Singapore's political sausagefest
When the dust settled after Nomination Day and all the candidates were confirmed, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) began counting up the number of female candidates fielded by each political party.
Although AWARE had recommended that each party ensure at least 30 per cent of their slate be female, none of the parties met that goal. The Singapore Democratic Party was the closest at 27 per cent, while both Singaporeans First and the Singapore Democratic Alliance hadn't bothered to field any women at all.
The story goes beyond the numbers. Despite the presence of passionate women in the early years of self-governance, female representation in politics has always been poor in Singapore. Early meetings that led to the formation of the People's Action Party (PAP) – which continues to govern Singapore today – were deemed "men only". Between 1970 and 1984 there were no women in Parliament at all. Throughout Singapore’s history we’ve only had two female Cabinet ministers, and never more than one at a time. (It's therefore fitting that the book documenting the history of the PAP is entitled Men In White – women had largely been sidelined.)
In this election period alone we’ve seen patriarchal, sexist comments that perpetuate the gender stereotypes shutting women out of participation in public life.
Just on Thursday Cheo Chai Chin – the 64-year-old National Solidarity Party (NSP) candidate standing in MacPherson SMC – tried to downplay the suitability of his opponent Tin Pei Ling, the incumbent from the People’s Action Party (PAP). Tin had just given birth to a baby boy about a month ago, coming straight out of her confinement period in campaign mode.
“The PAP’s Tin Pei Ling has been working very hard. But she has just given birth, so voters should let her go home and rest, and take care of her child,” he told the press. “In general, mothers love their children, so they spend a lot of time with them. If voters choose her, she might focus more on her child than on her voters. This is her weakness.”
Cheo is not alone in having such a patriarchal mindset. Chan Hui Yuh, branch chairman of the PAP’s Serangoon branch, had been identified as a potential candidate before the party revealed an all-male slate to stand in Aljunied GRC. Speaking to the press, PAP chairman Lim Boon Heng said Chan had asked not to be fielded due to “family relations”. He later added that although the PAP would try to field female candidates, they would not put “mother-child relationships” at risk.
Chan is of course free to make her own decision on whether to stand for elections, but these two cases highlight possible reasons why female participation in public life continues to be so low even at a time when women in Singapore enjoy equal access to education.
It’s common to see dual income households in Singapore, yet society continues to see women as the ones responsible for domestic and care-giving tasks (thus the reliance on foreign domestic workers, where we simply import other women to fill the care gap left by working Singaporean women). While male politicians are free to boast about their children to seem more down-to-earth and relatable, when it comes to women children are seen as a barrier to entry into politics.
The difficulty of balancing politics with family life is often trotted out as a reason for why women find it hard to come forward, but is never seen as a problem for men. No one ever worries – not publicly anyway – about what impact being a Member of Parliament will have on father-child relationships, and whether perhaps men shouldn’t become politicians for the sake of “family relations”.
These double standards become even more apparent when we factor in the fact that being an MP in Singapore is a part-time position. Many of the men (and some of the women) in Parliament have jobs on top of their duties as MPs. Apart from some critics who would suggest that being a part-time MP suggests a lack of commitment to the constituents, this is largely accepted.
No one ever wonders whether a man who holds a full-time job and is a part-time MP is going to have trouble caring for his children. (Even if they do, the solution would likely be to hire domestic help or appeal to grandparents to be caregivers, rather than suggestions that the man quits politics.) Yet people like Cheo Chai Chen would cast doubt on Tin Pei Ling’s ability to juggle caring for a baby with her MP duties, even when Tin is one of the few incumbent MPs who quit her job to devote herself to politics full-time.
This constant positioning of women as primarily caregivers responsible for domestic family affairs undermines our ability to see women as candidates for political leadership, capable of discussing big issues and making decisions on matters of national importance. No matter how capable she is, her candidacy will always be portrayed as being in direct conflict with her role at home – a problem male candidates rarely face.
And when a woman does step forward, she finds herself having to put up with all sorts of crap. NSP candidate Kevryn Lim caused a bit of a stir when she first caught the press’ attention, as she had previously worked as a model. When she told the press after her candidacy was confirmed that she was a single mother, it was treated as a surprise because of her “unmotherly” past. While reactions to male politicians focus more on their behaviour, statements and arguments, female politicians tend to attract far more comment on their physical appearance. Is it then a wonder that women are unwilling to put themselves in the public eye?
Representation in politics becomes an even more depressing picture when we zoom in on the details. Women fielded as candidates across all parties in this election are overwhelmingly Chinese; Singaporean women and girls from ethnic minority groups are much less likely to find representatives and role models in local politics. For example, Indranee Rajah is the only the second elected Indian female MP in Singapore after Avadai Dhanam (also known as Mrs Devan Nair) who served as an MP from 1963 to 1968. What are women from ethnic minority groups in Singapore expected to make of this?
It’s 2015, and there is no reason why Singaporean women – of all races – should not play a more active and prominent role in the running of the country. That no political party meets the minimum suggestion of 30 per cent female representation is not a reflection on Singaporean women, but Singaporean patriarchy.