• The Convergence

Women and political participation in Singapore - where are we in 2021?

By Zheng Huifen, Guest Writer


In 2002, as an NUS law undergraduate, I wrote an article commenting on the number of female politicians in Singapore. The article was published on Le Message, a former publication by the NUS Students’ Political Association (NUSPA).


19 years later, I’m pleased to be able to contribute a follow-up piece for NUSPA’s 45th anniversary publication, scanning the changes in the political landscape since, with a view not just on female politicians but also gender equality in the political discourse.


And what dramatic changes there have been. In the 2020 Singapore general elections, 40 women stood for election to Parliament - a record number. Subsequently, 28 women were elected as Members of Parliament, setting another record. [1]


In my view, it’s likely that two major shifts occurred, especially in the last ten years, to have led to this outcome. These are the nature and medium of political discourse, and the demographics of the population.


Firstly, the 2020 general election was the first to be conducted exclusively online and on television, given that Singapore was in the midst of a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gone were the large physical rallies and political gatherings seen in past elections. Now, parties and candidates had to state their case online - through televised debates, live streaming of party political broadcasts, and engaging voters on social media. For the first time, voters could access elections material on demand, and in the comfort of their homes. Political parties were on a much more equal footing, and had more means, when it came to communicating with voters.


In particular, this meant new and younger candidates could get as much, or even more airtime, than incumbents. Candidates who were savvy with social media could connect better with younger voters, who were more likely to prefer different and diverse political messages compared to their parents.


For example, this is likely to have contributed to the triumph of the Worker’s Party team in the Sengkang Group Representative Constituency. The Worker’s Party put up a younger team, with an equal mix of men and women, including two young working mothers. This likely resonated better with the voters in that area which comprised young families in newly-built HDB flats. In contrast, the all-male, and older, lineup fielded by the People’s Action Party in that constituency made less of an impression, even if these candidates had more political experience. [2]


Secondly, demographic changes means that the voting population looks to address different societal concerns. The recent release of the 2020 census showed that women in Singapore are increasingly better educated. [3] Among younger women, the percentage educated up to university level, was even very slightly higher than their male counterparts.


With more education comes the ability to have careers and be financially independent, which in turn reevaluates the traditional familial model where women are more likely to be responsible for caregiving and domestic duties while the men were the main income-earners for the home. Female voters are now faced with more complex concerns due to the different options presented to them, and would want to see more attention paid to contemporary topics affecting them. These include the struggle to balance caregiving and full time work, domestic and sexual violence, and workplace discrimination and harassment.


Where do we go from here?


Like in many other areas of life, the COVID-19 restrictions in Singapore shone a light on, but also exacerbated, the existing inequities and challenges faced by women in all areas of life.


From 7 April to 1 June 2020, Singapore declared a “circuit-breaker”, requiring people to stay at home unless they had to be outside for certain, limited, essential reasons. Effectively a lockdown, this meant that people were stuck at home, and in an already tense or abusive relationship, there were few outlets for people to leave the house or to avoid conflict. Additionally, with students switched to home-based learning, it usually fell to the mothers to supervise the daily classes at home - while juggling full time work and other caregiving responsibilities.


Perhaps then it is no wonder that gender equality group AWARE, recorded a definite spike in the distress cases faced by women during the two months that Singapore was in lockdown. From March to May 2020, calls to AWARE’s helpline was at an all-time high. There was an 137% increase in family violence experienced by callers, and 436% increase in emotional and psychological distress experienced by callers, compared to the same period in 2019. [4]


Did the increased stress faced by women during COVID-19 contribute to the record high number of female Parliamentarians coming forward and being elected in June 2020? Only time (and more detailed research) will tell. But the message was clear that “business as usual” was no longer working for women in Singapore.


Perhaps in response to this, in September 2020, the Singapore government declared 2021 to be the year of gender equality. Specifically, the Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam, took the lead on this, pronouncing “gender equality and gender respect [as] fundamental value[s]”in analysing wider societal concerns. [5]


Following the announcement, hundreds of dialogue sessions, both government-led and grassroots-organised, were held to garner feedback on women’s development. The outcome of which will be incorporated into the Singapore government’s white paper on gender equality, to be published sometime in 2021.


2020 and 2021 will be remembered as the time where gender equality went from a fringe topic to becoming front and centre of Singapore’s political landscape.




Biliography:

[1] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/ge2020-record-number-women-parliament-mps-singapore-12940394 https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/nine-out-of-37-political-office-holders-are-women

[2] https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/ips/publications/details/how-the-workers-party-won-big-this-general-election

[3] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/spore-population-better-educated-across-age-ethnicity-women-make-greater-strides

[4] https://www.aware.org.sg/2020/06/aware-helpline-saw-record-calls-in-may-with-137-increase-in-family-violence-and-436-increase-in-emotional-and-psychological-distress-over-2019/

[5] https://www.mha.gov.sg/mediaroom/speeches/conversations-on-women-development-speech-by-mr-k-shanmugam-minister-for-home-affairs-and-minister-for-law/



 

Zheng Huifen is an alumna of the NUS class of 2005, School of Law. She is also a current member of the board of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). This article expressed her personal views only.