Distinguished Speakers and Delegates
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is my honour to share with you today my country’s experiences in the area of sustainable development and women’s empowerment.
Let me begin with a quick overview of my country. Singapore covers 700 square kilometres, and has very few natural resources. People are, in fact, our only resource. As an urban island city-state, we are highly affected by changes to the environment and climate. With such limited resources and vulnerabilities, Singapore naturally takes a very serious view of managing our resources and environment in a sustainable manner. In a nutshell, to us, sustainable development is a matter of our own survival.
Singapore’s Approach to Sustainable Development and Women’s Empowerment
We adopt a three-pronged approach in order to achieve sustainable development. These are a strong economy, a good quality living environment and social equity through fair distribution of resources. Singapore has made good economic progress over the years. Our economy has grown, with GDP growth of 14.5% in 2010. Unemployment was also low at 1.9% in March 2011. Economic growth, however, cannot be achieved at the expense of our living environment. It has to be sustainable in order to meet our long term needs and for our own survival.
At the same time, though, sustainable development is more than being economically strong and environmentally friendly. It is just as important to make sure that our economic growth is inclusive through the equitable distribution of our society’s resources. To this end, the Singapore Government has to make sure that fundamental resources such as education, health and housing are affordable, of good standard and accessible to all, regardless of gender. With people as our only natural resource, we have to develop, maximise and invest in the potential of every individual, male or female.
Singapore’s approach to policy analysis and formulation in all areas, including sustainable development, is an inclusive, whole-of-government and holistic one. We engage stakeholders in all sectors, both women and men. A concrete example of this is the Sustainable Development Blueprint. The Blueprint, crafted by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development after extensive consultations with business and community leaders and members of the public, sets out our key strategies which are:
• Boosting the efficient use of key resources – as Singapore has to import most of our resource needs, we have to ensure that we are making the most of what we use; • Enhancing our urban environment – we constantly enhance our public cleanliness, improve our air quality, integrate greenery and waterways into the cityscape, conserve our natural biodiversity and preserve a sense of space and comfort in a high-density city; • Building research and technological capabilities – Singapore is now well placed to serve as a living laboratory for companies and research organisations to research, develop and test ideas on environmental sustainability in a high-density urban setting; and • Fostering community action – we leverage on and seek the support of the community to build a sustainable economy and environment.
In Singapore, measures for ensuring environmental sustainability are not always Government-led. Increasingly, companies now recognise importance of sustainable development as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. For example, by building “green” buildings and supporting environmental causes.
This holistic stakeholder approach also involves taking into account the impact of policies on different groups. Our policies are gender-neutral. However, the stakeholder approach enables ministries to take a gender-sensitive perspective on issues that have differing impact on women and men.
In our view, women must be truly empowered before they can have a strong voice and meaningfully contribute to sustainable development. We seek to achieve this through legislation and policies. A key legislation in promoting and protecting our women’s well-being is the Women’s Charter. Enacted in 1961, the Charter defines clearly the rights and responsibilities between husbands and wives. Under the Charter, wives are entitled to a share of the matrimonial property and they and their children are protected from violent husbands. The Women’s Charter was a significant piece of social legislation as it accorded social and economic benefits to women. It has empowered women and has shaped Singapore society. To quote Professor Leong Wai Kum, an expert in Family Law in Singapore: “Where the husband is the equal of the wife the seeds for the future well-being of the children, including the daughters, are sown.”
Progress and challenges faced by Women in Singapore
Madam Chair, as I had mentioned earlier, our women have equal access to fundamental resources as men, and benefit equally from all our laws and policies, including environmental management.
One of our key strategies for ensuring this is through quality education, provided to all Singaporean children, both girls and boys. In 2003, the Singapore Government made six-year primary school education in national schools compulsory. This effectively means we have implemented Goal 2 of the UN Millennium Development Goals – to achieve universal primary education for boys and girls. Singapore has achieved a high literacy rate for women at 93.8% in 2010, up from 89.2% in 2001. Female students now make up more than half the full-time intake at local universities and are well-represented in subjects that were traditionally viewed as male domains such as the sciences and engineering.
Madam Chair, it is our belief that unhealthy women cannot help to shape their environment or participate in sustainable development. Hence, we focus a lot on women’s health. The life expectancy at birth of our women is 84 years, and our maternal mortality rate is among the lowest in the world at 2.6 per 100,000 live and still-births in 2010 and zero in 2009. The Singapore Government also pays special attention to women’s unique healthcare needs. The Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital, for instance, is a public hospital that specialises in facilities and services to female and young patients.
We also believe that employment and economic independence are critical enablers for women to participate in sustainable development. Due to a robust education system and skills upgrading programmes, more women in Singapore are now employed. Our female labour force participation rate has risen from 50.2% in 2000 to 56.5% in 2010. The gender income gap has also narrowed, with the median gross monthly income of full-time employed females at 85.7% that of males in 2010, up from 84.4% in 1999. Women in Singapore are increasingly becoming employers, forming 25.3% of all employers in 2010 as compared to 16.8% in 1999.
Madam Chair, to participate meaningfully in our national strategy on sustainable development, we must also have women leaders in this sector. Two of the top four leaders in our Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources are women – the Ministry’s Senior Minister of State and its Deputy Secretary. And two of the three Deputy Secretaries of the Ministry of National Development are women. The Chairman of our National Environment Agency and the Chief Executive Officer of the Housing and Development Board are also women.
Our women are also actively involved in promoting our sustainable development strategy through the non-governmental organisations. One of them, Dr Geh Min, was even awarded the President’s Award for the Environment in 2006 for her contributions in the areas of climate change, environment protection and nature conservation. This is the highest environmental accolade for individuals, organisations and companies in Singapore.
In the business sector, one Singaporean woman entrepreneur has made a significant impact through her contributions to our water resource management efforts. Ms Olivia Lum who is the CEO of a public listed company Hyflux, developed new technologies for the purification of water to be used for both domestic consumption and industrial processes. Ms Lum was awarded the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year 2011, becoming the first woman to receive the award.
The Singapore Government is mindful of the current challenges facing women which can affect their full participation in building a sustainable economy. One major concern for women in Singapore today is work-life harmony. With many Singaporean women juggling multiple roles between the workplace and home, achieving work-life harmony is a constant challenge. In support of working mothers, the Government provides a universal fee subsidy for children of working mothers in childcare centres. In addition, children from low-income households are given subsidies for childcare and kindergarten over and above the universal subsidy, and kindergarten fees . To help women manage the double burden of work and home, people-sector organisations such as the Fathering Movement and the Centre for Fathering encourage men to share family and parenting responsibilities. Today, more young fathers are involved in household duties and the care of their children.
In conclusion, Madam Chair, there is no way in which any country can achieve sustainable development without fully involving their women. So, women’s involvement is a given, a necessity and pure common sense. Whether we live in a rural area or in a city state like Singapore, women make many important decisions that affect our environment. Even on simple matters such as whether to buy a spray to kill insects that will pierce the ozone or to buy one that is friendly to the environment, it is the women who make these decisions because we are the biggest buyers of household items. Likewise, as the main caregivers, women have a tremendous influence on educating our young on sustainable development, such as teaching them about the importance of recycling.
Since the advantages of involving women are so obvious, it makes sense for governments to empower women in order to achieve sustainable development. This is what we seek to do in Singapore through our three pronged strategy of developing a strong economy, a good quality living environment and social equity through fair distribution of our resources.
Madam Chair, I look forward to hearing and learning from the experiences of other Speakers and Delegates.