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Opening Address by Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Finance and Education at The Fourth South Asian Diaspora Convention on 16 November, at University Cultural Centre

18 Nov 2019
Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, Chairman of Institute of South Asian Studies

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me start off by wishing everybody a good afternoon and to say what a great pleasure it is to be able to be here with you today. 

2. The relationship between South Asia and Singapore is long-standing, stretching back centuries when the first traders came to the region. Today we have strong relationships on many fronts – through our growing economic ties, regular political interactions and people-to-people exchanges. Today’s convention is an excellent platform to discuss the topics that the ISAS has outlined, and I hope that you will all gain new insights from these discussions. 

3. The topic of this next plenary session, “Women Empowerment in South Asia”, is an important one. It involves issues that have significant societal and economic impact. These issues are not unique to the region, but they are certainly of pressing significance.  

Challenges, Issues and Progress 

4. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report last year, the South Asia region had an average gender gap of 34.2% in 2017, with room for further development. Behind this figure are some challenges that the region faces. 

a. One example is the low labour force participation of women.

i. According to the World Bank[1], the fraction of working-age people who are at work has fallen for a number of countries in South Asia. For these countries, the fall in employment rates has been particularly marked for women. 

b. Looking beyond the Global Gender Gap Index, there are reports that indicate that South Asia is also grappling with gender-based violence[2].

c. Some challenges do go beyond the women population. 

i. For example, low participation in education by both boys and girls and student retention rates. According to the UNICEF[3], about 11.3 million South Asian children at primary level and 20.6 million at lower secondary school level are not in school. In addition, South Asia has the highest attrition rate in the world for basic education, and many do not achieve minimum learning benchmarks in literacy and numeracy. There are also other issues that need to be resolved, such as inadequate numbers of quality teachers, among others. 

5. These issues are not easy to address. But there has been progress. 

a. Between 2000 and 2017, South Asia achieved the greatest overall percentage reduction in maternal mortality rates, from 395 to 163 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births[4].  

b. Countries like India have introduced legal provisions to stimulate female labour force participation. Measures include penalising discrimination against women, and providing paid maternity and childcare leave. 

c. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have also made headway in political participation of women - Bangladesh – for its reserved seats system; India – for having significantly more female representation in its local governments; and Pakistan – for its requirement for at least 10% of voters in each constituency to be women for an election to be valid. 

6. The question is what more can be done and how countries can advance in the shared goal of eradicating these problems.

7. There is no one-size-fits-all solution and each country has to devise strategies and solutions that are relevant and suitable for their individual circumstances, culture and situations.

8. On this note, I would like to share Singapore’s own journey.

Singapore’s philosophy to gender equality

9. From the outset of independence in 1965, we took a very definitive stand with regard to gender equality and the status of women, and addressed these in our laws and policies in relation to education, labour participation, women’s leadership, and the protection of women. 

10. Our underlying premise is that every citizen, male or female, adult or child, is precious to us and we must help them reach their fullest potential. 

11. We have no specific gender equality or anti-gender discrimination legislation in Singapore. But the Singapore Constitution provides that “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”, and we promote equality through the application of our laws and policies. Where necessary, we take steps for the advancement of women both through legislative and non- legislative means.

12. We have achieved progress over the past decades and have had many positive results.

a. Singapore has a high literacy rate for women, that is, 95.9% in 2018. In 2018, 48.5% of our graduates are women.

b. In 1995, the female labour force participation rate for those aged 25 to 54 was 58%. As of last year, it has grown to 80.8%. 

c. Last year, Singapore was ranked first in the World Bank’s Human Capital Index. 

13. There is still much more that we need to do, but let me share how we have come this far.

Protection of Women

14. The legal status of married women, before our independence, may surprise some of you. There used to be a common law doctrine of “unity of legal personality” – which provided that the married woman’s “personality” would merge with her husband’s. In practice, this meant that the husband’s legal personality remained intact, but the married woman “lost” her legal capacity, and had to request her husband to carry out legal acts on her behalf. The only flipside of this doctrine was that women at that time did not have to pay income taxes! But women at that time, especially married women, enjoyed few forms of legal protection. On achieving self-government, we introduced the Women’s Charter. The Charter effectively provided for the protection of women – it regulated polygamous marriages, clarified that married women were capable of owning their own property, provided for what would happen in a divorce, and strengthened the laws relating to offences against women and girls. 

