Skip to main content

Speech at 107th Session of the International Labour Conference

Mrs Josephine Teo, Minister for Manpower, Geneva, Switzerland

Conference Chair

Distinguished delegates

  1. Singapore fully supports the call by the ILO to strive towards a future of work with full equality for women and men.

Women are important contributors to Singapore

  1. As you may know, Singapore is a young nation. Next year, in 2019, we will mark the bicentennial – or 200th anniversary – of the landing of Sir Stamford Raffles, an Englishman and representative of the East India Company. Singapore then became a British colony, achieving self-government only in 1959 and independence just 53 years ago in 1965.
  2. For the better part of our early history, women’s contribution was mainly domestic. However, by the turn of the 20th century, women began to be active outside the homes. While the first schools for girls were set up from 1842, it was not until the 1900s that women began to take up roles as teachers, social workers, nurses and even doctors. A particular group of extremely hardy migrant women, “samsui women” helped to build up our physical infrastructure. These women were all trailblazers.
  3. There were many firsts. From our first female Olympian in 1952, to our first female Air Force pilot in 1979, first female Supreme Court judge in 1994, and first female President (Head of State) just last year.
  4. Today, it is much harder for any woman to be first in this or that in Singapore. That shows how far we have come.

Steady progress in representation and recognition

  1. What has made the biggest difference to the progress of women in Singapore? In my view, it has to do with our core principle of meritocracy. It means that our women and men enjoy equal standing both in school and at work. Given equal access to opportunities, women have been able to advance on the basis of our efforts and abilities.
  2. Our women are more highly educated. Today, literacy rate for women is 95.4%; half of our university graduates are women.
  3. Women continue to contribute actively to the economy and are more financially independent than before. Our female employment rate has improved steadily. From 64% in 2007, it rose to 72% in 2017. In terms of full-time employment, we are ranked sixth compared to 35 OECD countries, ahead of countries like Finland, US and France.
  4. Besides improved representation in the professional, public and people sectors over time, women are also better recognised through their pay levels. Today, the gender pay gap in Singapore compares well with other countries. In 2017, for those in full-time employment, women earned 9% less than men, placing us 10th compared to 35 OECD countries, ahead of countries like Germany, United Kingdom and United States. From our national surveys, we find that for the same job in the same company, women are paid about the same as men. Tthat is, same job same pay. In certain occupations, such as accountants, securities and finance brokers, some women earn more than men.

Changes in our social fabric

  1. The progress of women has also led to changes in our social fabric.
  2. Singlehood in Singapore has become acceptable and continues to rise. Among young Singaporean women aged 25 to 29, the proportion of singles has risen from about 6 in 10 to 7 in 10 in the last 10 years.
  3. As with most fast developing countries, our total fertility rate has fallen. It has been below replacement level since 1977 and stable at between 1.2-1.4 since 2001. This is in spite of our women’s strong desire still to form families. Over 8 in 10 singles aged 21 to 35 intended to marry, and over 9 in 10 married respondents intended to have 2 or more children.

A choice for both career and family

  1. Today’s generation of younger women have more opportunities to excel in their chosen fields.
  2. But unlike earlier generations of career women, it is less likely that they can depend on their parents to help care for their children.
  3. In other words, the challenge has shifted, from lack of opportunities in the workplace, to lack of support at home.
  4. As a society, our firm belief is that women in Singapore should be able to pursue what is important to them, be it career or family or both, without having to choose between one or the other.
  5. Therefore, the Singapore Government will do what we can to empower women through choice.
  6. And to do so, we must heed the call of the ILO and go beyond business as usual.

Empowering women through choice

  1. To address the time-money-agency conundrum, as noted in the Director-General’s Report, first, we are focusing on creating and promoting an enabling environment with opportunities for all – for both women and men – to achieve their fullest potential. To do this, we are creating more career opportunities through facilitating industry transformation across more than 80% of our economy. We are investing heavily in lifelong learning through our SkillsFuture movement. We are helping our workers to be better able to find and transit into new jobs.
  2. Second, we are providing more and affordable care facilities, such as childcare, to empower more women to choose to work. Over the past five years, Singapore has increased pre-school capacity by 50%. There are now about 7,800 infant-care places and 140,000 childcare places. Today, a median-income family who enrols their child in an anchor operator pays about $350 a month for full-day childcare, after Government subsidies. Over the next five years, the number of childcare places will double and become more accessible to all.
  3. Third, we are strengthening women’s control over their time by helping even more employers offer flexible work arrangements (FWAs). We recognise that women are more likely to exit the workforce, or have intermittent patterns of work for reasons such as family care, and this affects their ability to earn and save. In 2016, 77% of employers offer at least one ad-hoc FWA, compared with 65% 5 years ago. Our female part-time employment rate is still comparatively low – ranked 27th compared to 35 OECD countries. So we have enhanced our Work-Life Grant to encourage more employers to offer FWAs. Because of our strong tripartism, the tripartite partners have also innovated and created the Tripartite Standards to further drive adoption of FWAs. To date, more than 350 employers, covering about 250,000 employees, have signed on to the Tripartite Standard on FWAs. They commit publicly to jobseekers and employees to enable their employees to go on FWAs.
  4. Fourth, we have strengthened our laws against harassment, including violence and harassment at work. Shortly after Singapore enacted the Protection from Harassment Act, our tripartite partners launched the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment to guide employers to foster workplace environments where harassment is not tolerated. Tripartite partners also launched the Tripartite Standard on Grievance Handling so that more companies commit to put in place clear processes for handling employees’ grievances to ensure they are adequately dealt with, including workplace harassment.


  1. Together with our tripartite partners, we have come some way in helping women in Singapore to better manage their family responsibilities and work aspirations.
  2. In closing, Singapore fully supports the ILO’s call to strive towards a future of work with full equality of opportunity for women and men.
  3. There is much more we can do. We will continue to strengthen our efforts to empower our women through choice.