© Edwin Ng 2001

Nineteen years have lapsed since The United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) came into force for 93 countries on 18 December 1979 before Singapore finally the adopted the Convention, with however the same Reservations that precluded the country from ratifying the Convention in the first place.

On the surface, human rights and particularly, women's rights may seem to have indeed taken a big step forward but the representation is deceptive. Women may feel that they have a meager bone to pick with the administration but they continue to be discriminated against on almost every front, but this fact is not obvious because the distinction between the rights of a male and female remain subtle. The legislation that should be in place to check inequality is non-existent. In fact the distinction is understated because the basis of discrimination is enacted through meanings that are often absent in legislation. The omission rather than the commission of an overt strategy, particularly in law, has an ominous bearing on the rights of women. The insidiousness of this matter comes to light only when intense scrutiny is brought to bear on it.

"State-ways are folkways", Thomas Pettigrew

The call for more commitment to the rights of women comes from The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). AWARE labels Singapore "an avowed patriarchy" ( not only for the reason that the nation is governed solely by males and for the fact that the erstwhile Prime Minister, K.Y. Lee, in his trenchant style declared infamously that,

'The government has been "young, ignorant and idealistic" when it gave women equal rights.' (The Straits Times, 26 April 1994)

The male polity has for years forged a patriarchical culture in which competing ideologies were subsumed under the drive for economic success. Desperate to reverse the success of its earlier class-biased pro-natalist policies, in which the population has steadfastly refused to replace itself since 1975, the polity has with paternalistic fervour, continually berated women for refusing to cooperate with its New Population Policy. Indeed the patriarchical culture insists that women comply with the demand to prop up the fertility rate immediately. Women have been cajoled in different ways and induced by various incentives such as the Baby Bonus, tax rebates and maternity leave privileges to produce babies at will, all of which exist as a form of positive discrimination that serves to perpetuate the patriarchical order.
"The comprehensive Convention calls for equal rights for women, …"
Singapore's Gender-related Development Index 1999 (GDI) is on par with its Human Development Index 1999 (HDI); the disparity between these indices is zero, reflecting the equal distribution of resources for development between the sexes. Men and women do indeed have equal access to education - the combined primary, secondary and tertiary gross enrolment ratio for women being seventy-five percent and men, seventy-six percent. However, inequalities of a broader nature do exist and will bear up under strict examination.
"… regardless of their marital status,…"
At present, the provisions of the Income Tax Act allows a wife who is working and maintaining a non-working husband to claim relief for her husband only indirectly. Her income is deemed to be her husband's (Singapore's Initial Report for the UN Committee for CEDAW, hereafter referred to as Initial Report). In such a case also, the husband is treated as the taxpayer. These measures warp the lived reality of marital arrangements. They also legitimize the fact that the woman should cling to her husband instead of being recognized as a lawful and independent entity. As the state makes the husband the official representative before the law, he becomes the de facto, head of his family.

Under Section 498 of the Penal Code, it is an offence for a man to entice or take away a married woman with criminal intent that she may have illicit intercourse (Initial Report). Little is known as to what constitutes "criminal intent" or "illicit intercourse" and this provision is not mentioned again in the Second Periodic Report. However the stealing of a married woman also implies that she belongs to the man that she is married to. That is, she is the legitimate property of the man. Criminalizing the act asserts that the man has been robbed of his fundamental right; the right to owe and keep his property. The Penal Code should be amended to include the act of "stealing" a woman as adultery or to similarly include "married" men as potential victims, and women as potential perpetrators. The Press Release (2001) makes light of the fact that this provision is not obsolete, but the very content of this law is out of step with the Convention's requirement that men and women be treated equally in a marriage.

Under the Women's Charter, husbands have to maintain their wives financially during marriage and after divorce (if it happens and if the women do not remarry). According to the figures given by the Human Development Report (1999), an astonishing quarter (25%) of all working men are classified as Contributing Family Workers. The Charter puts undue pressure on males to support their wives financially even when they are not working. The law should be amended to include women who have to maintain their non-working husbands during marriage and upon its dissolution. Although there is a landmark ruling where a house-husband received a share of the matrimonial asserts upon divorce, more has to done to concretize this reality in the state's instruments. The immediate effect of this is the acknowledgement of the contribution of Contributing Family Workers, regardless of gender and reaffirms the Convention's principle of the inadmissibility of discrimination.

