Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Be Fairer To The Fairer Sex

We will get our first woman minister come 1st April, no kidding.

Tomorrow, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua, will become a Minister in the Prime Minister's Office, as well as Second Minister in both the Finance and Transport ministries, where she has been Senior Minister of State since last year.

I am not sure how the women here are reacting to this milestone in the Singapore politics but personally, I have some thoughts.

We have waited for more than 43 years for this to happen. As a fellow womankind, I am naturally elated to witness this milestone. However, I am also somewhat downhearted at the same time.

As a relatively young nation, we did not have to go through the era when gender equality was almost non-existent. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua said she had benefited as a female Singaporean, with equal and easy access to opportunities in education and career. Many of us can agree to that. If that is so, why then did it take so long for this day to come?

When Singapore gained self-governing in 1959, the People's Action Party (PAP) had four female PAP candidates voted into the self-governing Assembly. Not all four stayed on with the PAP but they remained in politics. My point here is that, female politicians were here right from the start.

Curiously after that, for a full 14 years from 1970 to 1984, there was no female representative in the parliament. Since 1984, women candidates such as Dr. Dixie Tan, Dr.Aline Wong, Mrs. Yu-Foo Yu Shoon and Dr. Seet Ai Mee began to be fielded.

The number of women participating in politics has since been increasing but women remain significantly under-represented in government. There are currently 17 elected women parliamentarians out of a total of 84 elected members. We have some way to go towards equality.

When we were in school, we did not feel the presence of gender inequality. Boys and girls are ranked and rewarded purely on the basis of merit. However, when the girls come into work force, they do not fare so well especially at the top echelon.
What is the problem?

I do not think it is a case of unequal opportunity. Rather, the problem lies with the unequal expectation.

Women are expected to match the ability of their male counterparts before they can be considered for the same job. That is fair. However, women are also expected to continue to play their traditional role usually played by the housewives. That is where the problem starts.
In order to be worthy of consideration, a woman candidate for a job needs to fulfill two challenging tasks: match or exceed the ability of her male counterparts and remain committed and effective in discharging her traditional duties.
In short, a woman has to be more capable before she can be seen as an equal match of a male contender. To achieve that, she needs good brain power and a good support network from family and friends. At any one time, women who are so blessed couldn't have been so many, hence, the relatively smaller number of women candidates for big jobs.

Mrs. Lim Hwee Hua said that she hoped her appointment would motivate even more women to enter politics. With that, I take it that she agrees with the prevailing large gender gap in the government.

At an interview, she was asked how she would juggle her time between work and family life. Mrs Lim, who has three children, said that, "it will continue to be juggled."

I have not heard a similar comment when a man is promoted to a higher position, have you? For that matter, the man will not even be asked such a question.

No woman is spared of her dual-role, Minister or not.

Besides her brain power and her juggling skills, a woman politician is also scrutinized for her look, or the lack of it. This is where it gets really insulting.

The Spain's 20 Minitos newspapers has since December last year put up an online poll for netizens to vote for "the world's most beautiful women in politics and government".

Our nominated Member of Parliament, Miss Eunice Olsen was reported to be ranked top 10. There are a total of 65 shortlisted "'beautiful politicians" and the voting is still on-going. It is not clear when the voting deadline is and when and how the result will be made known. Well, not that it is all that important to me.

However, if you would like to have a say, cast your vote at the Spanish website (scroll down). Do let me know your basis: A. Beauty B. Brain Power C. Flag D. Color.
(I thought brain power should be the only reason why they get the job but I will leave you to decide for yourself.)

I checked the list of "contestants" and was startled not by their looks (not that they are not beautiful) but the wider representation of women politicians in other countries, many of these I would not consider more advanced than Singapore.

Some of these beautiful people are holding very senior political positions, such as the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who is ranked top 10 and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is the President of Argentina.

Many are also from Asian countries/descent. They are Jiang Yu (姜瑜), the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson for the People's Republic of China, Angelina Sondakh from Indonesia, Yuri Fujikawa from Japan, Melissa Lee from New Zealand (born South Korean) and
Penny Wong, Australian Minister for Climate Change and Water (born Malaysian Chinese).

Today, it is not uncommon to find women head of state/government. Besides Ukraine and Argentina, countries which are currently led by women include Philippines, Germany, Mozambique, Liberia, Chile, Moldova, Haiti, Bangladesh, Iceland, Ireland, Finland, Switzerland and India.

Other countries in the East have had women head of state/government in their recent political arena too: Megawati from Indonesia, Han Myung Sook from South Korea, Indira Gandhi from India, Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka and Benazir Bhutto from Pakistan.

Even the nearby Malaysia have had their first woman Minister right after independence (1957) and there were a few more who followed, including
Rafidah Aziz who was appointed Minister of International Trade and Industry from 1987 to 2008.

After I look at the matter in perspective, I am left more perplex. If I were to use the level of women participation in politics as one of the ways to measure gender equality, we are disturbingly 'backward'.

Or perhaps, should I see this as the start of something bigger? Let's say we have taken the first step towards the first woman Prime Minister of Singapore. Who knows? That might really happen within my lifetime.

Meanwhile, let's unleash more women power.

"The journey of a thousand mile begins with the first step." - Ancient Chinese philosopher, Laozi (千里之行,始于足下)

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