Economic Pragmatism and the ‘Schooling’ of Girls in Singapore, pp. 11 of 21

Despite protests from members of the public and women’s associations, this quota was imposed from 1979 onwards. For many years, several calls to lift the quota went unheeded. In 1994, for example, Kanwaljit Soin, a Nominated Member of Parliament and medical practitioner, argued eloquently for the abolition of the one-third quota on female medical students, unequivocally pointing out that such a policy was unconstitutional and against the “ethos of building a society based on justice and meritocracy” (Parliamentary Debates, 63:5, 1994, August 25, cols. 485–486.). Lee Yock Suan, the Minister for Education, refuted her arguments and declared that he had checked with the University’s lawyers who had confirmed that the policy was not against the Constitution. Lee issued the ultimate challenge to Soin to put it to a test in a court of law (Parliamentary Debates, 63:5, 1994, August 25, col. 487). The matter was never taken to court. With regards to educational rights, the Constitution of Singapore provides that “there shall be no discrimination against any citizen of Singapore on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth.” (Singapore, 2015). The term “sex” is noticeably missing in the Constitution with regards to rights to education and the Education Minister was therefore right in saying that the medical quota was not unconstitutional. Nonetheless, this indicates that there is a legal loophole in the protection of women’s rights in Singapore.

The imposition of the medical quota shows that pragmatism takes precedence when economic interests conflict with gender equality. Although the initial reasons offered for the imposition had to do with the difficulties women faced as doctors, there is no doubt that the main considerations had to do with the diminished returns to the government’s investment in women’s medical training. This is further evidence that education for girls was provided not because it was a basic human right, but because pragmatically it was necessary to achieve two objectives: economic survival and social stability. When this educational provision ran counter to national objectives, as in the case of educating female doctors, there were no apologies for not keeping to the promise of equality. To the political leaders of the day, it was purely a matter of economic and social pragmatism.

Putting Women Back in the Homes: State Discourse and  Education Policies in the 1980s -1990s

A seminal speech concerning equal opportunities for Singapore women is Lee Kuan Yew’s National Day Rally speech in August 1983 when he attributed the declining birthrate, especially amongst better-educated women to the “unintended consequences” of education (Lee, 1983). Additionally, in 1994 he openly expressed regret over providing women with equal opportunities to education (New Sunday Times, 1994, July 31). Education had reduced women’s marriage prospects and affected their traditional roles as mothers.

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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