"… in all fields - political, …"

The ruling elite receive the right to frame ideologies in the male perspective because it is overwhelmingly male. AWARE notes that only four out of the eighty-three elected Members of Parliament are women, which constitutes less than 5 percent of the whole. The Gender Empowerment Measure 1999 (GEM) puts the percentage of women holding seats in parliament at 6.5, which is also significant for its small value. The disparity results from the fact that the GEM calculates the total representation of Members of Parliament (MPs) by gender, elected and nominated, and is consistent with the figures provided by the government (Press Release, 25th Session of the UN CEDAW). AWARE is accurate in its report in that there is no female Cabinet Minister and only one female is representing women's perspective the highest level. While the government cites cultural mores as the prime reason women do not go into politics, this situation can be improved by introducing legislation that would allow candidate teams contesting Group Representative Constituencies (GRCs) to include at least one woman. Thus far, the engines of mass persuasion have only been utilized to limit the place of the women to the home. As a party to the Convention, the state has to employ the array of information dispersal systems at its disposal to modify existing cultural attitudes in order to bring more women into the political arena.

"… economic, …"

Employers have a free hand to discriminate workers on the basis of gender since the Constitution does not provide for this in law. Article 12 of the Constitution of Singapore specifically leaves out gender as a basis against which discrimination can occur, as mentioned in AWARE'S critical review of the Second Periodic Report. The government can constitutionally ignore cases of discrimination against women, particularly in the field of employment. The Convention expresses its concern with regard to this issue by stating that "in situations of poverty women have the least access to … education, training and opportunities for employment."

The reason the Initial Report gives for not including gender in the definition of discrimination is the imperative to safeguard pregnant mothers as well as their children. To reinforce the statement, the remark that Singapore has been unable to replace its population since 1975 is put in parenthesis. This is an incredible excuse since the administration itself is responsible for the low fertility rate and moreover, the Constitution came into force before 1975. The protection of maternity already exists under the Employment Act and Employment, by omitting gender from the definition of discrimination in the Constitution; the rights to women's employment thus become vague and open to varying interpretation.
"… social, cultural …"
The situation is serious: The country's total fertility rate has dropped from 2.8 in 1970 to 1.5 in 1998. If left unchecked, there will not be enough people to defend the country, and also not enough workers to keep the economy growing. Dr Wang Kai Yuen (MP for Bukit Timah GRC) sounded an even more dire warning. He pronounced, "A nation that cannot revert its declining birth rate is effectively committing collective suicide". The root of the problem lies in the perceptions of young women towards family life, he argued. It is the wife, after all, who calls the shots on the number of babies, he said. A woman's decision on how many children to have depends on her values as well as the size of her own family, he observed. He cited his own 19-year marriage: His wife, who grew up in Hawaii in an extended family, believed that the ideal number of children was five. He was conditioned by the system here to desire only two. (The Straits Times, 15 March 2000, emphasis authors')
In the national rhetoric, women take the fall for the falling birth rate, the prospect of economic disintegration and the potential dearth of males to defend the nation. The male polity reprimands women for not making the necessary replacements to the population but no mention is made of the fact that the polity itself is responsible for the current situation. Instead, the blame lies fully with the women, who for selfish reasons forsake national interests in order to advance personal gains.

The discursive formation of the female's role in nation building has taken a negative turn in the fundamental rights and issues that shape the female experience. While the nation's pro-natalist policies may on the one hand claim that its sole purpose would be to arrest the falling birth rate, it frames its ideological message in the form of pro-family measures which in turn continues to legitimize patriarchy. AWARE notes that "gender equality (is) … subsumed under initiatives for population and family policies." (A Critical Review of the Second Periodic Report from Singapore for CEDAW, 2001 hereafter known as Critical Review, 2001.) This is largely due to the fact that the ruling elite work to contain the discussion of women's rights under the rights and protection of the family. The model to uphold is the nuclear, heterosexual family with the male as the head; preferably also living near their parents.