15. We also have many other laws that protect women from violence within and outside of the family context. For example, the Penal Code provides protection for all persons from hurt and sexual assault. There are also other laws which, while equal in application, by their nature, afford greater protection to women. One such example is the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) which we enacted not too long ago – just a few years ago, in fact. While it protects all persons from harassment and other related anti-social behaviour, the protection afforded by the Act benefits women in particular because women, more so than men, are often the victims of harassment. POHA covers a wide range of conduct, including sexual harassment, stalking, and cyberspace bullying. The Act criminalises harassment, and provides a range of self-help and civil remedies to victims.

16. More importantly, there is a strict enforcement of these laws. Having laws alone is not enough. Carrying them out and having a fair and just judicial system that upholds the importance of protecting more vulnerable members of society is also a key factor. 

17. Societal education, too, is important. Under the Women’s Charter, the Family Court may also order individuals affected by violence – that’s victims, those who abuse, and other family members, to undergo mandatory compulsory counselling to address their issues, such as anger management. A lot of work is put into helping men who are abusive, to not only understand why it is wrong but to come to grips with the underlying issues that drive them to violence.

18. Considerable effort is also spent on raising awareness on family violence and equipping everyday Singaporeans with the resources and skills to step in to help victims if needed. This is done through multiple platforms such as television, print articles, campaigns, roadshows, as well as Government agencies working closely with non-governmental agencies and the wider community. 

Education as an equalizing force

19. On the educational front, we made education available to all students, both male and female, and from very early on, actively encouraged school enrolment. Thus, even though the Compulsory Education Act was only introduced in 2000, enrolment in school was generally high even before the Act came into force.

20. Next, our policy of meritocracy – that’s the policy which stipulates that places, jobs or roles are awarded based on merit and ability, and this has ensured that our female students and women have and continue to have equal access and equal opportunity in education and employment.                                                                      

21. Through our educational policy of holistic development, every child is encouraged to develop his or her fullest potential, not just academically but also in the arts, sports, and vocational pathways.

a. Girls are often under-represented in STEM – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. We work to remedy this. In addition to ensuring STEM subjects are available to all, the Singapore Government has introduced computational thinking and compulsory coding classes for both boys and girls in the upper primary levels. In so doing, our aim is to act early to eliminate  potential digital gender gaps. Not only does introducing coding to girls at a young age dismantle stereotypes, it can further expand a girl’s education and career options.  

b. In recent years, we have also progressively enhanced the quality, accessibility and affordability of early childhood education to ensure that no child, male or female, is left behind. 

Promoting Women’s Health

22. Our low infant mortality rate at 2.1 infant deaths per 1,000 resident live-births and maternal mortality rate of 10.8 per 100,000 live and still-births, are among the lowest in the world, and this reflects the focus  we have put over the years on addressing the health of our women and children. This has been done through public health initiatives and the improvements in areas such as medical care, education, and nutrition. 

a. For pregnant women in Singapore, prenatal care provides a good start for a healthy pregnancy and helps manage the potential long-term health effects on the child. For example, new guidelines were introduced last year to recommend screening for gestational diabetes to all pregnant women in Singapore, and not just those with high-risk factors. 

b. In Singapore, breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, accounting for almost 1 in 3 cancer diagnoses among women[5]. To reduce the mortality from breast cancer, a national breast cancer screening programme, BreastScreen Singapore, was set up in 2002 to raise public awareness and to encourage early detection. 

c. Many primary school students in the 1970s to 1980s in Singapore were undernourished. To improve their nutritional intake, a milk programme was introduced in schools where underweight students and those from needy families would receive milk free of charge. The others could buy milk at reduced prices. Since the 1970s and 80s, vaccination against diphtheria and measles has also been made compulsory for children as part of the National Childhood Immunisation Programme. 

