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Taking lessons from Canada’s 2015 cabinet

By Ghui

The world is increasingly a smaller place. With global travel at an all time high and the advent of social media giving virtually everyone a voice, it is no surprise that the traditionally less represented people amongst us have been clamouring for greater recognition. There have been notable developments on this front. Take Ireland for instance, which made universal headlines when it became the first country to legalise gay marriage via a constitutional change.

As countries become less and less homogenous through the rapid exchange of ideas and large scale immigration, it is par off the course that differing groups would want a stake in their chosen communities. Where most communities were culturally paternalistic in the past, modern living has made clear that women have an equal stake. Added to that is of course is the interests of the different religious and racial groups and the gay community. Any successful political leader will jump on the band-wagon and cash in on the public mood.

A recent example would be charismatic Canadian PM Justin Trudeau who earlier this month presented to Canada "a cabinet that looks like Canada". In this case, a cabinet that comprises an equal number of men and women. (read here)

There is clearly truth in the statement in that women participate in all aspects of modern living on par with their male counterparts. Why then should their interests not be represented equally politically? This begs the question; do you need to be in the same social/sexual/economic strata to represent someone?

To a certain extent, one would need to identify with the issues that concern a particular group before being able to empathise. As the proverbial saying goes: "walk a mile in my shoes, see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel, then maybe you'll understand why I do what I do, till then don't judge me". That said, we need to be careful how far we draw that line because we do not want a situation whereby candidates are brought in just because they are from a specific group as opposed to genuine merit. Added to that is how do we define what is truly representative? Do we stop at just the sexes? What about racial groupings? The list goes on.

Despite Trudeau's best intentions, he still faced criticisms about the issue of representation. While I do not doubt the legitimacy of various racial groups' rights to adequate representation, this does raise the question of how far representation must go before it can be deemed as truly representative. Also, are we missing the forest for the trees? Instead of focusing on whether an individual has the requisite skill sets, we are distracted by their sex, race, religion etc.

In the Singaporean context, we do not have an equal number of males and females in cabinet - far from it. Unlike Canada's male/female equality, we only have one female cabinet member. While I do not doubt the credentials of the male cabinet members, I do wonder if we can benefit from having more female representatives. (read here)

To require a 50/50 cabinet strikes me as a little bit too artificial and can lead to less qualified people being chosen just because they are female which is in itself inverse sexism. That said, Singaporean women are a very high achieving lot who are accustomed to leadership in the corporate world. It would therefore not be far fetched to assume that we have more than one woman qualified for Cabinet?

While care must be taken to ensure that we do not get bogged down by the nitty gritty niceties of egalitarian representation by the book, I do not think that Singapore with its many high-powered women and only one female cabinet member comes close to that at the moment.

As the government pledges not to leave anyone behind and to provide a more inclusive country, this is certainly an issue that bears some redress.