When Ong Ye Kung was a young father, he had thought that whatever discrimination and biases against women would eventually be scrubbed out by the norms of a modern society.
But speaking in Parliament on April 5 as a “son, a father and a husband”, the Health Minister said: “I soon realised it was not so simple.”
Recalling past Chinese New Year visits where relatives would ask his wife if she was ‘trying for a boy’, Ong, who has two daughters, said: “I know [they] heard the conversation.”
Ong was speaking at the debate on the White Paper on Singapore women’s development. On March 28, the Government had unveiled a White Paper outlining their recommendations to improve the lives of women here.
The 25 action plans in five key areas that are proposed include: Equal opportunities in the workplace, recognition and support for caregivers, protection against violence and harm, other support measures for women and mindset shift.
Ong’s childhood experiences on the role of women in society
In a speech sprinkled with personal anecdotes, Ong talked at length about his experience with gender inequality, the struggles of women and how Singapore can move away from the antiquated past of women and men stereotypes.
In another poignant personal experience, Ong revealed that one of his two daughters “had a shock” when she learnt about the concept of dowries.
He said: “Our daughter then exclaimed ‘So it is a transaction? We are sold?’
“I tried to make things better by explaining that the money flowed both ways… It wasn’t a helpful intervention.”
Ong also described the personal conflict he previously had about the role of women in society.
Sharing that his grandparents had nine sons, Ong said that he spent his growing up years in a kampung at Lorong Chuan observing how there was “men’s work” and “women’s work”.
Men in the family were tasked with rearing livestock and repairing cars, while the women cooked, cleaned and looked after the children.
But marriage and subsequently starting a family had changed Ong’s view on a woman’s place in families.
He said: “The dissonance I felt as a kid has developed into a deeper understanding of the struggles and aspirations of women.
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“I am not sure I totally get it, but I am trying to get it.”
Describing himself as “old-fashioned”, Ong shared in Parliament that there is a virtue in extending a special courtesy to women.
“I often feel uneasy that just because I am a Minister, people, including my female staff, will attempt to offer to carry my bag or open the door for me,” he recounted. “I will always try to stop them and offer to open the door for them instead, reminding them that ‘etiquette comes before protocol’.”
Ong also had a message to the youth on gender equality and how it can relate to taking wefies.
“On those rare occasions where you take a photo with your class, CCA group or with a Minister, do not let the girls kneel in front and the boys stand at the back,” he gently reminded. “Boys, volunteer to squat in front and let the girls stand at the back. Or at least position yourselves freely as equals.”
Ending his speech, Ong said that it is time to “accelerate away from our antiquated past of women and men stereotypes, at home, at work, and in society”.
This article was first published in AsiaOne.