Friday, 15 May 2015

Our Lives to Live: New book of essays toasts progress of Singapore women

TODAY, 14 May 2015

Where can you find some of Singapore’s most accomplished women all in one place? Now, in a book celebrating the progress of women here in diverse fields over the past 50 years.

This collection of 31 essays includes contributions from the likes of Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, political scientist and diplomat Chan Heng Chee, global women’s activist Noeleen Heyzer, food guru Violet Oon and 77th Street founder Elim Chew.

Professor Chan, for instance, recounts how she “never felt constrained or restrained as a girl child” because her mother told her repeatedly that her life would be like a man’s life.

“It gave me the confidence to do things and to move forward,” writes Prof Chan, who went on to become a career diplomat and Ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2012, among other appointments.

The book, Our Lives To Live, was launched yesterday by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Grace Fu, who wrote the foreword. It was conceptualised by publisher World Scientific Publishing as part of a series of books on Singapore’s development.

Covering a wide range of subjects, such as the Women’s Charter, women in Parliament, motherhood, ageing and cooking, it also has essays focusing on what more must be done to improve women’s circumstances in society.

One such area is in politics, with Madam Halimah discussing how to maintain or increase the percentage of female Members of Parliament (MPs) in her essay, noting that women MPs help to “signal that women too can play a meaningful role in public life” and act as role models because of their “high visibility”.

Playwright Eleanor Wong criticises the Women’s Charter for its underlying “deep-seated inferiority complex about women’s rightful place in the larger world”. Citing examples such as how only divorced husbands are required to pay maintenance, she argues that tying laws to gender, rather than to roles that can be fulfilled by both genders, reinforces structures based on gender.

Co-editor Kanwaljit Soin said: “We included important subjects such as the Women’s Charter, but we also thought, ‘That’s too heavy, what about the kitchen, what about fashion?’ So we also included things that matter to us in everyday life.”

Together with fellow editor Margaret Thomas, she approached women from various fields to write for the book. The result is, as the editors noted, “an unpredictable mix”.

Speaking yesterday, Ms Fu said: “The range of views in Our Lives To Live reflects the diversity, depth and strength of women in Singapore.” She added that women here have come a long way since Singapore’s independence. “In the early years, most Singaporean women followed one path: They got married, stayed home to do the housework and took care of the children. Not many had the opportunity to maximise their potential in school or in the workforce.”

She acknowledged that Singaporean women continue to feel that “they have to make difficult choices between family and work”.

“We need to do more to reduce the work-family trade-off that women face,” she said, citing the need for fathers and employers to play a part.

As to whether the individual woman here is “truly emancipated”, academic and former politician Aline Wong leaves this as an open question in her essay. “True equality lies beyond statistics and percentages of representation,” she writes. “It lies in a woman’s ability to realise her full potential and be her true self in whatever she endeavours to achieve.”

Our Lives To Live is available at all major bookstores for S$37 (paperback) and S$74 (hardcover).

Launch of "Our Lives to Live: Putting a Woman's Face to Change in Singapore"
Posted by World Scientific Publishing Company on Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mothering and parenting: The superwoman myth
Women today ride on the gains of earlier generations but still face same big issues
By Lai Ah Eng, Published The Sunday Times, 10 May 2015

The "good mother" must be one of the strongest, and toughest-to-live-up- to ideals in any society.

In Singapore, there have been and are many definitions, expectations and claims of what the role of the good mother is from various quarters, ranging from government to spouse, children, in-laws, neighbours, friends, groups, organisations and each individual mother herself.

But the common underlying theme is the same: good mothering to produce good children.

The family wants the good mother to bear and raise good children for the family and, well, for almost anything and everything good from looks to reputation; the state wants good mothers (with "good" genes too, at one time in the mid-1980s) to produce and raise smart citizens; neighbours and fellow citizens want good mothers to raise well-behaved children, some institutions want good mothers to raise clever children and productive workers, etc. And which good mother herself does not want to be good at raising happy and successful children?

After a fairly long period of mothering since 1992, I have come to the conclusion that there are many good reasons to reject motherhood (and also marriage) altogether.

There are immense expectations to live up to, responsibilities to take up and even more sacrifices to make, while numerous opportunities are missed. It is like a trap. No wonder many women do not want to be mothers or stop at zero, one or two, starting with those in my generation that was the first to receive mass education and opportunities outside traditional homemaking undreamt of in my mother's time.

