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Why is the people unable to attract women of ministerial calibre?

TOC Feature: No female full Minister in Cabinet

Is something wrong with the process, the people, or the PAP?

Choo Zheng Xi

The government’s decision not to appoint a female full Minister has disappointed both male and female Singaporeans.

In a surprise move on Saturday, the People’s Action Party (PAP) government failed to break the 42-year female dry spell in the highest echelons of government. Prior to the reshuffle, many observers were expecting Ministers of State Mrs Lim Hwee Hua or Ms Grace Fu to be appointed full Minister.

Instead, Lim Hwee Hua is the new Senior Minister of State for Finance and Transport and Grace Fu is to be the new Senior Minister of State for Education, while continuing her present appointment as the Minister of State for National Development.

The PAP has long been a staunch proponent of Confucian values. While many pundits have focused on political Confucianism’s authoritarian instincts, another ugly aspect of Confucian ideology is now under scrutiny: its focus on a male-dominated patriarchal society.

The PAP’s failure to appoint a female full Minister is becoming more than an oversight. It is at once a reflection and symptom of its inability to appeal to women. Unless the Party critically reexamines its fundamental values that are putting women off, it risks raising the ire of at least 50% of the electorate.

A Uniquely PAP problem?

Goh Chok Tong, when he was the PAP Election Committee Chair in 1980, famously said:

“Can you find a woman who has the same kind of quality as a man, and whose husband or potential husband or boyfriend would allow that woman to carry on a hazardous and time consuming profession?”

Could it be that Goh Chok Tong was right in the 1980s, that the weaker sex just doesn’t have the stomach for politics, and the male authority figures in their homes wouldn’t allow them to get involved?

If this is true, it seems only to apply to the PAP.

Opposition parties do not seem to have the same problem the PAP does in recruiting women with a ‘stomach for politics’.

Of the 13 members of the Workers Party’s (WP) highest decision-making body, the Central Executive Committee, five members are female. This includes their Chairman and law lecturer Ms Sylvia Lim, as well as Ms Glenda Han, who is a successful entrepreneur and has travelled to 25 countries. The latter was only 29 when she stood against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as a candidate in the WP Group Representative Constituency (GRC) team at Ang Mo Kio.

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) can also take pride in giving Singapore politics one of our most redoubtable activists, Ms Chee Siok Chin. Despite the more headline- grabbing profile of her brother Dr Chee Soon Juan, she has recently emerged as one of the most prominent civil disobedience activists in Singapore.

Those who know her describe the ex-teacher as possessing a “chilli padi” temperament and the fortitude to face down riot police in prolonged standoffs. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her actions, it is hard to deny her courage.

It is also notable that the number of women participating in the SDP’s standoffs with the police has increased. Four of the protesters at the SDP’s recent Consumer Day rally outside Parliament House were female.

It is not hard for women in general to be put off by the PAP. The story of how it offered a $10,000 bounty for non-graduate women to get sterilized in 1984 has reached canonic status amongst feminists in Singapore.

Lest one think such anachronisms are the sole preserve of the 80s, the recent Penal Code Amendment Bill passed in Parliament in 2007 continues to keep marital rape immunity. Under this anachronism, a husband can force his wife to have intercourse with him unless she takes out a Personal Protection Order against him, or they are legally separated.

This piece of legislation, which has its foundations in 17th century England, was partially retained despite vocal opposition from women’s groups and even male and female PAP MPs.

Shades of Confucius

Confucius himself believed women to be inferior to men. It wasn’t until 2006 that the descendant keepers of the old master’s family books decided to include women as part of the Kong family tree.

85 year-old Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reached his gender equality epiphany a few years ahead of the Kong family. By 2001, Lee had changed the PAP tune somewhat, recognizing in a speech that ‘the Confucian practice of male over female…has to change’.

Could the dearth of women in the PAP’s upper echelons be residual male chauvinism or is it the converse: independent and ambitious women of high caliber just aren’t attracted to the conservative PAP?

A look at the two women expected to be Ministers reveals impressive CVs, so a lack of qualifications can’t be the problem.

Grace Fu, before entering politics, was the CEO of South East Asia & Japan PSA International Pte Ltd. She was touted in 2006 as one of the few new blood MPs who were of Ministerial caliber. She was appointed Minister of State for the Ministry of National Development in 2006.

Lim Hwee Hua’s entered politics in 1996 and became the Minister of State of Finance and Ministry of Transport in 2004. She holds an undergraduate degree from Cambridge and an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Before entering politics, she was an investment analyst with a Swiss bank.

Despite their impressive CVs, both lack experience on the frontbench. However, the more fundamental question remains unanswered: why hasn’t the PAP been able to groom capable female candidates to take up Ministerial responsibility?

Feminists and proponents of women’s rights would certainly disagree with promoting them solely on the basis of them being women.

Could it be that women in Singapore are just less capable? That there is a dearth of capable women in Singapore is implausible.

As Ms Constance Singam, the President of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), pointed out to TOC: “There is a higher percentage of women with university degrees than men, and women are active in every aspect of the economy. We make up almost 54% of the workforce.”

The absence of a female full Cabinet Minister contradicts the PAP’s claim that it is a modern and meritocratic government. Unless the PAP is overtly male chauvinist and attempting to keep women in their place by withholding their promotion, the logical conclusion is clear: the PAP, which has always prided itself on finding the best and the brightest to join its ranks, simply cannot attract women of caliber to join it.

Ms Braema Mathi, former Nominated Member of Parliament and a past President of AWARE and current committee member of Maruah, echoed Ms Singam’s sentiment: “This is an indictment of their meritocratic system. If none of their women are suited for full Ministerial responsibility, perhaps there is something wrong with their method of talent spotting.”

Dissatisfaction from the ground

Regardless of the reason why the PAP is holding back from appointing a female full Minister, unhappiness on the ground at perceived PAP chauvinism is palpable.

Ms Singam, who also chaired the Singapore NGO committee for the 4th UN World Conference on Women, was unequivocal in her criticism: “I feel insulted, angry and hugely disappointed that women’s contributions to this country are not being recognized.”

While several TOC spoke to echoed this dissatisfaction, at least one of them remained humorously sanguine. Said Ms Bernise Ang, founder of youth empowerment NGO, SYINC:

“Having a woman in the Cabinet is like spotting the last hum in your char kway teow. So hard to find, but such a joy to have. I can’t wait.”

With special thanks to Clarence Chua.

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