A remark by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Science Centre Singapore (SCS) has been nominated for this year’s sexism award by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
The award, named The Alamak Award, is the association’s “annual search for the most annoying, face palm, gut wrenching, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me instance of sexism in Singapore.”
Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng is one of the four nominees this year for his remarks in an email which he had apparently sent out to his staff on International Women’s Day in March.
In a rather awkwardly written letter, Assoc Prof Lim began by saying that some women would say the day is not for them "because they are not '3-8'", a reference to the date of 8 March which the International Women's Day fall under.
"3-8" when pronounced in Chinese sounds like the descriptor that means “a busybody” or “a nosey gossiper”, Assoc Prof Lim explained.
"Women are complicated beings and they often say that men don't get it - it being the reason for their complication, or the insight linked to their female instinct," he continued.
"On the other hand, in many civilizations, women are considered the lesser gender. In Aristotle's era, females were reasoned as the outcome of imperfect or incomplete embryonic development, resulting in the failure of a certain anatomical structure protruding before birth."
Referring to the corporate world, Assoc Prof Lim said "we know that many women feel they are not given the equal status enjoyed by men."
"In recent times, there is an increasing trend for corporations to set a minimum number of females in their board as directors," the SCS CEO said.
He pointed out that at the SCS, "women seemed to out-number men in management positions."
The chairman of the SCS is a woman, Ms Tan Yen Yen, and there are a total of 5 women on its Board of 22 members.
"The newly appointed ArtScience Museum Director being a women shows that holding the top position is not biased by gender," he added.
Assoc Prof Lim then gave his own personal views on the reasons why "not many women can have the stature to hold the highest position."
"One of them is simply about the complex nature of women which challenges them with communication barriers in even understanding their own gender well, let alone having to compete or co-labour with the men at work."
"Understanding women and women understanding [sic] is an ongoing lesson not just for men, but for everyone, to continually learn, unlearn and relearn," he said.
Assoc Prof Lim concluded his letter to his staff by saluting "all our female colleagues for holding up more than half of SCS's heaven."
You can read the email in full here.
The email to the staff of SCS was forwarded to Aware “anonymously by an employee of the Science Centre who felt belittled by this email from her boss.”
“It made her feel her hard work was of little value,” Aware said. “We are choosing to publish this email since the Science Centre is a public organisation – a statutory board under the Ministry of Education – and the chief executive of such an organisation must be held to high standards.”
Assoc Prof Lim’s comments have raised howls of protest and disbelief online.
In February, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Grace Fu revealed that six out of 10 companies in Singapore have all-male boards, and only 8 per cent of board directors in the country are women.
She said that effort to get companies to improve gender diversity on their boards have been slow.
“We’re not happy with the progress,” said Ms Fu.
“For a company to say that I value women as employees is one thing,” she said. “But when there’re no board appointments, it sends the wrong signal to women working in that company.”
Assoc Prof is not the first high-ranking official or public personality to be caught in controversy over their seemingly sexist views or comments.
In 2011, during the election campaign in Hougang SMC, the candidate for the People’s Action Party (PAP) also received brickbats for his remarks about women.
“If your wife is unable to cook, there’s no point. You must choose a wife who is able to do things for you,” Mr Desmond Choo, the PAP candidate, said at a rally, recounting a meeting with an elderly Hougang resident who told him that choosing an MP is like choosing a wife.
Mr Choo later told the media that his remarks were “quoted out of context”, that his remarks were not meant to be sexist, and that he has always believed in gender equality.
Mr Choo was nominated for the inaugural Alamak Award in 2011 – but he didn’t win.
In the 2012 edition of the awards, two of the four presidential candidates – Tan Cheng Bock and Tan Jee Say - were joint-winners.
While running for President, both managed to find words to annoy half the electorate.
“I would like to go back to the days when women can afford to be housewives,” Mr Tan Jee Say said, when asked about his views on the Baby Bonus.
When asked how to encourage female participation in politics, Dr Tan Cheng Bock replied:
“The political arena is a difficult area for women in Singapore because the commitment is really very heavy. So you got to get the permission of your husband.”
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UPDATE on 5 July:
Mr Lim has apologised for his remarks "unreservedly". He said:
“My objective was to contextualise how women have been discriminated over time and across cultures. I wanted to motivate and challenge my colleagues to break the shackles of any stereotype and emerge the winner that they all can be."
"I am proud to be part of a great team at the Science Centre and I deeply regret any distress caused to my colleagues by my words.”
Assoc Prof Lim is currently in the lead, having received the most votes for the Alamak! Award among four nominees.