Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Debate on the President’s Address 2020
Sir, four years ago I gave my maiden speech in this House. I emphasised that we needed to become a more caring and compassionate society, that the heartware of this nation is just as important as the hardware and software.
My focus on a caring and compassionate society will continue in my second term as an MP. I will speak up for a more equal and just society where discrimination becomes a thing of the past. I will push hard for an inclusive society without labels.
Today, I will speak about how we can make our workplaces, schools and community more inclusive. How we need to remove the labels.
More inclusive workplaces for women
The first label we need to remove is that of being a mother so that we can have more inclusive workplaces.
“I can’t find a job”. Many MPs would have heard this over and over again from our residents. Our unemployment rate is at its highest level in a decade.
In this economy, we need to do our best to help Singaporeans find new jobs. But some will find it harder than others. Women, in particular, will face unique struggles.
Last month, a female resident shared worrying concerns with me during my market walkabout.
She said, “I’ve just been to an interview. The HR personnel called me a mother before they even called me by my name. I’m in the line of recruitment, and such stories are a dime a dozen. My take is that the focus should be on whether we are up for the job. It should not be on whether we’re a mother and then assumed that we are not able to do the role.”
Was this a one-of incident or a more widespread problem? I took to social media to do a public consultation and the results were alarming.
Many more people shared about the bias they faced.
One lady said, “I’ve faced bias because my daughter was under the age of 1 when I was applying for a job with a large corporation and they said that while I was extremely qualified for the role, they needed someone who could travel at short notice and was therefore unencumbered. Nobody asked me if I was willing to travel even with a young child. They just assumed. Unencumbered also gave the impression that my child is a burden.”
Another shared, “I’ve been asked in an interview before if I am planning to have a 4th kid in future. The hiring manager said he is not a sexist but if he had to choose between me and a male candidate, he would chose a male candidate over me as I have 3 children.”
Even worse, another lady shared, “At a final interview with a local bank (with HR sitting in as well), they blatantly told me that I shouldn’t get pregnant if I were to take on the role.”
There are many more stories and the numbers paint the same picture. Out of 255 female respondents to the public consultation, about half said they were asked whether they had or planned to have children at the point of recruitment.
Over 60% felt they were unlikely to be hired and over a third felt they would be offered a lower salary if they had or planned to have children.
The unfortunate reality is that study after study show that at job interviews and at work, many women are second-guessed for no other reason than being a woman and a mother.
MOM’s figures also show that there is a problem. On average, women earned $342 less than men for similar work.
Our female labour force participation rate has stagnated for the past five years. Last year, it was 61 per cent, far below the 77 per cent for men.
I know MOM is working hard to address this problem. Sir, one of the main causes of this problem is the assumption that women are supposed to take care of children.
I saw this problem firsthand when we built the Oasis water park in Nee Soon East, which opened last year. I made sure that the water park is family-friendly. We have a nursing room, nappy changing room, hot water dispenser, child-friendly toilets, the whole deal.
But what I forgot was this gender stereotype. The builders installed the nappy changing room inside the women’s toilet. When I asked them why, they said women are the ones who change nappies.
We managed to resolve this by installing a second nappy changing station in the disabled toilet so men can help to change nappies as well. And we men should.
But these builders are not alone in thinking that only women take care of babies. Such an attitude makes it harder for women everywhere.
Sir, I have two suggestions on how the government can reduce this gender inequality.
First, we need to legislate to make it illegal for employers to ask interviewees and employees about their marital status and whether they have or plan to have children.
Our TAFEP guidelines are clear and state that questions related to marital status and family responsibilities should not be asked during an interview.
But these guidelines are not being followed. We really need to go beyond guidelines and follow the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, China and Hong Kong to legislate and make it illegal for employers to ask about marital status and childbearing plans when hiring.
Second, we need to legislate to give employees the right to access flexible work arrangements, which employers can turn down only for valid business-related reasons.
This pandemic has given fathers more opportunities to be involved with childcare at home.
It has enabled both men and women to feel they can contribute at work and home equally and this change is good.
We should legislate this flexibility to work-from-home, so that we can facilitate this change and help break the gender stereotype.
