Working Women in Singapore and the Problem in Parenting - Papers & Essays



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Working Women in Singapore and the Problem in Parenting


Most Singapore women, single or married, are working. If mothers want to work, they usually hire foreign helpers to help with the housework. Foreign domestic helpers are important to Singapore families. The interviewees are all of the opinion that education and parenting are the parental responsibilities and not those of the domestic helper. Nevertheless, there are parents in Singapore who cannot take good care of their children. As most mothers are working in Singapore, and domestic helpers, fathers and grandparents are expected to play a role in parenting.
Japanese Chinese
1. High Women Working Population and Policy to Support

I studied in Singapore for several years and since then have maintained contacts with a number of Singaporean friends. They are all married and most of them have children, but they are all are in employment. It shows that the tendency is for married women to work in Singapore.

The unemployment rate in Singapore was 2.00% in 2014.*1 The GDP for 2014 in Singapore was 56,112.98 USD. Compared with 55,182.48 USD in 2013, it had increased by 10.1%. Compared with $27,404.58 in 2004, it had grown by 20.5%.*2 This high economic growth rate has a lot to do with the high percentage of working women.

According to Ms Huang Lingxiang, vice-director of The Foundation for Women's Rights Promotion and Development, the employment rates*3 for Singapore women in different age groups are as follows: 25-29 (86.8%), 30-34 (83.3%), 35-39 (78.9%) and 40-44 (74.8%).*4 These figures are higher than those in Japan (25-29 [77.6%], 30-34 [68.6%], 35-39 [67.7%] and 40-44 [71.7%]). The proportion of women who hold executive posts was 35.8% in Singapore as of 2012. This figure is 24.7% higher than that for their Japanese counterparts.

I summarize the introduction of labor policy [to support women] in Singapore by Hunag Liangxiang as follows:

  1. WoW! Fund (Work-Life Works Fund): A fund established in Aug. 2004, offering the use of flexible working arrangements, leave benefit and employee supporting scheme.
  2. Act regarding Leave for the Child: The Employment Act and Child Development Co-Saving Act allows mothers to take maternity leave and parental leave for 16 weeks. In addition, there are both "infant care leave" and "child care leave".
  3. Dads for Life scheme: The government slogan is "ACT" which stands for Aware (as a father), Commit, Time and Transformation of lifestyle. There is a website set up for fathers to communicate and learn.
  4. Government-Paid Paternity Leave: A new father can take a week off to take care of things. Even a self-employed father is entitled to this leave.
  5. Retirement and Reemployment Act: After the revision of the Act in 2011, discrimination by employers against retired or reemployed persons is illegal. This also applies to applicants who have reached the retirement age of 62.
  6. Tripartite Workgroup on Enhancing Employment Choices for Women: Policies to help women to stay in the job and be offered reemployment after giving birth. Unemployed women are encouraged to join the labor force.
  7. Reemployment for Women: The Manpower Bureau and Workforce Development Agency in Singapore offers initiatives for companies to rehire middle-aged and senior women and welcome them back to the workforce.
2. Forging the New Value of "Family Comes First" in Singapore

The birthrate in Singapore declined to a historical low in 2004. It was 1.05 per family as compared to 1.24 per family in 2003. Lee Hsienloong, the prime minster of Singapore, addressed this issue in his speech delivered on National Day. He stressed the importance of family values and pledged to make Singapore a family-friendly nation. In 2009, the Businesses for Families Council was established which offers loans and professional advice to enterprises to provide family-friendly services. Small and medium size companies can make use of the loans service to hire consultants, improve baby care facilities and create barrier-free space within their offices.

From 2009 onwards, the Singapore government has made efforts to promote gender equality and family support. The Singapore Nation Family Committee encourages fathers to take an active part in the growth process of their children. It conducted a large-scale survey on school teachers. 98% of the respondents were of the opinion that fathers should participate to a greater extent in the school activities of their children. Believing that fatherhood for life begins at school, schools organize a 'Father Day' and also father and son reading activities. The Boy Scouts association in Singapore also encourage fathers to participate in certain activities with their children.*5

In addition, the Singapore government established "Families for Life" in February 2014. This is a committee to promote the importance of family. Its 10 members include a lawyer, a scholar, and an NPO representative. Almost all are married and some have served on the Business for Families Council.

3. Foreign Helpers and The Support for the Family

In Singapore, foreign helpers play an important part in helping married women to return to the workforce. As is the case in Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, Singapore employs a large number of domestic helpers from abroad. This is true for not only the rich and the middle class, but ordinary families also employ foreign helpers. According to the Statistics Bureau, the total population of Singapore in 2013 was 5.3124 million. Of this figure only 3.2851 million were citizens, 0.5331 million were non-Singaporean who hold permanent residence status and 1.4992 million were contracted workers from overseas. The minimum wage for domestic helpers from overseas is 400 USD. It is quite easy to hire a domestic helper. Any family which has a child under 12 or seniors over 65 is eligible to apply.*6

In households where both the husband and wife are working outside the home, the domestic helper does the housework. A lot of children actually feel closer to the helper than their own parents. Over-reliance on the helper tends to make children less independent and distant from their parents. This problem was addressed in the Singaporean movie, Ilo Ilo (2013). It tells the story of a Filipino helper who works for a family in Singapore. The parents hire a Philippine helper, Teresa, to take care of their naughty son. Teresa establishes a close relationship with the boy but the parents end up having mixed feelings as they realize that their son feels closer to Teresa than themselves.

