Skip to main content

Keynote Address at Women in IT Awards Asia 2019 Gala

Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo, Shangri-la hotel

1. Good evening.

2. Thank you for inviting me to join you for the Women in IT Awards Asia 2019 Gala.

3. May I congratulate all the nominees for the award.

  • You must have outstanding achievements to begin with,
  • and also contributed towards getting more women get into IT
  • or helping them progress in the workplace.
  • Well done!   

4. This is the first time that the Awards are held in Asia.   

  • I’m glad that the organisers chose Singapore.   
  • It’s coincidental that this is the year of our Bicentennial.    
  • But it provides an interesting backdrop   

Reflections on the Singapore Bicentennial: DNA of our women   

5. In less than 24 hours, President Halimah Yacob will officially launch the centrepiece of our year-long commemoration,    

  • the Bicentennial Experience   
  • which is being staged at the Fort Canning Park Centre.    

6. As you know, President Halimah is the first woman to become Head of State in Singapore.   

  • I wonder back in 1819, could Raffles or anyone have imagined such a possibility?   
  • We don’t know the answer.    
  • But it was, perhaps, not such a far-fetched idea even then.   
  • After all, Queen Victoria, born 1819, was the ruler of Great Britain under which many of her subjects were dispatched to far-flung parts of the Empire.   

7. Moreover, in the same year Raffles arrived in Singapore, many others came   

  • including an aristocratic Malay woman Hajjah Fatimah.   
  • Let me tell you more about her.   

8. After the collapse of an unsuccessful first marriage,    

  • Hajjah Fatimah married a Bugis prince who had a business here.   
  • Unfortunately, the second husband did not live long.   
  • A young widow, Hajjah Fatimah became quite the entrepreneur.   
  • She combined her inheritance with assets she already owned   
  • and built a trading business based on steamships and sailboats.   

9. Hajjah Fatimah was successful, wealthy and ultimately generous.

  • She held her own against leading merchants of the time,
  • such as Tan Tock Seng and Naraina Pillai, all of whom also came in 1819.

10. She donated money to build a mosque.

  • In 1846, Hajjah Fatimah Mosque became the first local mosque to be named after a woman.
  • It still stands today

11. What does the story of Hajjah Fatimah tell us about women in Singapore? Among other things,

  • Women have been part of an open, connected, multi-cultural Singapore for our entire history.
  • As much as men, women contributed to the development of modern Singapore.
  • Given the right opportunities, we thrive and willingly share.

12. But for me, the most striking observation is this:

  • Steamships had a big part in growing Hajjah Fatimah’s fortune.
  • In the early 19th century, steamships were very much modern technology,
  • which became a major driver of the first wave of trade globalisation

13. In other words,

  • unknown to anyone at the time, Hajjah Fatimah was the original trailblazer.
  • And perhaps, women succeeding through technology and globalisation
  • is part of our DNA.
  • It can be part of our destiny too.

14. But before I jump to that, let me also highlight some other aspects of our DNA.

  • Open and connected Singapore was not always able to avoid being caught in the troubles of the world.
  • Bearing in mind too that practically everyone had been an immigrant, with loyalties to their original homelands

15. WWII and the Japanese occupation brought great hardships and everyone struggled to survive

  • It seemed to have awakened the hotchpotch of a population to a new necessity,
  • the need for self-determination,
  • to become masters of our own fate
  • This might have sown the seeds for eventual self-government
  • and led us down the path of independence.

17. In that tumultuous era, women began to assert themselves even more.

  • Here you see them turning out to vote in full force.
  • They chipped in through every way possible.
  • Often, bravely stepping into previously unknown territory.

18. But throughout this time, for most women, being a mother still came first.

  • Here you see them queuing to get their children vaccinated
  • And here, another type of queue.
  • Overnight, to get a Primary One spot in a good school!
  • All because, at the heart of it all, being a mother brings great joys.
  • Mothering is very much a part of our DNA too.   

The challenge of our time – a new right balance

19. So we have now, a few key strands of our DNA as women in Singapore

  • One, the capacity to succeed through technology and globalisation.
    • which has to do with our society being open and connected to the world,
    • our multicultural instincts and outlook.
  • And two, a desire to seek out motherhood,
    • to bring new life into being,
    • to care and nurture.        

20. The question is: are the two in conflict? Which gives?

21. I’m afraid this is a challenge of our time.

  • one I hope to enlist your help to address.
  • Let me explain.

