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Why it’s not time for parity – what Singaporeans really need from women’s groups

Why aren’t our women’s groups agreeing on critical issues that shape the fabric of our interracial, mostly harmonious society?

PHOTO: FACEBOOK/AWARE SINGAPORE

Parity has been a trending topic of late – it seems to be the new buzzword for progressive change worldwide. Organisations have taken to it as a new battle cry; the great equaliser promising women what they have long deserved, even prompting governments to take steps for female representation on multinational boards, which control most of the wealth in any country.

What many forget while chanting this new mantra though, is that it may not entirely be about paying women equally at all. Parity has always been about multiple, overlapping agendas – evidenced by companies paying millions in fines for discriminating against women and minorities, even as they run PR campaigns to apparently disguise that fact.

In Singapore, recent events threaten to take the issue of parity to a boiling point – as local women’s groups engage to change policy for a public that simply isn’t ready for such progressive attitudes.

Preaching to the (charitable) choir

The gender pay gap is just one of many local issues that are persistently seen on women’s group agendas – because the more money women get, the more they can donate.

Almost every charity is run on donations paid by the public, corporates and professional organisations. In Singapore, these donations also happen to be a great tax-deductible, which means that those with enough means can benefit from a deduction on taxable income – up to 250% of the donation amount.

PHOTO: IRAS

IRAS also treats tickets and some gifts given in return for donations as having no commercial value, which means that attending a fancy five-star hotel dinner at a charity gala event still gives a donor the maximum tax deduction on the total amount. For context: the lowest category of table (Silver) for six seats at the recent Say No to Oppression of Women (SNOW) Gala at Capella hotel was all yours for S$6000 – not a bad (fully tax-deductible) night at all.

What could be said to happen then is a case of the wealthiest voices being heard – and when female directors in SGX-listed companies earn a little more than half of what male counterparts make, their voices are loudest. If donors want parity, charities are presumably more than happy to advocate for this when it coincides with the lavish parties and fundraising efforts.

The interests of the public, or the interests of the world?

The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) recently led the effort to submit a Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women or CEDAW shadow report to the United Nations (UN), recommending steps to better address gender discrimination in Singapore – calling it Many Voices, One Movement.

“The UN encourages non-governmental groups to submit CEDAW Shadow Reports. They hope to get a more comprehensive picture of the lives and status of women in each country, free of government bias. The report documents the opinions, research, and recommendations of non-government organizations”

– excerpt from AWARE website on CEDAW shadow reports

It is of course part of the mandate for women’s groups to highlight where Singapore’s policies can do better to eliminate discrimination across gender, ethnic and religious lines. A shadow report does not require government oversight or approval – which allows for impartial and objective feedback. As a recognised member of regional and international organisations within ASEAN and the UN, it is SCWO’s duty to contribute as such.

What isn’t necessary though is creating divisions and perceived discord among groups in Singapore; groups that should be given all opportunities, and indeed an actual voice for representation on such an initiative. It appears the committee clearly mismanaged the process over the time it took to produce the report, and made little effort to address internal miscommunication(s) before a very public falling out and cancellation of the planned media conference occurred.

Similarly a founding member from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), one of the contributing NGOs, appeared to brush aside disagreements – citing that these single-issue organisations were only “interested in their own areas”.

It looks very odd when AWARE sets out to “develop knowledge on Syariah law in order to better support Muslim women” and then fails to retain support from the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS) – on a report that recommends amendments to Muslim laws on marriage, polygamy and inheritance.

If leaders appointed to engage these groups, which also include women’s units of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) and the People’s Association (PA), fail to do so – on an effort that represents Singapore on the diplomatic world stage – could they then be said to have failed the Singaporean public with their divisive and irrelevant viewpoints?

What parity means for Singaporeans right now

Both SCWO and AWARE operate with Institute of Public Character (IPC) status. The Singapore statutes of law governing IPC defines these organisations as charitable or non-profit institutions, and while they might lead discussion and initiatives for various worthy causes – who decides their effectiveness, if not in the court of public opinion?

These groups however have joined the public discourse about one issue that has been at the middle of a thorny debate for the majority of Singaporeans, both male and female – that of the gender pay gap being somehow correlated to national service. Local salaries for Singaporean men are seemingly pegged higher, to reflect their having “paid dues” through serving the nation for two years.

“The World Economic Forum has predicted that it will take 170 years for the global pay gap to close, at current rates of progress. How much progress we can make, and how quickly, depends a lot on the political will to take the issue seriously. (…) In our view, men’s contributions to NS should be compensated through improved pay and benefits during NS itself, rather than a lifelong wage differential in unrelated spheres, which reinforces the idea that men’s labour generally is worth more than women’s.”

– Ms Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research at AWARE

An Accenture report specifically aimed at addressing this problem, however, suggests that Singaporean women graduating university in 2020 might achieve parity as early as 2041 – through three key accelerators: digital fluency, career strategy and tech immersion.

Perhaps it is time to take some focus away from the fact that overall Singapore’s gender pay gap has not closed since 2006; this could be due to any number of socioeconomic factors or policies.

Supporting the next generation of Singaporeans so they can achieve parity within their generation – this will be the actionable bridge to address the now decade-long inertia and create positive future impact across all industries. There is no benefit to drawing lines in the sand over and over again because of national service – something that has not been definitively proven with admissions or statistical data by any involved in the dialogue.

Missing the mark for impactful parity

Parity is defined as the state or condition of being equal, especially with regards to status or pay. The CEDAW report recommends the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code – while this and the entirety of the report is within the purview of local women’s groups, those same groups fail to engage the public they want to equalise benefits for.

The online backlash thus far goes to show that the majority of Singaporeans may still be unaware of single and LGBT parents being treated the same way when it comes to government-issued benefits and subsidies – they and their children are not considered a whole family unit, and are not currently granted these.

Instead of making expansive, dismissive statements and then appearing to use international pressure to encourage controversial policy change, women’s groups could take the much harder route – of outreach. Winning the war instead of the battle on public opinion could mean so much more for those marginalised; it could finally make locals on all levels understand that being different by moral definitions of marriage and family takes away a birthright from their fellow Singaporean – that of affordable public housing and family-oriented benefits.

Perhaps before we try to equalise between men and women, we should look at the disparity among those getting help, and those who speak on their behalf. When it comes to the public need for resources across all social groups regardless of race or income, a roof over our heads and access to social benefits should be a priority across all charitable organisations – not this concept of parity as a self-explanatory mascot.

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