Empowering women with choices

23. Women play multiple roles in Singapore’s society – they are daughters, wives, mothers, members of the workforce and leaders to name just a few of the many roles they play. To enable women to fulfil these many roles, we try to empower them with choices to pursue their aspirations. One area in which women in the workforce constantly struggle is the balancing of work and family responsibilities. 

a. We provide support through maternity leave provisions, where working mothers are generally entitled to 16 weeks of Government-paid Maternity Leave, and childcare leave.

b. Promoting the value of shared-parenting and equal partnership in the family is another important aspect. One of the ways in which we have tried to do this is by enhancing leave provisions for fathers, so as to change traditional mind-sets and encourage fathers to be involved in caregiving.  

c. Women generally tend to be the caregivers – both for the young children and the elderly. We have therefore ramped up childcare and elder care services, thereby giving families, and women in particular, more support so that they can pursue both their career aspirations as well as fulfil their family responsibilities.    

d. We are also promoting work-life initiatives, such as the flexible work arrangements for flexi-load, flexi place, and flexi-time. From March this year, more companies will be able to tap on government funding to adopt flexible work arrangements and family-friendly practices.

Advancing women’s leadership in Singapore 

24. There are also equal opportunities for men and women to be in leadership positions. 

25. Under Singapore’s labour laws, there are no restrictions on women joining trade unions or holding office in the union. Neither do our unions adopt discriminatory policies or practices to restrict women's participation in leadership positions or in the decision-making process.

26. Women are encouraged to join the workforce and are valued for their contributions.

27. Political parties in Singapore consciously and continually seek suitable women candidates. We, too, have made steady progress on women’s representation in politics.

a. In the 1960s, women occupied only 3 out of 51 seats in Parliament. There was a period in the 1970s when there were no women MPs at all! However, in the current Parliament, women occupy 24 out of 101 seats which is about 23.7%. We can certainly do better, but on an international level, we aren’t doing too badly. This percentage is in line with the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world average of 24.3%. 

b. We now have seven women political office-holders, of which three are Cabinet Ministers and we hope there will be more!

28. In January 2013, Madam Halimah Yacob was appointed the Speaker of our Parliament. She was the first woman appointed to such a position. In September 2017, she was elected the President of Singapore – the first woman to occupy the post of Head of State.

29. The public service and the judiciary also practise the principles of equal opportunity and meritocracy. This applies to the selection for talent and leadership development programmes, as well as appointments to leadership positions.

30. What about the corporate sector? A number of studies have shown that companies with more diverse boards tend to make better decisions and perform better. Gender diversity on the board is one of the ways to bring in a variety of perspectives, backgrounds and experiences, so that companies can address their workforce and customer groups better. Currently, women remain under-represented on boards and in senior management positions of companies in Singapore, but we are seeking to improve this. 

a. The Diversity Action Committee (DAC) was formed in 2014 to build up women’s representation on boards of companies in Singapore, and expand the pool of women ready for board appointments. This year, the DAC was renamed the Council for Board Diversity with President Halimah Yacob as the Council’s Patron. The Council has widened its scope from increasing the representation of women on boards of Singapore Exchange (SGX) listed companies, to include organisations in the people and public sectors. The target is for women’s representation on boards of SGX-listed companies to reach 20% by 2020, 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030.

Grassroots and Community

31. At the grassroots and community levels, there are many women’s committees and active groups which serve women’s causes and activities to promote women’s well-being. These are actively encouraged.


32. So, we have not solved all gender issues here in Singapore and we have our fair share of challenges. However, we have made great strides from where we first started our journey as an undeveloped nation in 1965. And the reason for the progress that we have made through the years derives solely from one fundamental tenet – which is that we value our women, just as we value others in our society. When you value people, the rest will follow.

33. So thank you for your time and the opportunity to speak with you today, and I wish you all a fruitful session and for our overseas visitors, an enjoyable stay in Singapore.

Thank you very much.


[1] South Asia Economic Focus, Spring 2018: Jobless Growth?. The World Bank, Apr 2018.

[2] Report of the Midterm Review of the Asian and Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Population and Development. United Nations Economic and Social Council, Dec 2018.

[3] 2018-2021 Progress Report: Six Headline Results for Children in South Asia. UNICEF South Asia, 2018.

[4]Trends in Maternal Mortality, 2000 to 2017. WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, World Bank Group and the United Nations Population Division, Sep 2019. 

[5]Singapore Cancer Registry Annual Registry Report 2015