For those who are mothers whether by choice or accident, mothering is one huge life-long and life-changing human endeavour which, once embarked upon, cannot be reversed or escaped from.

A mother who tries to be a good one inevitably finds this journey filled with everyday mundane chores and incessant minor decisions, and fraught with tussles and tensions. But for her hard work, endurance and sacrifice, she receives in return sweet fruitful rewards, enduring delights and a life status of extraordinary significance and worth.

Mother's Day may have morphed into compulsory and commercial consumption, but it continues to express the valorisation and emotional essences of this journey of love and life.

The difference between my mother's generation and mine: The 'E's

One meaningful way to appreciate how things have changed for mothers and mothering is for each woman to compare herself and her mother as mothers.

Equality made THE difference. Both gender equality and social equality, as ideals and foundational principles, came with post-war decolonisation and nation-building.

My mother's time was already a tumultuous period of social and political awakening and the imminent collapse of the Chinese patriarchal system in China. But caught in the throes of war, post-war displacement and emigration, she, the war widow and illiterate immigrant to Malaya, could only hope for equality and a better life in a vague way for herself and more for her children in the 1950s and early 1960s.

By the time I became a mother in the 1990s, the principles of social and gender equality were already enshrined in the nation's Constitution or embedded in our heads and hearts, taken for granted as an unquestionable right and something to be pursued where still lacking or unfulfilled. I had equal rights as a human being and as a woman, and the three main social divisions of race, class and gender that worked against my mother and women of her time could, in my time, be challenged legally, socially and morally.

Education made THE difference. My illiterate mother said that if she had education, she would have been really smart, which I do not doubt at all.

She was, for sure, very street- smart to have survived, and on my first day of school, she was really smart to say to me: "Remember, they built this school just for you!"

While she coped with life through her smarts (and taught me some such skills, like how to avoid being kidnapped for prostitution), I went from humble school to top university.

The poor of my mother's generation missed the boat; I had a right to education and to pursue it as far as I could go.

Of course, I still had to struggle. If one was poor, attended a "near-bottom-of-the-pile" school and did not already speak English, possess a set of the great Encyclopaedia Britannica at home or knew Oxbridge and Harvard existed, one had to work extra hard and took longer to succeed. But it remains true that education provided me with opportunities, skills and ideas that expanded my world and horizon beyond the slum and the poverty that trapped many smart people like my mother.

Economic empowerment made THE difference. In my mother's time, work for poor women meant either homemaking for a huge, sometimes extended, family or factory work or domestic service.

One outcome of the difference in education and the opportunities that came with economic development is that, compared with my mother who reared chickens, ironed clothes and cleaned homes (plus gambling and tontine to earn extra money), I held secure paid jobs at teaching, writing and research, and developed a work career over time (even though it was not smooth or straightforward).

Both of us were economically active and earned incomes, but I had the clear advantage to earn, access, explore and excel much more.

Everything else (almost) made THE difference. Economic and social improvements meant almost everything else was different for my mother and me in our mothering roles.

Just take births and birthing, that "hallmark" of mothering. My generation saw birth control and family planning, with fathers joining birth preparation classes and witnessing their babies being born.

In short, social enlightenment made THE difference. Enlightenment through values, principles and ideas that opened up and provided conditions, choices, opportunities and possibilities that made mothering in my mother's and my time so different - few and difficult for her and plentiful and advantageous for me.

New and not so new challenges for our daughters' generation?

This is the age of the stressed kiasu parents, complete with websites, Facebook pages and blogs. Notice that there are more kiasu mums than kiasu dads, and also more supermums and tiger mums (there are no tiger dads).

Kiasu mum, supermum, tiger mum - these labels unknown in my mother's time and less in my time - speak of the overloaded, anxious and extreme mothering phenomenon of today which some mothers, driven by extreme competitive and pressuring forces, have been sucked into.

These labels both reflect and build up high social expectations about women and mothers that may be met and sustained by a few privileged groups and individuals.

But they are an ideological myth of success and performance that serve as burdensome criteria which the rest of mothers have to live up to or are implicitly judged by, as they struggle stoically at home, at work and at combining both mother and worker roles.

Being able to work and have a career, with all the accompanying choices and opportunities, is probably the greatest advancement for gender equality and women's development in the last 50 to 60 years.

