Sunday, April 09, 2006

Women in Politics: Hear Us Roar Soon

Straits Times

April 8, 2006 Sat


By Li Xueying

HUMAN resource manager S.H. Lee is 'intrigued' by Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim.

'She is a woman and an opposition leader to boot,' says Miss Lee, 26. 'That makes it doubly hard, doubly brave and doubly foolhardy.'

While Miss Lee, who lives in Aljunied GRC where Miss Lim is expected to contest in the coming election, has not decided who she will vote for, she adds: 'I'm more willing to listen to what she has to say.'

With such attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that the People's Action Party's (PAP's) Mrs Lim Hwee Hua has been spotted working the ground there too.

Pundits observe that it is a canny electioneering strategy: for the PAP to pit its highest-ranking woman against Miss Lim, to counter any gender appeal Miss Lim may have with women.

This year's general election is shaping up to be one in which gender plays a role.

Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Jeanne Conceicao says that women candidates - especially new ones - have an edge in bringing in women's votes. So far, on the PAP side, six new women candidates have been made public so far. As for the WP, expect two or three women candidates, Miss Lim says. This is a change indeed. For 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s, there were no women in Parliament.

Why is there a bumper crop of women candidates this time? Will the coming election be a milestone for women in politics? And will a woman finally become a full minister?

I was told that the Miss Singapore Universe beauty pageant this year had, among its midst, contestants with remarkable education qualifications - degree holders, Master’s students, and an aspiring PhD candidate (not at all surprising, given the academic excellence that we ladies have achieved). Beauty pageants are increasing a celebration of the females’ beauty and brains. Or are they?

The age-long debate will continue on how beauty is subjective and that academic excellence does not guarantee one successes in life. What I wish to instead highlight here is that the highly educated and (presumably) beautiful females are stepping forward to represent the country as its ambassador at the world stage.

But can the same be said about women entering politics?

Regrettably, despite the reported increase in the number of female members of parliament (see Straits Times article, More Women Willing To Enter Politics, 3 Apr 06), I’m afraid the situation is far from ideal.

To highlight the dire situation, the percentage of women in parliament in Singapore is 16% (15 out of 94) which places the country at joint 66 out of 187 countries (as of 28 Feb 06; statistics and ranking by Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU): Women in National Parliaments).

Sadly, the percentage of women in government and politics does not correspond to our percentage of the population and falls short of the 30 to 35 % that the UN deems necessary for women to make an impact in policies.

Astoundingly, there are hitherto no female ministers in Singapore. The highest ranked female politician in the history of Singapore, I stand corrected, was former Acting Minister Seet Ai Mee.

So why the miserable 16% female representation in Singapore’s parliamentary process?

OnlineWomen offers its explanation that the low representation of women in Singaporean politics “reflects the highly Confucian nature of the Singaporean society, which is very paternalistic”. It echoes the view of local NGO, Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) that the “patriarchal system puts pressure on men to perform regardless of their ability and circumstance, and limits the potential of women regardless of our ability and circumstance”.

Also, the arduous balance between work and family led to many women to choose the latter, according to a Miss Singapore Universe contestant who was asked for her opinion on whether women found it difficult to become CEOs and Presidents of companies.

I do not agree that systemic factors (real or perceived) prevent the participation of women in politics. Indeed, there is no legal bar to the participation of women in politics. Women in Singapore enjoy the same legal rights as men in most areas, including political representation.

What matters, however, is the courage for women to step forward to serve society and the belief that we can make a difference. We women can only take it upon ourselves to represent women’s issues and interests.

Ministers of State Lim Hwee Hua and Yu-Foo Yee Shoon are currently among the more prominent female parliamentarians. Several women are also Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP, ie not elected) and they too are playing an important role in policy formulation and review. In addition, a law lecturer at a local polytechnic is chairperson of the opposition party, the Workers’ Party. Outside of politics, Chief Executive of local Temasek Holdings, Ho Ching ranks 30th in Forbes’ list of most influential or “powerful” women in the world.

They are role models for other women. They demonstrate that the efficient and capable can do many things (career, family and national duties) and gender is in no way an obstacle to their achievements.

This forthcoming election in Singapore promises more women politicians. I applaud the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party which has named 6 new women candidates, on top of the 10 existing female MPs so far. The opposition is also likely to field several women candidates.

The signs are indeed encouraging…

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