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Speech by Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, Minister, Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Finance and Transport at ASEAN Women Leaders Forum

15 Dec 2009

H.E. Datin Paduka Seri Rosmah Mansor
Wife of Prime Minister of Malaysia

Mdm Ho Ching
Wife of Prime Minister of Singapore

H.E. Senator Shahrizat Abdul Jalil
Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Malaysia

Distinguished guests and participants

Ladies and gentlemen


1.   First and foremost, I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the organizers, Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) and ASEAN Business Forum, as well as supporting organizations, Women’s Business Connection and Hanns Seidel Foundation, for making the ASEAN Women Leaders Forum possible. I am delighted to have the opportunity to share my thoughts along the theme of today’s forum, “Expanding Possibilities, Scaling New Heights”.

2.    This Forum has been specially organized for women with diverse social, economic and professional backgrounds in ASEAN. The objective is to facilitate networking and interaction among women leaders so that they can share and learn from one another’s experiences, listen and be inspired by new ventures and success stories, as well as to deliberate and consider the common challenges faced by women today. This is an important self-enrichment process for the advancement of women in ASEAN.

3.    The ASEAN region has seen dramatic changes in the status of women over the last decades. With more career and educational opportunities opening up, more women are now better educated and are holding on to managerial and professional positions in the workforce. Women in the ASEAN region are realizing their full potential and are playing an active role alongside their male counterparts in the social and economic development of their communities. While we celebrate the achievements of our women today, there are still challenges that we must tackle together as a community and a region.

Challenges on the economic front

4.    Globalisation and the regional integration of ASEAN have created both opportunities and obstacles for women. In the face of rapid economic and technological advancement, the earning power of women tends to be less than men due to lower education levels in both formal schooling and skills or vocational training for the workplace. Partly because of their lower education levels, women are also more likely to be found in part-time, temporary and informal employment. These forms of employment lack the security and salary that formal and full-time employment can offer.

5.    Even women in formal employment are not spared the gender wage differential in ASEAN, and tend to receive lower remuneration compared to their male counterparts. Gender wage differentials may be explained by a number of factors such as the tendency of women to concentrate in low paying industries (for e.g. nursing and cleaning services) and differences in skills and work experience as women usually take a break from employment for child-rearing. The 3rd Report on Advancement of Women in ASEAN findings reveal that narrowing the wage gap is a matter of addressing systemic and structural obstacles to the valuing of women’s work.

6.    In order to remain relevant and employable in this competitive global economy, it is important for us to constantly go for training and skills upgrading. We must not underestimate the importance of quality and relevant education, which helps a person to realize their potential in economic, political and social arenas. For women who leave employment to raise a family, a supportive environment can help attract them back to the workforce. Tax rebates, subsidised childcare rates and implementation of work-life initiatives are some of the incentives which are helpful to working mothers.

Challenges as a Community

7.    Women are generally more vulnerable financially as they tend to leave the workforce for family reasons. Many are hence unable to accumulate sufficient savings for their old age and life expectancy trends indicate that women live longer than men (83 years and 78 years respectively for Singapore). The shorter or intermittent period which women are part of the labour force have resulted in women having less savings than men after the age of 35. This is even more so for those who engage in informal work which by nature are ad-hoc and do not provide a regular income stream.

8.    In such cases, it is especially important for the family to play its role as a key pillar of support and the Government should facilitate where it can through our policies and programmes. Social enterprises can help the needy achieve self-reliance, as well as help the community directly, for example, by providing employment to people from disadvantaged groups who find it difficult to get jobs on their own, which includes low-income, at-risk women. Providing job opportunities to people who are marginalised in the community not only give them a sense of confidence and dignity, it also transforms them into contributing members of society.

Challenges on the political front

9.    Women participation in the political sector has always been used as one of the yardsticks to measure community development and women’s position. It is generally accepted that a more equitable representation of women in parliament is required worldwide to accurately reflect the composition of society and to ensure that women’s diverse interests are taken into account. Although women play important leadership roles in community and informal organisations, their representation in public office remains considerably lower than that of men, both in ASEAN countries and around the world.

10.    Many ASEAN countries have taken steps to facilitate a higher female representation in their Parliaments. Thus far, female representation in Parliament ranges from 10% to 26% . However, we are still some distance away from 30%, which is a widely recognised minimum benchmark used both by International Parliament Union and the United Nations to ensure a critical mass of women parliamentarians.

11.    Persuading the talented – both men and women – to enter politics is still an uphill task. This is especially so for women who have to balance their various roles and political responsibilities which include building rapport with grassroots and voters and so on. Politics to a large extent entails a loss of privacy, a loss which many women may not be willing to bear.

12.    We should aim to increase the level of engagement and participation of our young women first and from there nurture an interest in politics. In Singapore, we have intensified our outreach through various activities – both local and overseas and both fun and serious – e.g. dialogues, study trips, social work, networking and mentoring. These aim to nurture committed and capable women.

In the International arena

13.    As ASEAN become increasingly integrated into the global economy, more women leaders are being represented on the global stage. Women in ASEAN have made significant progress in terms of political participation.  Again, according to the 3rd Report on the Advancement of Women in ASEAN, the Philippines has 58% woman legislators, senior officials and managers in the country, followed by Thailand 27% and Singapore 26%.

14.    Leadership is about taking initiatives and responsibilities in making changes, be it in the family, organisation or nation. It takes ability, and a lot of courage and sa crifice to climb to the top. In nurturing leadership qualities, women sometimes step out of the traditional feminine mould to become more assertive and authoritarian in order to be accepted by the system. However, women possess unique qualities in handling challenges and difficult issues and should be encouraged to retain these special attributes.


15.    Within the ASEAN region, we have many similarities and common challenges in economic, social and cultural matters as a result of being a society in transition. We are fortunate that we have the opportunities to share and exchange views, best practices and experiences. I am confident that this Forum will help us uncover effective ways and means to assist women to be the best that they can be – for themselves, their families, community, nation and ASEAN.

16.    I wish all of you a rewarding time, and hope that the experience gained and shared today will help you, both men and women, to emerge a stronger, wiser, and more empowered people.

Thank you.