Let me end this part with a success story that I’m proud of. In Nee Soon East, Ziqing, our Constituency Manager was considered for promotion when she was pregnant with her second child, received the promotion to Deputy Constituency Director when she was on maternity leave and took up the post when she came back from her leave. She was judged on her ability and competence, and I’m privileged to have her in my team and for her to lead the passionate staff and volunteers in Nee Soon East.
Our workplaces can be more inclusive and our schools should as well.
A more inclusive school
My second point today is about more inclusive schools and the label of being a child with special needs or a more progressive term which I will use, a differently abled child.
Sir, we have said that every school is a good school and I believe that wholeheartedly. Now we need to make sure that every school is also a good school for differently abled children.
I am glad we are abolishing streaming, which will encourage more social mixing across socio-economic statuses in our schools. Now we need to work towards more social mixing with differently abled children, starting with our preschools.
I met a group of parents with differently abled children last month. Their children were only 5 to 6 years old. They shared their worries about what would happen to their children when they pass on. Who will look after them? Will they be left alone and be abandoned by society? They have to think so far ahead, and I can see how worried they are.
They are fighting hard for their children who have mild to moderate developmental delays, to enter a mainstream preschool because this helps their children integrate into society.
Ultimately, they hope that when daddy and mummy pass on, they would pass on knowing that their child would be respected and valued members of our society.
But the reality is they are finding it difficult to find preshools that accept their children. They face constant rejection, which does not help in the already difficult journey they are in.
ECDA has worked hard to make our preschools more inclusive and Mayor Denise has spoken up passionately about this. Sir, I have two suggestions to make.
First, I hope the Development Support and Learning Support programme, which provides trained specialists, can be extended to all preschools rather than just some and extended also to nursery children.
Such specialists provide in-class support to the mainstream teachers to integrate the differently abled children in various group settings.
Second, I hope that as part of their professional development, all new pre-school teachers undergoing courses at the NIEC are offered modular courses and top ups that train them to support differently abled children in their classrooms.
By supporting the integration of differently abled children, I hope we can make schools more inclusive.
A more inclusive community
My third point is about an inclusive community.
Sir, this pandemic has made people who are often invisible in our society much more visible.
Our cleaners are now called essential workers. They put themselves at risk during this pandemic to keep us safe.
They are labelled as cleaners and worse and ironically, the people who give us a clean environment to live, work and play in are sometimes labelled as dirty.
Most of these cleaners are our migrant workers who do the work that many Singaporeans do not want to do.
As Minister Shanmugam said, “It is because of foreign workers that 57 per cent of Singaporeans have been able to become PMETs. They clean Singapore, they build our HDB flats, they handle our waste management, they form the base of our economy. And therefore they are helping us build our prosperity.”
Sir, last year, I joined our Nee Soon Town Council cleaner Hanif on his trip back to Bangladesh to welcome his first child into the world.
Our plans failed slightly as his wife delivered early and he missed the chance to be there when his son was born. He was already absent for the whole pregnancy.
In Bangladesh, I saw firsthand how difficult it is for our cleaners to be so far from home and from their loved ones.
It was a heartwarming and heartbreaking experience.
Hanif has worked as a cleaner in Singapore for 14 years. In Bangladesh, I saw how much his family love him and miss him. Hanif wife Tania said, “Sometimes I think, if he can come back to Bangladesh, how amazing that would be. I feel sad and I miss his presence. However reality is very tough, so he has to work hard abroad for us. I have compromised and accepted this. Obviously I feel sad for my son, that he will be deprived of his dad’s love and affection.”
Asked how he felt knowing that his son may not see him for a long time, Hanif replied, “We are poor people and to survive we have to make these kinds of sacrifices.”
During that trip, I also invited all our Nee Soon East cleaners’ families to lunch in Dhaka. We arranged for them to do a video call with their loved ones in Singapore.
It was heartbreaking to see them cry as they spoke to their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.
I met our cleaner Mazibur’s daughter who was 7 years old and he has never met her. She has never hugged her father.
