Singaporean men share why they are feminists and proud of it
They fight for women’s rights, call out friends for making sexist jokes and create more equal workplace opportunities
by Lee Xin Hui and Amanda Lai /
April 14, 2015
Benjamin Kheng, 24, Actor-musician and artiste with Fly Entertainment. He is in a relationship.
“I am a feminist because of the strong women in my family.” “I grew up with strong women in my family, and that’s made me an advocate for gender equality. From 1998 to 2002, my mother battled cancer. Because of it, she morphed from a subservient housewife into a woman living each day like it was her last. I was inspired by her strength. She always told me to think beyond myself and my own insecurities, and to think of the bigger picture (because) there is something more important to fight for than my own ego.
“In school, I wasn’t the most ‘masculine’ guy – I was bullied for being small, and for not excelling in traditionally male activities like sports. This took a huge emotional toll on me. But my mum showed me how to stand up for myself and taught me how I could be strong without being a chauvinist. I came out of this episode okay, but not everyone does.
“Throughout history, women have been taught to be demure and submissive, while men are expected to show aggression, not weakness or vulnerability. It’s not healthy! Such gender stereotypes need to be addressed.
“I like what actress and United Nations Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson said in her speech at the launch of the He For She campaign: ‘It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, not as two opposing sets of ideals.’ For me, gender equality and feminism are one and the same thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, we deserve equal treatment.
“On a similar note, now that I’m in a band with my sister, I witness a lot of inappropriate and snide remarks being directed at her, even in front of me. It’s made me aware of an underlying but ever-present sexual harassment that’s not taken seriously. It’s worrying how women in the entertainment industry are expected to play up their sexuality when the focus should be on their talent.
“It’s something I cannot stand for. None of us should.”
Ruici Tio, 31, director of a corporate investigations and risk conuslting firm; formerly worked with MTV EXIT (End Exploitation and Human Trafficking). He has a girlfriend.
” I ensure that female factory workers have adequate rights.”
“When working in Jakarta, I learnt about MTV EXIT, a campaign that fights human trafficking by spreading awareness and promoting safe migration. I joined them in 2009, and during my five years there, we interviewed more than 100 survivors of human trafficking.
“I met a Myanmar woman and her young son who were forced to work more than 15 hours a day in a prawnpeeling facility. They weren’t paid, and were locked up in a small room with 30 other people. The woman made plans to escape, and was even prepared to kill her son if they were caught, to prevent him from being subjected to a life of slavery… luckily, they escaped, but such instances are incredibly rare.
“To me, being a feminist means believing in equal opportunities for both genders. I try to do this by creating policies that provide recourse for women, especially factory workers in South-east Asia.
“This has prompted me to do more for women who work in factories with squalid conditions. In my current job, I work with companies to investigate malpractices by their suppliers and help to ensure that female factory workers – who make up the majority of the workforce in garment factories in Thailand and Cambodia – have adequate rights.”
John Tan, 32, is a tech venture capitalist, founder of clothing label Controlled Commodity and co-founder of Saturday Kids, a business that teaches children programming skills. He is married with three kids.
“There should be more women in tech.”
“As a partner at 8Capita, a venture capitalist firm, I’ve realised that many women are still held back from entering the tech industry – to date, out of the 25 projects we’ve funded, only two are led by female founders. To an extent, there’s still some ‘bro-grammer culture’ going on. This needs to change – and it starts by encouraging females to pick up technological skills.
“Recently, I was invited by the Singapore Committee for UN Women to speak at the He For She: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) panel discussion – I shared with the participants that knowing programming helps them understand how to build their product which is essential to running a successful tech start-up.
“I also started Saturday Kids in 2012, a school that conducts programming courses for children aged five and above. We encourage girls to sign up by featuring, for instance, a group of girls in front of a computer in our marketing collaterals. We also work with a largely female-based team of freelance instructors.
“I have three kids: a daughter and two sons. My wife and I are conscious about not reinforcing stereotypes. We do not, for example, send our boys to soccer classes and the girl to ballet.
“We want them to know that there is nothing to restrict them from pursuing an interest – as long as they put their minds to it.”
Kwek Leong Chuan, 53, principal investigator at the Center of Quantum Technologies, National University of Singapore (NUS). He is married with no children.
“I want more women physicists in the labs.”
“It’s well-known that there are very few women in our field. This needs to change. Women account for half of the physics enrolment at the secondaryschool level, but that dwindles rapidly to less than 20 per cent at university level in the United States and probably even less in Singapore.
“In the team that I lead, there are no women researchers, even though I have been trying to recruit one for years. At NUS, only seven of the 108 faculty members are women, while at Nanyang Technological University, there is only one woman out of 45. It’s a vicious circle: there are few women physicists in general, so female recruitment rates are lower.
“It seems that women tend to shun physics as a career, thinking that it’s meant for men. But women are every bit as brilliant as men and will provide a fresh and much-needed perspective to physics research. I’m a member of the working group Women in Physics at the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). We work to empower women in academia. Recently the IUPAP endorsed an International Day to celebrate the achievements of women in physics in the hopes of encouraging more women to join the field.
“We’re also working on guidelines that we hope will be adopted by universities and employers. These documents will hopefully change some attitudes with regard to more equal gender representation in the enrolment of female students and the recruitment of female faculty members. It’s a small but necessary step. I’ve seen how opening the doors to participation by women has rejuvenated the fields of biology and astronomy. I’m certain it will do the same for my field.
“Empowering women is crucial to the advancement of the human race… and I want to help in whatever way I can.”
Joshua Tan, 30, head of operations at restaurant reservations business Chope and associate member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware). He is Single.
“I call my guy friends out for making rape jokes.”
“About six years ago, a friend – who was then the co-founder of the ‘No to Rape’ campaign and a member of Aware – encouraged me to find out more about feminism and why it existed. She highlighted some examples of gender inequality, for instance, how there are very few women on company boards, or how society routinely slut-shames rape victims. I was convinced that more needed to be done – so I decided to call myself a feminist.
“Funnily, being a man and a feminist helps – when I share pro-women articles and comment on gender inequality on Facebook, my male friends tend to be receptive and will ask questions to find out more about my views… in contrast, they can be pretty hostile when women start such discussions.
“I’ve also noticed that sexism tends to be very subtle and often manifests itself in daily conversations – for instance, when my male friends make rape jokes or casual sexist statements, like thinking they’re entitled to sleep with a woman after a date because they paid for the meal. I often call them out in such instances; I believe they’re a lot more conscious about what they say these days.
“Many guys may not feel comfortable calling themselves feminists, but they can still show support for women’s rights in other ways – by catching themselves when they’re on the verge of making a sexist comment, or simply choosing to listen more instead of dominating a conversation with women.
Photography: Wong Wei Liang, Hair: Doreen Low/ Athen Salon, Grooming: Marie Soh, using Laura Mercier
This article was originally published in HerWorld Magazine March 2015.