The housing policy in Singapore encourages grandparents to play a role in taking care of children. Singapore is the one of the world's best nations for provision of public housing. Under the home ownership scheme, 82% of its population reside in public units but 80% own their units and only 2% rent a unit. In recent years, the government has promoted the "Family Integration Home Purchasing Scheme.*7" It has two features: First, a first-time buyer of public housing is eligible for a special allowance of 40,000 Singapore dollars (about 30,000 USD) if they choose to live near their parents. Second, if married children choose to live with their parents, their chance of becoming eligible for public housing will be doubled. Moreover, senior citizens can join the "Small-Size Apartment Scheme" which means that they can live in an apartment close to their children.*8 All these measures target the aging society but will also encourage senior citizens to socialize with their grandchildren. Here are some interviews I conducted:

  1. Case 1: Ms. A (in her mid-30s) is the younger sister of my friend. She purchased a public apartment under the "Family Integration Home Purchasing Scheme." She is in full time employment and has two children in primary school. The domestic helper and her parents are helping her with the children. She relies more on her parents than the helper in taking care of her children.
  2. Case 2: Ms. B (in her late 40s) is a full-time working mother with 3 children (in high school, secondary school and primary school respectively). Her parents have been helping her to take care of her children for about 10 years. The domestic helper is assigned to do the housework like cleaning and laundry.
  3. Case 3: Ms. C (in her late 40s) is a part-time office worker and has 2 children (one in high school and one in secondary school). Her mother-in-law took care of her children when they were small. Ms C once hired a domestic helper but it did not work out. When her two children entered primary school, she quit her full-time job and now works part-time so that she can take care of her children when they come back from school.
  4. Case 4: Ms. D (in her early 40s) is a full-time working mother with 2 children (both in secondary school). She changed her job so that she did not have to work overtime or go on overseas business trips. She once hired a domestic helper but only asked her to do housework. She asked her husband to supervise their children to ensure they did their homework.

These four interviewees all agree that education is very stressful in Singapore as all primary school pupils are required to sit the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to decide their secondary schools. They are all of the opinion that education and parenting are parental responsibilities and should not be part of the domestic helper's duties. The background is related to the emphasis on academic qualification in Singapore society. Singapore is a small country and lacking in natural resources, and therefore it places emphasis on human resources. It cultivates talents from primary education onwards and offers the best educational opportunities for the best talents. Children in Singapore are required to take part in public examinations and the first important one is the Primary School Leaving Examination that decides the academic ability of the children and their secondary schools. Since the public examinations will have a great impact on the future of the children, it is very stressful for primary school pupils and their parents. Some mothers even quit their job to help their children to prepare for the examination. "Not serious in primary school -- no future" is common thinking among Singaporeans and thus the parents will not ask the domestic helper to take care of both housework and their children's homework. In order to spend more time on their children's education rather than housework, they hire domestic helpers. From the above-mentioned four cases, they are all adopting the formula of "housework for helper, school homework for parents." Of course, these four cases are representative of a great many families. Nevertheless, there are parents who cannot take good care of their children in Singapore and that is why the government is putting so much effort into "Family Comes First" and the "Family Integration Home Purchasing Scheme". These schemes will take a certain amount of time to have an impact. As most mothers are working in Singapore, domestic helpers, fathers and grandparents are expected to play a role in parenting.

  • *1 Unemployment rate, Percent of total labor force:
  • *2 Gross domestic product, current prices, U.S. dollars:
  • *3 Working percentage refers to the ratio of working population actually in the workforce. Working populations are people between 15 and 64, including both employed and unemployed. However, the sick, students, housewives and retirees above the age of 15 are not counted as working population.
  • *4 Huang Lingxiang, Tisheng funu laocanlu zhi zhengce tantao: yi Xinjiapo wei li (A Study of Women's Employment: Using Singapore as an Example," Taiwan jingi lunheng (Taiwan Economic Forum,), September 2013, pp. 32-40.
  • *5 Chen Yihui, Xingguo dazao jiating diyi xinjiazhi (Singapore forging new value of family comes first), in Qinzi tianxia, Vol. 22, March 2011.
  • *6 Kao Weipang, "Xinjiapo neng! Taiwan weihe buneng?" (Singapore Can! Why Taiwan Cannot?), Epoch Times, 3 November 2012.
  • *7 The citizens of Singapore have the right to use their public housing for 99 years. After 99 years, ownership will revert to the government.
  • *8 Liu Yuanju, "Guowai ruhe Yifang yanglao" (How to use housing to support the elderly by the government), Xinjingbao, 12 October 2013.
Miho Goda
Adjunct Associate Professor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (2001 to date); Part-time Lecturer, Shizuoka Sangyo University (2010 to date) Region of Research: Historical Sociology, Study of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong Society, Ethnic Identity, Comparative Studies of the Ethnic Group and the Special Education. Research Experience: Studied at the Graduate School of Sociology, National University of Singapore by the expenses of the Japanese Goverment (1996 to 1998) Teaching Experience: Part-time Lecturer, Konan Women's University, Sonoda Gakuen Women's University and National University of Singapore (1996 to 1998) Education: Ph.D. in Sociology, Konan Women's University (1999) Membership: The Japan Society for the Studies of Chinese Overseas, Japan-China Sociological Society Publications: Goda Miho, Nihonjin to Chugokujin ga Tomo ni Tsukaeru Hattatsushogai Gaidobukku, Himawari, Hong Kong, 2011 etc.