But combining it with family commitments is also probably the biggest challenge for those who are mothers, as both are greedy institutions demanding their constant attention, energy and commitment.

Parenting and mothering in today's working world of intense competition, key performance indicators, strong ambitions and high expectations require tremendous planning and strategising; yet family life is often fraught with uncertainties, emergencies and things that cannot wait, including the short precious season of children's growing-up years that parents want to enjoy and be part of.

There is all that guilt of leaving children to go to work or returning home late, and skipping work meetings for medical and school appointments, and so on.

Professional women also have to travel or have frequent traveller/ overseas-based spouses who are sometimes absentee spouses and fathers. While some are able to cope with this, others' marriages have been hurt because of infidelity, distance and lack of intimacy over time.

Today's women and working mothers are left with the superwoman and supermum criteria to live up to and to frantically chase after that work-life balance and the family-friendly firm.

A single most important reason for this complex state of affairs is that one constant over the decades, despite the changes: Fathers are still expected to be the main income earner and mothers are still expected to bear the brunt of childcare and nurturing, now reinforced by conditions in which individual mothers are highly focused and determined on advancing their children's interests.

Women today ride on the gains made by earlier generations but still face the same big issues of combining family and work. These issues are still what is important to most people who have family and children, and this will be the case so long as there are families and children.

I am all for a wide range of work options, be they full-time, part-time or flexible-time, trade-offs and sequencing, new work arrangements and a variety of choices available, and I am all for their provision via government policy and corporate practice and their pursuit by every mother to meet her needs during her most pressing mothering years.

At the personal level, the vast economic, social, cultural and legal advances have led women in my generation and my daughter's to continue to believe in equality, that women are poised to be equal with men, and able to have it all or at least a lot.

It is also at this personal level - one where government or organisation cannot intervene or help much - where it now matters most for parenting and mothering in future. And it has to do with choice.

The problem of choice has to do largely with women and mothers themselves: their privatisation of equality and rights.

The main problem is not the absence of employment and advancement opportunities or the lack of diversity or gender-sensitivity programmes to attract, retain or mentor women; the main problem is that of women having and wanting more choices, in an upward spiral of expectations for themselves, in the name of personal fulfilment or development and even perfection.

This is less about social needs and struggles, more about personal wants and personal journeys. These pose challenges that are more subtle than those of the past, and are harder to recognise and deal with.

Coming up against that unchanging constant in social expectations of mothers and women (also of fathers and men), women turn into stressed jugglers and micro-managers who try to live up to unrealistically high expectations, and in turn to the wide range of personal choices within their control for fulfilment and compensation. Work a 60-hour week in a high-stress job, for example, and still be a good mother and wife, while at the same time, maintaining beautiful and youthful looks.

Mothering and parenting for the future require a refocus and reorientation.

Dealing with issues of reproduction is crucial because they are ever present for most women in a distinct way compared with men.

Before women have children, they can compete with men fairly evenly across most segments of life. But "having babies" changes many things and affects women's lives differently from men's for a long time thereon. The guilty juggling and frantic balancing by the superwoman takes over. Government regulation and corporate policy on childcare and family-friendly practices can help in some way, but these are specific issues and tensions of motherhood that women themselves have to deal with, and which men and women without children do not have to.

Mothers cannot avoid these tensions entirely but they can make choices to help themselves.

First, choice raises the issue of involving men. Men should not be left out or left to feel that they are always the enemy or are politically incorrect or at fault. There are more husbands more willing to do housework and childcare than in my father's and mother's time, and more men who believe in equality and shared active parenting.

But fatherhood today also has stressful work-life balance issues, even more than before, as the social expectation of fathers as breadwinners persists amid towering expectations at work. It is mainly work structures that constrain fathers, such as long working hours and heavy responsibilities.

The struggle for work-life balance, responsible co-parenting and gender equality is really one for both fathers and mothers.

So it is better to work with men and fathers for gender equality and parenting in the family. The sharing need not be fifty-fifty in a mechanically measured way but negotiated with care and consideration towards equality and fairness overall.

Including the men in active parenting would also show the children the meaning of their worth, of working towards and practising gender equality and meaningful fatherhood/parenthood.

Second, choice has to do with the pathways women can choose for themselves.

Women and mothers really need to shed the superwoman myth and the kiasu mum syndrome if they are not to go crazy.

