with Seniors” organised by the Ang Mo Kio WEC.  Up till today, she is still very much involved in WEC events.   Many other WEC PG members are like Mdm Tan, and I thank them for contributing in one way or another to the community. 

7    I am also happy to hear that the WECs have been empowering women through the collaboration with Citibank and Tsao Foundation for the Citi-Tsao Financial Education Programme for Women since 2012.  About 480 women have been trained under this programme.  By organising the programme at the CCs, the WECs are able to reach out to women in the heartlands, who can learn about growing their savings to be financially independent or to supplement the household income.  Ms Ong Geok Eng is one of the graduates who benefited from the programme. Being unemployed previously, it helped her better understand how to grow her savings as well as provide options on how to start up her own business if she remained unemployed.  Ms Ong is now working part-time.  To share the benefits with other women in the community, Ms Ong has volunteered to be a trainer for the programme under WEC.

WEC Befriender Programme
8    The WEC Befriender Programme, which the WIN Council is launching this evening, is an excellent initiative. Our women grassroots leaders will be promoting awareness amongst Singaporeans about the various government schemes that benefit them, starting with the Pioneer Generation Package.  Our WEC members are well placed to do this on the ground, as they are often in touch with residents, particularly, the women and elderly.  WECs can easily reach out to them at their events or at markets or coffee shops.  The WECs can also reach out to the PG through women in general, as they would often have PG members in their families.

9    To equip these WEC Befrienders to engage and explain various government schemes and in particular the Pioneer Generation Package, to Singaporeans, the WIN Council through PA will train our WEC Befrienders on communication and outreach skills, and help them to understand government policies and programmes. 

10    The WECs are truly an integral part of our community life, playing an important role in helping and enhancing women’s l ives as well as the lives of their loved ones. I am confident that the good work and achievements of WECs will continue to grow from strength to strength.