Gender inequality in Singapore

March 19, 2021

Inequality is something that exists in every society, and takes many different forms. It could be racial-based, income-based, or even gender-based, just to name a few, and each form of inequality has its own complexities and nuances to be unpacked.

In October 2020, the Singapore government started on a months-long gender equality review, “Conversations on Women Development” that will culminate in a White Paper that is set to be delivered in Parliament in the first half of 2021. In this review, discussions involving local youths and women organisations are held to identify problems and potential solutions to issues that women face at home, in school, in the workplace and in their community.

Following the spate of offences involving the violation of women in universities, the Ministry of Social and Family Development spearheaded this initiative, with support from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, the Ministry of Home Affairs and external partner organisations like the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations. According to Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam, the purpose of this initiative is to shift the mindset of Singaporeans towards gender equality and respect for women in all situations and circumstances, and that gender equality should be more deeply ingrained as fundamental values from a young age.

This is a commendable initiative and a great starting point for resolving gender-based inequality, but as with all forms of inequality, there are so many things that could be addressed, and in order to get a sense of some of the more pressing issues, it’s always good to hear from the general public. Late last year, we collaborated with Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy organisation AWARE and called on locals to share their views on key gender issues in our society through an OPPi poll.

As part of OPPi’s post-results analytics, respondents are clustered into groups depending on their answers. In this particular poll, a total of 560 participants were split into two main groups—A and B. Both groups consisted mostly of younger participants between the ages of 15 and 34, but group B had a significantly higher proportion of male respondents (51%) than in group A (17%). Conversely, group A had a significantly higher proportion of female respondents (79%) than in group B (45%).

According to the Ministry of Manpower’s Labour Force in Singapore report, there were about 1,500 stay-at-home fathers locally in 2017, but because of the stigma against them, many constantly receive harsh comments from friends and family.

In this poll, a total of 27 statements were posed to participants, and based on the results, a large majority of respondents had similar views across both groups A and B, with the statement “boys and men can be victims of sexual assault and harassment” receiving the most support—a total of 99.46% of respondents agreed with this statement.

To this, a small number of male respondents shared their experiences as victims, and there was a common consensus that male victims tend not to see themselves as victims or even realise that they’ve been victimized, and are oftentimes too afraid to speak out about it due to preconceived notions of what a victim looks like, or due to the existing gender stereotypes in place. Others also felt that there should be more avenues for support for all victims of sexual assault, men and boys especially, as sexual assault against males are more prevalent that we realise. In fact, the number of male molestation cases in Singapore has been on a steady increase, from 73 in 2009 to 125 in 2020. Of course, these are only the number of reported cases, and it is speculated that a vast majority of them go unreported because of shame, guilt or confusion.

All of this boils down to toxic masculinity—traditional notions of masculinity that are imbued in boys from a young age, through lived experiences in society or through mass media. These include the belief that men should refrain from showing their emotions and the glorification of male dominance and virility. To this, a total of 91.17% of respondents agreed that such notions about masculinity should be redefined.

When respondents shared their further thoughts however, a number of conflicting points were raised. Some felt that this toxic mindset is the root cause of many issues that men and women face today, and if left unaddressed, will just continue to be passed on from generation to generation and adversely affect the mental wellbeing of men. On the other hand, others thought that not all traits of toxic masculinity and femininity are necessarily bad. Some felt that these traits are, in some parts, inherently temperamental, and might even play important roles in our attraction to the opposite sex. Either way, there remains a common consensus that the definitions of masculinity and femininity are very nuanced topics, and should be looked at in relation to other issues such as National Service and childcare roles.

On this note, the topic of childcare and gender roles within the family have been met with a general consensus in the results of our poll—96.77% of respondents feel that there’s no shame in being a stay-at-home father. Interestingly, all of the respondents that disagreed with or were left undecided on this statement were from group B, in which there was, as mentioned above, a higher proportion of males. To this statement, many male respondents shared their experiences of being stay-at-home fathers. Sadly, a number of them admitted to having been made fun of by their peers and families for not living up to societal norms, which once again reinforces the need to re-evaluate gender roles.

On the topic of National Service however, respondents were left divided. When posed a statement on the importance of mandating National Service for women to achieve gender equality in Singapore, respondents were split rather equally among agreeing, disagreeing, and being on the fence (approximately 36.5%, 30.5% and 33% respectively).

The number of females choosing to sign on to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has been increasing yearly, and they now make up approximately eight percent of the SAF’s Regular force.

In group A (where there was a higher proportion of females), only 33% of respondents agreed to this statement, whereas in group B (where there was a higher proportion of males), 49% agreed to this statement. Many went on to share further thoughts with regard to this statement, with an overwhelming number of respondents sharing the opinion that National Service should be made voluntary or optional instead of having compulsory conscription. Some were also of the opinion that individuals should be able to choose how they would like to serve the nation, whether it’s through social work, first aid, technology, education or other means.

Of the respondents that disagreed with this statement, a significant number shared opinions that women would likely be marginalised or even harmed in such a patriarchal, militarised environment rife with masculine aggression. Some felt that gender equality can’t be achieved through “an eye for an eye” methods, but by re-evaluating the sexist ideologies that have shaped systems like our National Service. Others also brought up the fact that the real issue here is that males should not have a higher starting pay just because they’ve been through National Service.

On the other hand, respondents that agreed with this statement felt that this would be a step towards helping women realise that they can do just about anything that men can, and that dual National Service is practiced successfully in certain countries, so we can do it in Singapore too. Some also felt that while national defence is the responsibility of everyone, mindsets and attitudes surrounding gender roles in the military have to be changed first.

As with every form of inequality, there are many different ways to approach it, and many different viewpoints to consider when starting to unpack and abolish such prejudice. This isn’t an issue that can be resolved overnight, but we’re heartened to have been able to hear from so many people on the ground, and to see that the government is taking decisive action against gender inequality. We’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for the White Paper to come, but until then, we’d love to continue to hear from you, so join our community group on Facebook and let us know if you have any thoughts or comments!

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