Keynote Address by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), at the WIN Council “Skills for a Better Future” Exhibition and Seminar

Published Date: 20 March 2016 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Health & Ministry of Environment and Water Resources

Advisers to Grassroots Organisations

Mr Ang Hak Seng, Chief Executive Director, People’s Association

WIN Council Chairman and Members

Ladies and Gentlemen


1. I am happy to join all of you this morning to celebrate the contributions of women to our society.

2. Today, me, Kian Peng and Hak Seng, are a minority. But it is for me a very familiar feeling, because in my family, I am a minority amongst my wife and two daughters. A few years ago we bought a pet dog – a Maltese – and even then my daughters picked a female. I was out voted as usual.

3. Growing up and living with the women in my life – my mother, my wife and my daughters, teach me a great deal about women’s role at home, at work, and in society. Today I would like to add my perspective to the discussion on the role of women in society.

Women by Numbers

4. The United Nations theme this year for International Women’s Day is Planet 50:50 by 2030. It speaks about the role of gender equality in important global issues such as the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals, as well as deeper moral issues such as women’s rights, equal representation, and the necessary inclusion of women in deep policy making. We all have a duty to help women live a full life – for themselves, as well as for the good of society at large.

5. The evidence on the correlation between a country’s prosperity and the status of women is compelling. It has to be - women provide half the intellectual, emotional and creative resources of any society. One of the hallmarks of a modern, progressive society is the status of women - by your access to education and career opportunities, by how much say you have in family, community, corporate and national affairs.

6. All over the world, we see higher rates of economic and political participation amongst women. In leadership, women have been making great strides.

7. In Asia, Ms Park Geun-hye is the President of South Korea; and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, while unable to be elected President, nevertheless represents the dominant political force of Myanmar. Recently, Ms Tsai Ing-wen was elected President of Taiwan. She has a tough job ahead to spur the economy and maintain peace in the Asia Pacific.

8. In Europe, Angela Merkel is not just the Chancellor of Germany, but a key leader of the European Union. As for the US, the world awaits if we will witness the first female President in Hillary Clinton.

9. Women leaders are emerging in other fields too. Christine Lagarde - Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund; Janet Yellen the Chairman of the US Federal Reserve; Indra Nooyi the CEO of PepsiCo; Mary Barra the CEO of General Motors, in a male-dominated industry; Marissa Mayer the CEO of Yahoo!

10. In popular culture, there are women protagonists. Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games is hugely popular. In Star Wars, a young girl is poised to replace Luke Skywalker as the new Jedi Master that will bring balance to the Force - a heavy cosmic responsibility! And Harry Potter will get nowhere looking for the Horcruxes if Hermione did not help him.

Women in Singapore

11. In Singapore, we are a great respecter of women. We place great emphasis on education and development because people are our capital. That is really the only reason such a tiny country gets to play on the world stage. So, we ensure that women in Singapore have good access to education and career opportunities. Today, the labour participation rate for women aged 25-64 is about 72%. While lower than the labour participation rate for men which is about 80%, this is high by international standards. According to a World Economic Forum report in 2014, Singapore has also made the largest absolute gains in terms of women’s income compared to other countries.

12. More Singaporean women are advancing in their careers and professional roles. There is Chua Sock Koong heading Singtel; Rachel Eng in law; Zuraidah Abdullah the first woman appointed as a Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police; Goh Swee Chen as Chairperson of Shell Singapore. The current and previous NTUC Presidents, Mary Liew and Diana Chia, are both women. Amongst young entrepreneurs, Sabrina Tan founded Skin Inc; Tjin Lee founded the Mercury Group; and Priscilla Shunmugam an acclaimed fashion designer.

13. More and more women are joining the military too. During my house visits, I often meet young women close to completing their studies who wants to embark on a military career. In the Ministry of Defence, I am supported by a military private secretary, who assists me with external events as one her CCAs. She is a Major, and an F-16 fighter pilot in the Republic of Singapore Air Force.

14. When my wife met her recently at the Singapore Airshow amidst all the fighter jets and helicopters on display, she said to her, “You are the coolest part of this Airshow!

15. Politically, since the early 2000s, the number of elected MPs who are women has doubled. Today, we have 22 female MPs. Both the Speaker of Parliament and Leader of the House are women.

The Core Pillar

16. I have talked about the labour participation rate of women, and women in leadership positions. While the numbers and examples are encouraging, there is still a gap between men and women, and it is a gap that is very difficult to close.