There is no need to do extreme mothering and parenting. It puts undue pressure on children and on mothers and parents themselves. Its self-centredness and self-seeking tendencies are also not conducive to sharing, inclusiveness and community, and ultimately undermine the whole notion of social and gender equality.

Women need not feel they have fallen short if they do not achieve or meet the unrealistically high standards set by others or if they humbly reset their priorities.

Instead of focusing so much on how to get their children into the top schools or on their exams, women can pay attention to public education issues such as streaming at a young age, school elitism, fairer school policies and better school resources and programmes that are more inclusive of children from different backgrounds. This would help both their own children and many other children. It is a win-win, not an if-you-win-then-I- lose outcome.

Mothering cannot be considered in isolation but in context and in relation to others, society and mothers themselves.

This should then mean that social goals of equality continue to be pursued and the roles of mothers and parents are socially recognised and valued, beyond just the individual achievements of supermums who raise superkids.

Furthermore, the new redefined purpose for having children nowadays is to enjoy them, not for lineage, legacy or investment. And children deserve to be enjoyed by parents and to enjoy themselves, not hurried to achieve within a "supermum-superkids" syndrome.

The way forward for mothering and parenting is to be less self- centred and more people-centric, progressive and socially oriented, inclusive of other parents and guardians and looking out for other children and not just one's own, in a larger social process towards equality and human development.

If there is anything super about mothering and parenting, it is to hear mothers and fathers themselves say that parenting and mothering is full of stress and sacrifice but it is "one of the best things to have happened in my life". That has been true for me.

The writer, a mother of two, is an adjunct senior fellow at the University Scholars Programme at the National University of Singapore.

Charm works, for men and women
Ex-envoy believes gender is less important than being good at what you do
By Chan Heng Chee, Published The Sunday Times, 10 May 2015

As Singapore's ambassador to the United States, I was frequently asked to speak at women's forums for professionals, executives and students. They wanted to learn from women in top positions about how they got there, how to prepare for leadership roles and how to achieve success, however you define it. I believe many young women in Singapore ask those questions as well. The 50th anniversary of the nation's independence gives us time to ask if anything has changed in the issues listed here.

At one forum, I was asked a question I had never encountered before. "How did you, an Asian woman, come to be what you are? Isn't it true that, in Asian culture, women are supposed to be kept subordinate to men?"

I thought for a moment and responded spontaneously and truthfully. I told the young students in the audience that Asian culture has a way of compensating. I told them that, when I was born, my mother sent my birth details to a fortune teller in Hong Kong to have my horoscope written up. Back came the forecast. My mother was told: "Your daughter's life is like a man's. She will be capable and do many things."

It is amazing how often my mother repeated to me that my life was like that of a man. I do not know in her world of the late 1940s and 1950s what that meant to her. She did not know what impact it had on me but, by repeating that line, she was equalising the gender gap for me. She was telling me in the language of her times that I was as good as any man and could do what any man could. This positive reinforcement stayed with me for years. It gave me the confidence to do things and to move forward. So I never felt constrained or restrained as a girl child.

Growing up a Chinese daughter, I found some aspects of Chinese culture quite egalitarian. Even then, passing examinations was the most important thing in our lives. If you fared well in school exams, it immediately put you in a special position or circle. Families were proud of children who did well in school. A girl who did well in school became an "honorary boy". I ran around with my male cousins and did rather tomboyish things.

From school to university and graduate studies to my first serious job in academia, I can truly say I did not face any serious hurdles that I could put down to gender bias. Singapore was undergoing great political change. It was a transition from colonial government to self-government and to separation and independence. It was a time of decolonisation. We needed educated people. There was a shortage of manpower, so woman power was welcomed. Singapore practised universal suffrage as soon as elections were held. Women did not have to fight for the vote. The Women's Charter that was adopted by the PAP government in 1961 protected women's rights, and guaranteed greater legal equality to women in marriage and divorce. The Charter abolished polygamy.

I was fortunate that my parents left me to decide what I wanted to do. I enrolled to study political science. My father asked me if I would go to jail for this. I said no and carried on. I started out as a university academic. I have been asked many times if I ever found gender working against me in the university. I replied that honestly I did not know. Whenever I was not promoted, I was not certain whether it was my politics or my gender that had worked against me. I thought it was my politics. Later, I thought it was both. But it never bothered me not to be promoted. I loved my work. I was passionate about being an academic - about teaching, researching and writing. And I put in long hours. The market decides if you are good. My market was my students and my peers in the field, other political scientists and social scientists local and international.