22. As much as women in Singapore have made tremendous progress,

  • juggling between career and family
  • means some women have not gone as far as they could have

23. You know the stats by now.

  • Academically, women do just as well, if not better
  • At the early stages of their career, progress is not visibly slower
  • Fast forward 10-20 years, we see their representation among senior management sliding to around 30%
  • On the boards of SGX-listed companies, however, just ~15% [double what it was just 5 years ago, but still a long way to go!
  • In many cases, the years committed to care-giving resulted in missed opportunities for advancement
  • In other cases, after taking time out, returning to previously held positions proved difficult

24. In this regard, the civil service appears to have done a bit better.

  • To compare with those in senior management, we can look at superscale officers: just under half - 46% - are women.
  • What about at the C-suite? 25% among Permanent Secretaries are women.
  • I must qualify, however, for a more rigorous comparison, we should breakdown the data by whether the women are mothers. But such data is not readily available.

25. Another factor working mothers will readily admit makes a difference

  • is the role played by fathers.
  • In this regard too, there appears to be some difference between our private and public sectors.

26. Take the usage of paternity leave, for example.

  • The Nordic countries are exemplars. Based on most recent data seen
    • Sweden: 75%
    • Denmark: 80%
    • Norway: 89%
  • Culture plays a part
    • South Korea: 3%
  • What about Singapore?
    • Overall 53% (2017)
  • But stark difference between private and public sectors
    • Private sector: 48%
    • Public sector: 82%
  • In other words, some parts of Singapore have reached Nordic standards!

27. Whichever way we look at it, workplace culture clearly matters

  • It shapes how people feel about pursuing their aspirations for marriage and parenthood
  • It has something to do with how couples sort out the care-giving duties between them
  • It influences their sense of empowerment, to use policies like paternity leave provisions or to ask for flexible-work arrangements
  • Ultimately, it impacts how working parents, especially mothers, fulfil their career potential
  • and the general feeling that society supports families.

28. None of this is surprising.

  • Many of you know it already.
  • But tonight, I want to appeal to you, in your capacity as tech bosses, to help chart a new path forward,
  • one that will allow more people to fulfil their aspirations for career and family.
  • Not just in Singapore,
  • but worldwide, because falling fertility is a fact in many countries.

29. Why you and why now? Because more than anyone else,

  • you know that technology holds great promise,
  • but it has intruded into our lives in ways not always welcome.
  • For example, “always-on” technologies blur the boundaries between work and personal life.
  • We’re constantly online.
  • It can energise but also exhaust
  • In embracing technology, we also risk becoming consumed by it
  • In other words, we must find a new right balance

Tech bosses can make a difference

30. Specifically, I have three suggestions for you.

31. First, as tech bosses, I hope you can set the tone and the pace at which the business operates to achieve more sustainable business outcomes.

  • I suggest you guard against setting targets and deadlines that are consistently unrealistic
  • Consider if there are work practices that are exhausting and are actually not very productive
  • Send a clear message that taking regular timeout is better than burnout

32. Second, I hope you implement progressive HR policies that empower your people to balance their career and family commitments. These include:

  • adopting more Flexible Work Arrangements or FWAs, and
  • creating a workplace culture that supports such arrangements.

33. Third, recognising that it is sometimes best for people to settle their family needs first, I hope you welcome back ‘The Returners’, whether men or women. This can take the form of:

  • investing in their training to be job-ready again, with the help of available Government funding programmes;
  • tapping on Workforce Singapore’s Adapt & Grow initiatives such as Career Trial, Attach and Train, or Professional Conversion programmes;
  • or simply keeping an open mind and giving them an opportunity to prove their worth.

34. I’m shining the spotlight on workplace support because in Singapore

  • Career mobility features prominently in the minds of our people
  • And at the same time, family aspirations can still be fulfilled
  • if we find the right balance


35. I started my speech my sharing with you the story of Hajjah Fatimah,

  • an unexpected trailblazer for women
  • seeking success through technology and globalisation.

36. I posed the question: is this part of our DNA a thing of our past,

  • or can it also be our destiny,
  • our vision for the future?

37. I believe the answer is “yes, it can”.

38. All of you tonight are part of the evolving story of women in Singapore.

  • There’s never been a greater time of opportunity
  • But we must also be honest in acknowledging the challenges
  • that strike at the very core of our womenhood
  • and sometimes stand in the way of us determining what’s best for ourselves

39. It is up to all of us, collectively, to find a new way forward. A new right balance,

  • that sets no limit on how far we can go
  • that allows women to fulfil all of our aspirations
  • for our families, our passions our careers, our lives.

40. Have a great evening!