17. I think there is a reason for that. When we talk about gender issues, perhaps we need to hold two thoughts in our minds. The first is of equality - of respect, recognition and opportunities. It must be equal for both genders. The second thought has to do with the differences between men and women in the way we think, analyse, feel, empathise, and make decisions, especially with regard to the family.

18. It is because of these differences between men and women that we find more men in some occupations and more women in others. I cannot explain why men and women may be good at different things and are driven by different things. I want to – carefully - make a point here about differences between men and women – namely that some observations may be generally true but particularly false. So please take what I say below in the most generous spirit possible – as being generally true.

19. For example, in culinary schools it is common to find more men in hot cooking and more women in pastry making. This is a result of choice rather than prejudice. If we artificially force more women to do hot cooking and men to make pastry, it’s a poorer kitchen overall.

20. It is also because of this difference, over and above economic and professional contributions, women also assume the special role as the core pillars of families.

21. Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s first death anniversary is a few days away. This is a great man who shaped the fortune of Singapore, and left a strong legacy for Singaporeans. But even as the nation mourned his passing last year, we all knew in our hearts and minds that Mr Lee could achieve what he did in large and critical part because of Mrs Lee.

22. Among other things, Mrs Lee was a key advocate of Singapore women’s rights. In 1959, she made a radio broadcast in which she proclaimed: “Our society is still built on the assumption that women are the social, political and economic inferiors of men. This myth has been made the excuse for the exploitation of female labour. Many women do the same kind of work as men but do not get the same pay. Women and their families must be protected against husbands who treat their wives as chattels and abandon their children and families without any thought for their future….We believe that women can make a valuable contribution to our political life. We believe that they can work with men in helping to remould the political future of our country.

23. She and other political activists at the time - Chan Choy Siong, Ho Puay Choo and Oh Su Chen – put their ideas into the landmark 1961 Woman’s Charter, which is still in place today to protect Singaporean women against physical abuse, and provided them with financial protection in divorce. As a sign of our evolving gender parity – the Charter now also protects men in granting them financial protection in divorce.

24. Madam Kwa was Mr Lee’s closest companion, biggest supporter, his intellectual equal, and most of all, his tower of strength. But she left the foreground to him. Many successful men succeed because of the support of their wives.

25. But today, more and more women face real dilemmas and challenges in juggling their family and career responsibilities.

26. I see many friends and colleagues struggle with this - often it is the mother who decides to make difficult choices in her career for the sake of her children and family.

27. Hence if we see fewer women in leadership positions, it is not a reflection of ability.

50:50 What We Can Do

28. All of us – men, women, society at large – have a duty to help women juggle competing responsibilities.

29. Equality cannot be lip service. If the male chauvinistic culture still persists – if husbands do not help out in the household, including taking care of babies - there will not be many babies to be taken care of. If infant and childcare support is inadequate, if employers are not supportive of mothers, it becomes harder for women to juggle their career and family responsibilities, something has to give. If we recognise that women are the pillars of our families, society needs to better support women as mothers - as well as engineers, doctors and entrepreneurs – or any other vocation women choose to be in.

30. Employers must ensure that human resource policies and practices do not work against women. Along with attributes such as being ‘assertive’, ‘outgoing’, ‘results-focused’, ‘dynamic’ listed in the job search for high-level assignments or senior leadership positions, we need to also value qualities such as being ‘nurturing’, to have ‘empathy’, ‘patience’, ‘thoughtfulness’.

31. Placing an age requirement in career development schemes may also disadvantage women who decide to take time off to start a family. Organizations must look for fairer criteria in evaluating a person’s capabilities and contributions to the organization.

32. As we push for SkillsFuture, we are focusing more and more on skills, looking past all other biases and prejudices. It does not matter to me at all if an artist, engineer, chef or driver is a man or woman – if the painting moves me, if the trains work, and the food tastes good – that is the true test.


33. In closing, I would like to thank the WECs for their tremendous efforts over the years in reaching out to women in Singapore, and organising programmes to encourage more women to be active in our community.

34. 50:50 is an aspirational goal, and may remain aspirational even in 2030. The danger of thinking 50:50 - is women often divide themselves between work and family - 50 % at work and 50 % at home. All too often, this ends up 100 % at work, and 110 % at home! We want to make sure that women live a full life – but women only have one life, not two! Despite the mathematics, women will continue to make sacrifices at home, at work, in society and community. As you do so, remember to take care of yourself too.

35. May I wish you all - a very Happy International Women’s Day.

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