I entered diplomacy in 1989 and became the first woman in Singapore to be appointed an ambassador. I became Permanent Representative to the United Nations that year and Ambassador to the United States in 1996. I was not given just a token posting as a woman, as happens in some countries. In fact, they were among the top postings for the Foreign Ministry. It was unexpected for me, and my experience was a happy one with a totally supportive ministry.

I have also been asked frequently if being a woman is a plus or minus in diplomacy. I honestly think, in some aspects, it helped to be a woman. For instance, most host governments, except conservative ones, try hard to be helpful or seem to be helpful to women diplomats. During my time in Washington, Oman, Bahrain and Jordan sent women ambassadors to the most important capital in the world. I believe these Arab governments were making a point about being modern and progressive.

Charm always works, for both men and women. Who wants to spend time with someone who is utterly without charm? Women feel that men help other men because they do "guy things together", so women feel disadvantaged. I think men feel that women ambassadors do the "sisterhood thing", helping one another, and they feel disadvantaged too. In fact, gender is less important than being good at what you do and working hard at what you do. And if you happen to represent a serious country, you will be treated seriously.

If there is one major obstacle women must fight, it would be fear of ambition and lack of ambition. Women who pioneer in their chosen fields will tell you that they did not allow negative talk or whispers about "ambitious" women, usually not meant to be complimentary, to hurt them or deter them in any way. I think it is much better these days, but there was a lot of this unkindness in my time.

Women should define for themselves what they will individually accept as success. If what you want initially does not work out for your work-life balance, change the job. It is not a sign of failure, but a sign you want something that suits you better. With regard to leadership, it comes down to passion and wanting to do something. I believe to be given space from omnipresent parental instruction while one is growing up helps build confidence and self-reliance. Nothing works like being given responsibilities while growing up. It forces one to think outside oneself, which is becoming harder and harder in today's context.

The writer was Singapore's ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2012. She now chairs the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

What would feminist mums do?

"Feminism is no longer on the minds or the lips of the current generation of women who have had or are having a very good run in modern, meritocratic, competitive and affluent Singapore. To a large extent, the angst and the anger have gone. So too the idealism and passion for equalising the playing field for our sisters... Given the pressures of the educational system here, one wonders what a feminist mother would have done. Would resistance come about in the form of mothers getting together, doing home-schooling (which is not allowed in Singapore except for very special cases), or forming an educational cooperative, helping one another with coaching children in a more holistic (less competitive) environment, and bringing up a generation of more balanced, less controlled, less indulged children who are more independent, creative and capable of thinking on their own instead of being tutored into exam-smart kids?"

- SOCIOLOGIST ALINE WONG, a former MP who was Minister of State, and later Senior Minister of State, for Health and Education between 1990 and 2001

We need a hunger to excel

"Why are we still so far away from producing world-class sportswomen and sportsmen?

A large part of it is, I dare say, because as a society, we do not make enough room for heroes, for the mavericks, for those who want to carve a different path for themselves. It's the price we are paying for being a compliant, calculating people; a nation that prizes pragmatism and not passion, that tells its people to chase paper qualifications and not dreams.

To excel in sport, you need, of course, the right physical attributes, natural talent and skill honed by hard practice and good coaching.

But you also need a hunger, a deep belief in yourself and a desire to excel, to distinguish yourself from the others around you. You need to dare to dream big and go to places no one else dares to go. You need to believe you are extraordinary. This is what drove me when I was a child and teenager to chalk up all those swimming gold medals. We need Singaporeans to dream, and to dare to be different."

- MS PATRICIA CHAN, former Golden Girl of swimming, who took part in 39 events in five consecutive South-east Asian Peninsular Games (1965-1973) and won gold in every one of them

Suddenly, everyone's a chef

"My classmates and women of my generation did not learn to cook. The millennium seems to have liberated women (and men) from the office and the corporate life, and many have celebrated this liberation by leaping into the kitchen.

'Every lawyer wants to be a baker!' is what I have been intoning for the last five years. Scratch behind the story of many a baker and cupcake baker who have opened their own shops - and lo and behold - many of them have leapt from the courtroom to the kitchen.

It has become chic, smart and so tomorrow - to be a Domestic Goddess (God)."

- MS VIOLET OON, restaurateur and Singapore food expert

No comments:

Post a Comment