I met Newton’s daughter who was about a year old and she too have never met her father and it will years before she meets him.
To be honest, I felt bad that their daughters met me before meeting their fathers. As a father, I cannot imagine not being able to meet my daughters.
We should show a lot more appreciation to our cleaners for the work they do for us. I have three recommendations.
For the past five years, I have been bringing our cleaners, both local and migrant, out for outings almost every quarter. I learnt this from Speaker when I was serving with him in Kembangan-Chai Chee.
We bring them to explore Singapore. To see a different side of our beautiful country that they seldom get to see.
I see how much they value these outings. Many do video calls during the outing to share the experience with their families back in Bangladesh.
My first recommendation is that members of this House join us and organise these outings for their cleaners once it is safe to do so.
My second recommendation is that members will also help humanise our cleaners. In Nee Soon East, we have placed posters at every block to share who the cleaner for that block is and their personal stories. I hope that residents will see them not just as a cleaner but as a person.
My third recommendation is that members will host more inclusive events, again when it is safe to do so. In Nee Soon East we had a beautiful BBQ party hosted by Hanif. Together with our cleaners and residents, we celebrated the birth of his son. Together, we celebrated as one Yishun family.
A society without labels
Sir, I truly hope that we can remove the labels that we have created and be truly inclusive. These labels should not define who we are or our place in society. These labels lead to discrimination.
Let me end my speech with an update.
For the past three years in this house, I shared the story of a Singaporean sex worker. Her story was in my speeches on the Women’s Charter (Amendment) Bill and the Massage Establishments Bill.
I shared that, “She was only 19 years old when she became a sex worker and did this for four years. Her parents divorced when she was five years old and both parents did not want her. She was left with her grandmother who raised her. For her entire childhood, she was constantly reminded that she had no parents. I cannot imagine the impact that had on a young child.
She did not do well in her studies and could not get into a polytechnic. She tried to enroll in a private polytechnic but did not have enough money to pay the tuition fees. She tried to get a bank loan but failed, as she could not find a guarantor. Not knowing where else to go for help, she ultimately entered the sex trade for money to fund her education”.
Many have discriminated against her as she was labelled a sex worker. Many did not view her for who she really was and the difficult journey she was going through.
I’m glad to share with everyone that she is now doing her diploma and she proudly sent me the results of her first semester. She had straight As for all the modules.
If we remove the label and give her a chance, help her like any other person rather than discriminate against her, then like any person, she can succeed as well.
Sir, last year my daughter and I took part in the Giraffe Singapore Community Art Exhibition organised by the Central CDC.
I was invited to use a giraffe sculpture as a canvas to “share about any cause you would like to champion for or any related thoughts or ideas.”
My idea is a simple one. Sometimes we need to view the world through the eyes of our children. So instead of me painting the giraffe, my daughter painted it.
Here is the description of the giraffe she painted, “My 5 year old daughter Ella painted this. She views the world as a rainbow with colours mixing. There is beauty in looking at the world through the eyes of our children. They view the world without labels we adults created. Ella has been with me to help refugees, cleaners and many others. To her they are not refugees or cleaners but simply, her friends.
Children remind us that: “There is no us or them, only us, one human family connected in ways we sometimes forget.”
Sir, I’m often asked which animal I resemble the most and I’ve always replied a housefly. Mostly because a housefly is very persistent and never gives up. Or as my sister would say, “I’m as irritating as a housefly”.
Unfortunately, some people now say I look like a housefly so I’m glad and very humbled that Mayor Denise has named me as a “Giraffe” Hero for sticking my neck out for the common good.
A giraffe is much cuter than a housefly and so I’m glad to reply to people now that I resemble a giraffe.
Sir, I’ve spent the last two decades of my life speaking up and I will continue to speak up in this 14thParliament and stick my neck out for the common good.
I will continue to fight for a more caring, compassionate and inclusive society, a society with a strong heartware.
We are still in the midst of a pandemic and it is our hardware and software that will save lives and livelihoods. But our heartware is equally important and important in determining whether we get through this pandemic as one people, one nation and one Singapore.
Sir, I support the Motion of thanks to the President.
Watch the speech here