Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Minister for Defence at the UN S.N.O.W (Say No to the Oppression of Women) Gala 2017

Published Date: 22 September 2017 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Ms Trina Liang-Lin, President of the Singapore Committee for UN Women

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

1. At home, I am the only man. I live with my wife and my two daughters. So you can see why I have a great personal interest in the state of affairs of women. Our daughters are 17 and 15, they are growing up, curious about the world, and exploring future possibilities. One possible future is a world where they are stereotyped as anxious or overwrought when they are merely being responsible, relegated to footnotes, put in a box and pressured to accept it.

2. Another possible future, one which my wife and I have raised them for is – to be the best that they can be, to be happy for who they are, and to live within limits that only they set for themselves. They will grow up in a world with equal opportunities, equal recognition, and equal choices.

Biasness and Prejudice Is Real

3. There is no certainty that the second future will be any more likely than the first. From time to time, our daughters will come across media stories, articles, songs and videos where the worse of our human nature are on display – demeaning or putting down a fellow human being or particular segment of our community. As a father, this is part of the real world that I try to shield them from, but I know that sooner or later, they must learn to confront these realities - with courage and grace.

4. These unpleasant things will not always appear vile. They come dressed up as science, family values, social norms, or part of the diversity of views - and hence ‘good’ things. My daughters must see them for what they are – condescension, bias and discrimination.

5. When Taylor Swift sued a former DJ for groping her and gave a feisty testimony in Court, I noted that my daughters, being fans of Swift, knew the ins and outs of the story. After the incident, a stunned Swift even said ‘thank you’ to her assailant and his girlfriend for coming to the photo shoot. The reaction for Swift then was not to kick up a fuss or a public furore, hoping the bad experience would go away. But she later decided otherwise and was determined to stand up for herself. I don’t really listen to her music, but I thank her for an important life lesson she has imparted to millions of young girls around the world, including my daughters.

6. Recently, James Damore, a software engineer formerly at Google, wrote a long piece to rationalize the gender gap in the tech industry. He espoused, among other things, that women choose to be in less stressful roles because they are inherently more anxious.

7. I think that is complete nonsense. Anyone can draw differences between groups, whether by nationality, age, ethnicity, gender, occupation, even schools that you have been to, etc. The fact is all of us are different. Everyone in this room – we have our own strengths and weaknesses. But prejudice is saying that these differences are systematic, without much exception - which is another thing altogether.

8. We must recognize that every organization needs a team with diverse and complementary strengths. The type of skills needed to do well differs from organization to organization. It may be people skills in one, analytical skills in another. There is no fixed formula for leadership, and certainly no fixed gender for any industry. There must be equal opportunity for all men and women, based on their abilities. To suppress this based on stereotypes is narrow-minded and damaging, not only to the economy, but to society at large.

Asymptotical Approach Towards Equality

9. Fortunately, there is a growing momentum towards equality of opportunities. Hence, we witness many examples of successful women all over the world. I won’t name them today, but we know the famous names, in politics, in business, in the start-up and tech scene, locally and abroad. Some of you may even be dressed up as some of these powerful female icons this evening.

10. Still, I find it inspiring, this trend in popular culture, for strong female protagonists. My favourite franchise Star Wars is now a story about a powerful women Jedi. Wonder Woman, which incidentally was shot by a female director, out-performed many action movies with male leads. And she fears no kryptonite. It shows that a new generation of audiences is more against gender stereotyping. In fact, a movie depicting women as damsels in distress is certainly going to alienate many young audiences.

11. While the momentum is towards greater equality of opportunities, total equality is still some distance away. There is still a gap in pay, in the amount of household work that men and women do, and the proportion of senior positions going to men.

12. I am not sure if those gaps will ever close, unless there is a shift in social norms and in the expectations placed on women. Rightly or wrongly, society expects women to bear greater responsibilities at home, and in bringing up children. I know that even if my wife and I spend the same amount of time with our children, if there comes a time when they are most in need of comfort and someone to listen to their deepest problems, they will go to their mother. The maternal instinct is something I know exists but that I cannot fully comprehend. Likewise, in each marriage, the relationship between a man and his wife is unique, and the roles of husbands and wives are different, and I think it will remain so.

Give Women Support, and Choice

13. What is important, and what I care about, is not absolute equality, but that women have the freedom of choice. If they want to pursue careers in any fields, they should be assessed based on their capabilities and performance no different from men, and there should be nothing standing in their way just because they are female. But if women decide to devote themselves to their families and children and let their careers take a backseat, they deserve respect for that choice too. And if this is indeed the choice of my daughters in future, I will be happy for them.

14. But this has to be a real choice, and not a social burden or dilemma that only women are subject to. In this tilt towards free will from determinism, there must be greater support from society and especially from men, for mothers. So I am glad that over the years, the infrastructure for child care and pre-school education in Singapore has expanded and improved. Besides providing a more nurturing environment for children, it empowers women. I also hope men can step up more to share household responsibilities with their wives. We do the dishes not because we are helping our wives, but because we had dinner too. We change the diapers for the babies not because we are helping our wives, but because they are also my children.

Conclusion – A Growing Chorus

15. The movement by various groups pushing for greater equality between genders is picking up speed. UN Women continues to champion the cause around the world; 2,800 men in Singapore have pledged to end gender discrimination and violence in Singapore under the #heforshe effort; and UN Women’s Girls2Pioneers program encourages more girls to enter careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

16. Tonight, I want to encourage everyone here to see what you can do in your daily lives – as employers, as friends, as husbands, as brothers – as people who have the power, and therefore the responsibility, to make a difference to equalize opportunities, so that we can be a fairer, stronger and better society. We have come so far, there is a long way yet to go, and I believe we can always do better. Thank you.

Share this article: