Economic Pragmatism and the ‘Schooling’ of Girls in Singapore, pp. 2 of 21

Yet, in spite of what these statistics show, the 2014 Global Gender Gap Index shows that Singapore, which is ranked 59 out of 142 countries in this study, is still a long way from achieving gender equality (Straits Times, 2014, October 28). The study shows that in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment, Singapore women are still lagging behind men, especially in the areas of leadership and political representation. Furthermore, in spite of the increase in women’s wages, there is still a significant gender wage gap which has increased from 9.4% to 12.1% in the period 2010-2014 (Ministry of Social and Family Development, 2015). This is attributed to a higher concentration of females in lower-paying occupations among the older cohorts of female workers who are less educated. Another factor for the disparity in income is the lower number of years of working experience because female workers tend to disrupt or drop out of the workforce after marriage or childbirth. The 2014 Report on Labour Force in Singapore showed that the employment rate for women in the prime-working ages of 25 to 54 rose to a record high 76.0% in 2014, but it is still significantly less than the 92.2% rate for prime-working age men (Ministry of Manpower, 2014, p. 15). The Report also noted that women formed the majority of those outside the labour force. The main reasons given for not working were family responsibilities, such as childcare, housework and care-giving to family/relatives (Ministry of Manpower, 2014, p. 40). Thus, in spite of their education and economic empowerment, women continue to hold traditional gender ideologies of being the primary caregivers and nurturers of their families.

Sociologist Stella Quah suggests that many Singaporean women are struggling to maintain coherence in their gender roles (Quah, 1998). This struggle has been blamed on the government’s contradictory signals to women (Goldberg, 1987; Lazar, 1993). On the one hand, women are expected to play an important role in the economic development of the nation through participating in the workforce. On the other hand, they are also expected to stay at home to look after the children so as preserve the family unit and maintain the social fabric of society. Lazar points out that the cause of such contradictions is the PAP government’s practice of “strategic egalitarianism”, i.e., the granting of equal opportunities being dependent on meeting economic and political goals. This author  concurs with her thesis but also posits in this paper  that in spite of these seemingly contradictory messages, the government’s gender ideology has been a consistent one. This consistency is noted by researchers such as N. Purushotam who asserts that the concern has never been about how the nation can emancipate and empower women but rather it is about “how women can best serve ‘the nation’” (Purushotam, 2004, p. 335). Women are auxiliary, not primary, in the PAP’s conception of a modern First World nation. Opportunities for women’s education and economic participation were  motivated by economic imperative, not by any intrinsic belief in equality of the sexes nor support for women’s rights. This was also noted by Chan Heng Chee who commented that “the participation of women in labour is not a commitment to the principle or belief in emancipation, that women are entitled to the equal right as men to work” (Chan, 1975). Purushotam calls this “the myth of the gift” – a perspective that these opportunities were the result of the government’s benevolence (Purushotam, 2004). And she notes that this gift places an obligation on the recipient and puts women in a dependent position.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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