This singular model is particularly pervasive in the Civil Service ("Civil Service takes the lead as Family friendly employer", Second Periodic Report, 2001) where a number of important measures have been implemented to aid the development of model families as well as to spur the birth rate. To encourage matrimony among the civil servants, a three day marriage leave for getting married has been employed. A married male office in the civil service is also granted three day full pay paternity leave on the occasions of the birth of his first three children (Second Periodic Report). However, the corresponding maternity leave for women in full-time employment is eight weeks. This discrimination in terms of post-natal leave serves to reinforce the women's sphere of responsibility in the domestic, and becomes part of the wider discourse to restrict the mobility of women to the home and calls to their attention the accountability of their 'national duty' - to not only ensure the next generation, but to raise their children properly. This is in breach of the Convention, which calls for "equal responsibilities of men and women in the context of family life" (CEDAW).

While the Constitution provides for "compulsory service for national purposes" (Part IV, Article 10), in the form of National Service for the males, women in the nation are under no such obligation. Women's position in the patriarchy is undermined by their very exclusion from such a Service; in fact their exclusion warrants patriarchy. Having made a sacrifice of sweat, blood and time, males in Singapore society earn to right to command a higher starting salary in the Civil Service. Correspondingly, this line of thought lends itself to gender roles being played out in conjugal relations. It becomes male to defend the nation; and female to hold the fort at home. Indeed, as AWARE indicated, the Civil Service as a benchmark employer sends these gender signals strongly to the other employers on the market (Critical Review, 2001).

While Section 231 of the Criminal Procedure Code prohibits caning of women, positive discrimination of this sort tends to reinforce attitudes that women are the weaker sex, and therefore are exempt from physical punishment. There is no compelling evidence to show that women cannot indeed be physically punishment and in the light of this reasoning, caning should either be abolished or extended to women.
The limiting discourse makes its rounds also as family life education. Virginity has been alluded to magazines in plastic covers (The Straits Times, 26 November 2000); once the cover is torn, the magazine becomes less desirable, or valuable. Girls in secondary schools are being taught that their value is derived; the amount of self-respect they deserve rests on the evaluation of the male.
The commodification of chastity and its attendant portrayal of women as products awaiting the decision of men to stake their claim run counter to the belief that every human being is created free and the right of women to stand on their own.
The Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) prohibits the appointment of women to positions of Islamic authority (Initial Report, 2001). This prohibition constrains the potentiality of Muslim women in Singapore and deprives the Muslim community in Singapore of the female perspective.

"… and civil"

A greater concern is the fact that women's rights to education have not been, till this day, included in the Constitution (Part IV, Article 16). It is quite possible that such a development would not be forthcoming, given the fact that women tend to marry above their station in life. Allowing equal access to education, or specifically, not being able to modify access to education could lead to a situation where there is a glut of rich, professional and highly educated women with no husbands to boot. Already, there is a growing number of single women in Singapore (Section 1.8, Initial Report). Their numbers pose a threat to the ideal scenario in which men and women marry and hopefully procreate so as to ensure continuity in Singapore. By allowing access to education hang by a thin thread in the controlling hands of the elite contravenes the spirit of CEDAW since the Convention demands equal access to education.

Rape as defined under Section 375 of the Penal Code and gross indecency as defined under Section 377A of the Penal Code can only be committed by men. This is in denial of the fact that men can also be raped and their modesty outraged; and undermines the ability and motivation that women potentially possess to commit these acts. This emasculation serves only to preserve traditional and cultural attitudes that maintain the women as the weaker sex and therefore warrants their protection. The male is the embodiment of destructive sexual energy, the excessive end product of patriarchy that has to be curbed.

The Fundamental

AWARE is mistaken that positive discrimination for women does not exist (Critical Review, 2001). It does exist as this text has demonstrated, but it exists to maintain a benevolent patriarchy. It exists in a system which trades only a few privileges for the perpetuation of the system, a system that distinguishes between the fairer, and feminine and the stronger, masculine sex. It exists to foist the attendant child-raising that comes with procreation on women and violates the dignity and worth of the female as a separate and legitimate entity in her own right. It exists because of patriarchy.

There has never been a governmental institution to look into the welfare and progress of women in this country. The reality is that while the women are not a special interest group (Press Release, 2001), much needs to be done to in order to bring women's position in society to a level on par with the men. Insofar as effort is lacking, the rule of patriarchy will prevail and Singapore will continue to fail to live up the Convention it ratifies.

1. "Raft on ideas on how to trigger baby boom" The Straits Times, 15 March 2000

2. "Aware 'unfair' about sex-ed programme." The Straits Times, 26 November 2000