When asked whether Singapore is ready for a female prime minister, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam noted that it is a matter of mindset.
He was speaking as a panellist at the Tembusu Forum on 8 March on justice, equality and respect for women in Singapore in conjunction with International Women’s Day. The forum was moderated by Rector of Tembusu College Tommy Koh and also included executive director of AWARE Corinna Lim and president of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations Junie Foo as panellists.
During the session, a political science student raised the question of Singapore’s readiness for a female prime minister, pointing out that the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s central executive committee only has three women.
She asked Mr Shanmugam how political participation among women could be increased.
In response, the minister highlighted the challenges of balancing political and professional life.
He said, “Your weekends are pretty much completely taken up. If you have an active professional life, you are also spending your weekends preparing for them… And then at night, three times a week, you are in your constituency. Weekends, you are in your constituency, parliamentary sessions you are juggling… it takes a toll on you, on your family life, on your work.”
He added that there aren’t many men who are prepared to make these sacrifices, and that there is an added question of “family” for women.
He went on to say that the PAP does indeed want more women MPs and will “actively scour talent”.
Even so, he said that society should also examine how it could encourage more women participation in politics or reduce the “implicit burden on women” at home.
He added that this is a question of “mindset change” in society.
“If you ask the boys here, how many of them are prepared to contribute to 50 per cent of work at home? The government doesn’t do child-rearing, washing of dishes or cooking at home… What the government can do is encourage that change of mindset to allow people to change. But it’s going to take a lot of effort,” said Mr Shanmugam.
Earlier in his speech, Mr Shanmugam had explore the idea of equality, noting that it has to be taught “from a very early age” and that both girls and boys are to be treated equally and with respect
He gave the example of uploading intimate images of women without their consent as a “serious violation of fundamental values”, and that it “should not be seen as ‘oh well, boys will be boys’ or this is something that they did in a rash moment.”
Mr Shanmugam stressed that while there are differences between the two genders, the correct approach is with the perspective that “everyone has equal rights” and no that “everything can be done equally.”
Is Singapore ready for a non-Chinese PM?
The question of whether Singapore is ready for a female prime minister follows a similar line of questioning of whether the country is ready for a prime minister from a minority race.
Earlier this year when speaking in an Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) panel entitled “Politics of Singapore 2030”, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information and Health Janil Puthucheary said that it will be up to Singaporeans.
The panel, held on 25 January, also featured Aljunied Member of Parliament (MP) Gerald Giam and Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa, and was moderated by Dr Gillian Koh of IPS, as reported by Yahoo! News Singapore.
During the panel, an audience raised a question on the prospect of a non-Chinese Prime Minister, to which the Senior Minister replied: “It will be up to the people of Singapore to decide, ultimately, about this matter.”
“And I do hope that our racial harmony progresses, to the point where, when people talk about a non-Chinese Prime Minister, it’s not about an icon of resetting or an icon of reimagining, but on the basis of that person’s ability to do the job right, and that will be for Singaporeans to decide,” he continued.
“Race continues to matter, and surveys done by IPS themselves suggests that that is so. So well, I think I would fully subscribe to the idea that I wish it were not so,” Dr Puthucheary added.
However, Mr Giam pointed out that the Prime Minister is not directly elected by Singaporeans but instead was elected by a political party.
“So, it is really the decisions of the individual parties, whether they want to field a non-Chinese as the party leader, as a secretary-general,” he said, referencing Workers’ Party (WP) chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh who is the first non-Chinese person to hold the position.
Ms Poa more directly opined that Singapore is “already ready” for a non-Chinese Prime Minister. She noted that the “only reason” that the country is not having a non-Chinese Prime Minister is because the ruling party People’s Action Party (PAP) is “not ready”.
Back in 2019, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was asked a similar question at a Nanyang Technological University (NTU) forum on whether Singapore is ready for prime minister of a minority race.
Mr Heng had said that while a segment of the population is happy to have someone from a minority race as prime minister, the older generation isn’t ready for it.
The question was asked by Assistant Professor Walid Jumblatt Abdullah of NTU’s School of Social Sciences’ public policy and global affairs programme. He asked: “Is it Singapore who is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, or is it the PAP (the ruling People’s Action Party) who is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister?”
Mr Heng responded: “My own experience in walking the ground, in working with different people from all walks of life, is that the views — if you go by age and by life experience — would be very different.”
However, he did concede that “at the right time, when enough people think that we may have a minority leader, a minority who becomes leader of the country, that is something we can all hope for.”
He noted that it is a good sign that young people are “quite comfortable” with the idea of a prime minister who is not Chinese.