Amidst Downsides Of Growth And Authoritarianism, Women In Singapore Forge Openings
FRIDAY FILE: Corinna Lim, Executive Director of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), speaks with AWID about the women’s rights implications of various contentious issues at play in Singapore today: freedom of expression, access to the government and steady economic growth reliant on migrant domestic workers.
By Masum Momaya
Singapore, the Southeast Asian city-state of just over five million people is reputed for both steady economic growth and strict authoritarianism. Corinna Lim, Executive Director of AWARE, talked to AWID about the women’s rights implications of various contentious issues at play in Singapore today: freedom of expression, access to the government and economic growth reliant on migrant domestic workers. AWARE is an NGO that brings women’s perspectives to national issues in Singapore through research, advocacy, education and support services, with the aim of advancing gender equality.
AWID: Media in the US and Europe often portray Singapore as a nation where, in order to foster economic growth and development, opposition is repressed and freedom of speech and assembly do not exist. Is this the case? What are the implications for women?
Corinna Lim (CL): Freedom of speech is highly curtailed in Singapore. Permission is required for “any assembly or procession of five or more persons in any public road, public place or place of public resort intended (a) to demonstrate support for or opposition to the views or actions of any person; (b) to publicize a cause or campaign; or (c) to mark or commemorate any event.”
In 2000, the Government set up a Speakers’ Corner (Hong Lim Park) as a “free speech area” where people could demonstrate, hold exhibitions and performances, and speak freely on most topics. Speaking events could be held without the need to apply for a license. However, it is still necessary for people to register their intention to speak at the venue. It is possible to hold demonstrations at Hong Lim Park provided they are organized by Singapore citizens and the participants are only citizens and permanent residents. In practice, these conditions are extremely limiting and are quite difficult for organizers to comply with.
Nevertheless, successful events such as the annual Pink Dot event have been held at Hong Lim Park. Pink Dot is a gathering of people who believe in openness and love between people, regardless of their sexual orientation. Last year also saw the inaugural SlutWalk Singapore, where people gathered to oppose “victim blaming” of sexual assault victims.
AWID: Aside from channels for public dissent, do women’s organizations in Singapore have access to the government to lobby for legislative and policy changes?
CL: The State confines its consultations and dialogues to three approved bodies on women’s issues: the People’s Association Women’s Wing, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Women’s Committee and Women’s Development Secretariat and the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO). SCWO has 53 members, including AWARE, categorized into advocacy, business and professionals, international women’s groups, labor, sports, community, service club and service network.
This particular approach ignores the good work and advocacy of many interest groups that work on diverse women’s issues, such as women with HIV, sexual orientation, migrant workers, lower-income women, foreign wives, and foreign domestic workers. Their independent voices are needed at the table of constructive dialogue.
The space for advocacy was much more limited before the recent General Elections in May 2011. But, since then, the space has opened up, and the State is much more open to engaging and also wants to be seen to be engaging with civil society.
With this opening, aside from the ongoing gender discrimination issues, AWARE is now focusing on lobbying the government for more social support for older women, caregivers, women with disabilities and women in financial distress. We have participated in the National Budget process in the last two years calling for women’s issues to be addressed fully as national issue.
AWID: What are the challenges associated with employment for women in Singapore?
CL: The official female labor force participation rate (from 2011) is 57%.Women, despite being well educated, still hold the lower-end to middle-level jobs and earn less than men[i], even with the same qualifications. There are still no clearly defined measures to deal with getting more women to level-up in the work force beyond horizontal segregation. Options for women are still restricted by the lack of gender-equitable measures to enable both husbands and wives to pursue family-life and careers with fewer hassles. There are still inadequate support services to alleviate care-giving responsibilities and an over-reliance on employing foreign domestic workers as a measure to keep women in the workforce.
Achieving work life balance is tough, especially as Singapore has the longest working hours in the world. Flexible working arrangements are also not common in Singapore. More women than men leave the workforce due to family responsibilities. Also, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world as given the limited options for achieving work-life balance, many career women choose to delay marriage and families.
Sexual harassment is also an issue as the current statutory protections are inadequate and most companies do not have proper procedures and policies in place to deal with this. AWARE’s 2008 research study on this issue showed that 54% of respondents interviewed had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their life.
AWID: Are some women more vulnerable than others in employment situations?
CL: Pregnant women, women who are sexually harassed, foreign domestic workers, foreign wives married to Singapore men, sexual minorities, casual and contract workers, are all still inadequately protected. The improved Employment Act still excludes too many women at risk. However, the State has announced that a review of the Employment Act will take place in 2012, and AWARE will take part in this process which will take place in the second half of the year.
Foreign women – foreign brides, foreign female workers (migrant labor) and foreign women in the sex industry, all have limited protection under the law, limited access to under-funded social services, are caught in cross-border issues and run the risk of being classified too often as immigration offenders.
AWID: Please say more about migrant women workers in Singapore. How many are there? Where do they come from? And what are the major issues they face? Given that the presence of migrant women workers, particularly domestic workers, is particularly critical to continued economic growth in Singapore, is the government concerned with their rights?
CL: The bulk of migrant women workers in Singapore work as foreign domestic workers (FDWs). Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) - an NGO that deals with migrant issues here – reports that there are 201,000 FDWs in Singapore on work permits. This means there is one FDW in every 5 households. The majority come from Indonesia and the Philippines. Smaller numbers come from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Thailand and Bangladesh. Numbers have been growing from Myanmar since 2006.
Major issues they face are the long working hours, not having time off and of being overworked, salary complaints and repatriation issues. Some also face abuse and unsafe work conditions. In 2012 alone, eight FDWs from Indonesia have fallen to their deaths from high-rise apartments while cleaning outside windows.
Singapore relies heavily on FDWs, but has not ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. It was only in March 2012, that the State had announced a mandatory day off for FDWs. However, this is only applicable to FDWs who sign a new contract after January 1, 2013. Currently, there is no mandated law that employers must give their FDW a day off.
Interestingly, on this issue, the government appears to be more concerned about the welfare and safety of FDWs than the general public. It came under a great deal of criticism when it recently announced its policy for domestic workers signing a new contract to have a day off.
UNIFEM and NGOs Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and TWC2 conducted a joint study called ‘Made to Work’ and have also actively campaigned for FDWs to get a day off.
AWID: Are there any other issues related to women in Singapore that you want to highlight?
CL: Body image issues are of marked concern right now. The average Singaporean woman spends about SGD 200 a month on beauty products and services. The slimming and beauty industry in Singapore is booming. Advertising for products and services to improve body image and conform to societal expectations of beauty is dramatic in print, TV and mobile media. Guidelines against medical practitioners, those in the beauty industry, and advertisers who blatantly flaunt their wares are inadequately enfo
[i] MOM report 2011 table 20. Full time working males earn 3,441 while full time working females earn 3,099.