While I was writing this post I was struck by a thought: how would Singaporeans, men in particular, respond to it? The answer is in, and it is both expected and disappointing how people would so easily miss the forest for the trees in bouts of defensive outrage. Just look at the reactions here, and the comments, for a sample.
What these dissenters, almost to a man, missed in the letter were the questions that were posed; questions that demanded changes in both employment practices and national policy in order for parents to share their responsibilities. As I have pointed out, “gender quality” benefits both men and women, and to see it otherwise shows a lack of understanding, or an unwillingness to understand it. Many of the commenters have chosen to only read the letter in the narrowest of contexts and react in a manner that is unseemly, ignorant, and in some cases, offensive. They have to understand that asking for “gender equality” is not asking for more women’s rights, but rather for the same rights to be extended both ways.
Take for example the disaparity in maternity leave granted to women and childcare leave that are granted to men. My wife is entitled to three months of maternity leave to care for my baby, while I am entitled to a mere three days. Three. This policy sends the message that parenting is a major role for women, and not men. It is disadvantageous to men who want to spend time with their newborn children, and who are more than willing to share the joy and burden of parenthood with their spouses; it handcuffs us to the existing gender roles that society dictates. And the only way for this imbalance to fall is by enacting practices that disadvantages no one. What is so wrong with a generic “parental leave” scheme that can be shared between parents, for example?
Having fair and equitable policies will only encourage more fathers to step up, as well as allowing men who are ready and willing to step into that role. We already accept women in the workforce, but it is time to move beyond superficial acceptance, to an explicit recognition that both bread-winning and parenting roles are not demarcated, subconsciously or otherwise, by gender, and that demarcation must be arrived at with the consent of both parents and both parents alone, without interference from society or employers.
Whether gender inequality is a major driver of low birth-rates in Singapore, it is simplistic, and bull-headed, to insist that it is not, and that other national policies, such as rising costs of living, are not feeding into deepening that entrenched divide between men and women while depressing our birth-rate. The issue of our low birth-rate is a complex one, and no one can claim it to be driven by any single factor. To reject the connections between national and employment policy and gender inequality with nothing but the fear and misunderstanding shown in the defensive knee-jerk reactions that are so evident is sheer stubborn refusal to even study the problem.
Providing the right structure and policies towards gender equality can only help alleviate the factors of low birth-rates, and not harm it. The closing of minds shown by the collective knee-jerking, however, is much more harmful to that end.
This article by Callan Tham first appeared on Trapper’s Swamp