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Gender Parity in Singapore’s Parliament: An Overview

Gillian Chong

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In Singapore, women’s rights have advanced rapidly in the past two decades, with the most prominent and recent stride forward being the White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development (2022).  The White Paper proposed policies that aim to reduce societal stigma against women whilst reinforcing their rights at the workplace, enhancing their protection against domestic violence and supporting their role as caregivers.

However, it is noteworthy that the White Paper makes no explicit mention of improving female political representation.  And as it stands today, Singaporean politics remains predominantly male-dominated with the percentage of women in parliament at 29.13%. This is slightly higher than the global average of 26.7% and the South-East Asian average of 22.83%.  At the cabinet level, 15.79% or 3 out of 19 of our ministers in 2023 are women, a historic high. While these statistics signify positive strides, they still fall short of reflecting the actual gender proportion in society, which is 51.3% women to 48.7% men as of 2023.

Levelling this gender ratio is in Singapore’s best interest. Extensive research on this topic has consistently shown that legislatures with a higher ratio of women are more proactive and effective in introducing and passing legislation on critical issues such as sexual assault and female healthcare. When policies protecting women are robust, women can perform to their fullest potential as members of society, which advances a country economically. Representation also engenders a positive feedback loop, where the existence of exemplary female leaders dismantles patriarchal stereotypes about politics being a men’s game, empowering other women to take up roles in politics.

Theories like critical mass theory, often utilised to promote gender parity in governments, also hold that any minority group must make up a substantial percentage of an organisation for the members of the minority group to avoid tokenism. Victims of tokenism are subject to high levels of scrutiny for their minority status, and in a desperate struggle to avoid stereotypes which can be used to demean them, end up conforming to the dominant culture. This can stifle the minority identity as they adopt the much safer dominant identity in order to continue functioning in a shared space.

Interestingly, an instance of this is documented in Devasahayam’s 2013 research on local female politicians, which found that female Members of parliament (MPs) make conscious efforts to avoid overemphasising women’s issues. Admittedly, this could stem from multiple reasons, including the desire to fairly represent all members of their constituencies. However, it remains plausible that they wish to not be stereotyped as a female politician who only cares about women’s issues. Perhaps with a larger proportion of women in parliament, the culture in our local parliament could shift into one where women are not as conscious about how they are perceived by their peers and the public.

Singapore presents a unique context for gender equality in parliament, owing to the hegemonic nature of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Since the PAP has achieved a consistent parliamentary majority since Singapore’s independence, the candidates they choose to field in parliamentary general elections are especially significant in deciding the diversity in parliament. As of December 2023, PAP MPs make up 80.58% of parliament (83 out of 103 seats). Moreover, unlike local opposition parties which select members from a pool of applicants, the PAP utilises a “talent-spotting” system for recruiting its candidates. Individuals are nominated for selection by the party before being invited to attend a recruitment process that subjects them to extensive screening, psychological tests and interviews which include ‘tea sessions’ with senior ministers.

The PAP indisputably has significant influence over the gender proportions in parliament. The PAP played an instrumental role in achieving today’s percentage of 29.13% women in parliament. They introduced the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system in 1988 and have produced multiple highly successful female politicians. The GRC system ensures that most constituencies in Singapore are contested by groups of candidates, in contrast with Single Member Constituencies (SMCs) where a sole candidate from each party runs. Intended to foster racial diversity in parliament, the group candidature system shielded female candidates from bias in the days where women in parliament were scarce. Voters were more likely to vote along party lines than by their opinion on whether women should be in politics.

Before 1990, women never constituted more than 10% of parliament. Today, notable female PAP MPs, such as Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment, Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Communications and Information and Second Minister for Home Affairs, and Ms Indranee Rajah, Minister, Prime Minister's Office, Second Minister for Finance and Second Minister for National Development, have not only disproved stereotypes about women's capabilities in politics but also inspired more women to pursue political careers. However, despite these advances, some critics and scholars, including Netina Tan, perceive the PAP as retaining patriarchal elements. They argue that the increasing inclusion of women in leadership roles and on candidate lists, is primarily a strategic response to the electoral success of female candidates.

Female politicians contesting in SMCs, like Grace Fu, Tin Pei Ling, Amy Khor, and Sun Xueling, secured their seats in the 2020 General Elections with impressive vote shares of at least 60%. This demonstrates that fielding women in elections has become increasingly advantageous for the PAP, which seeks to bolster its mandate amidst shifting public sentiments. While progress has been made, the journey towards gender parity in politics continues, with ongoing debates about the motivations and implications of these changes.

Why, then, are women still underrepresented in parliament today? In 2020, 2015 and 2011 respectively, women made up 26.88%, 20.22% and 22.99% of the PAP’s candidate list. Tan explains this shortage of female candidates in demand-and-supply terms. On one hand, biases within the PAP’s predominantly male selection committee may lead them to prefer men over women when choosing candidates. [1] The party is also a proponent of the nuclear family unit and traditional family values, in which a woman’s most important social role is a mother and caregiver. 

On the other hand, the pool of women which meet the PAP’s selection criteria (working professionals who are leaders in their respective fields) and are willing to join politics is possibly much smaller than that of the men’s. For instance, several female MPs spoke with AWARE in 2020 about the difficulties they face, such as juggling caregiving duties with work and how the public nature of politics can be discomforting. The social expectation for women to be the primary caregiver in the family presents conflict with the role of an MP, and can act as a deterring force. Furthermore, that women are less likely to agree to entering politics than men is supported by admissions from local opposition parties that they struggle with recruiting women. 

Nevertheless, while societal pressures may be discouraging women from entering politics, it is less true that there is a dearth of capable women in the workforce whom the PAP can choose from. The PAP selects candidates from both civil service and the private sector. Women are definitively underrepresented in the governing boards of local-based private companies (22.7%), but the ratio of women to men in leadership positions in civil service and statutory boards are surprisingly rather equal. In 2020, the year of the most recent General Election, 63.58% of Senior Executives or higher in the civil service were women. In the Statutory Boards, 47.94% of Senior Executives or higher were women. While it is possible that the very highest echelons of the civil service still lack women, these statistics prove that there is no shortage in the highly educated, capable leaders which the PAP are searching for amongst women, at least in the civil service. Consequently, the possibility that party bias or harsh societal expectations play a significant role in discouraging women from entering local politics grows. 

As the next General Elections draws near, we will hopefully see an upward trend in the number of female candidates fielded by all political parties. The gradual effects of 2022’s White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development, which improves support for working women and details plans to lessen social stigma against women via public education, should also create more opportunities for women to step into leadership roles in the workforce. Consequently, this might produce the indirect effect of more women stepping into politics. That would not only benefit local women, but also the entire nation, as we stand to strengthen our inclusivity, economy and democracy.

[1] 4 out of 20 of the PAP’s current Central Executive Committee are women. 3 of them are members and only Ms Grace Fu holds a position of Organising Secretary.

January, 2024.

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