Sun Xueling’s rise in the political sphere has been rapid: After leaving the finance industry, she made her political debut in the 2015 general election as part of a six-member PAP team contesting in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. She then became a Member of Parliament representing the Punggol West ward and, in 2018, the Senior Parliament Secretary at the Ministries of Home Affairs and National Development. In 2020, she was promoted to Minister of State, and is currently Minister of State for both Social and Family Development, and Education.

But how did the 42-year-old become familiar with what the everyday person needs after years in the private sector? What made her want to go into politics? And as someone who actively advocates for levelling the playing field for women and protecting them from harm and violence, what does she think is the reason women here still aren’t getting the support we need?

Politics “was not part of the plan”

At her grandmother’s encouragement, Ms Sun started volunteering at Meet-the-People Sessions and grassroots events while attending university. She holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences in Economics from the National University of Singapore, and a Master of Science in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“I was interested in government policies and how they translate on the ground. For example, in what way can government grants help a small business owner? Or how do health-related policies help with the costs of an elderly person who is in and out of the hospital? Volunteering enabled me to [understand the importance of] cultural mindsets. Like, do our people see health as a personal issue, whereby they should exercise personal responsibility, or as a societal issue, whereby the Government should take care of them?” she explains.

It also gave her a sense of purpose: “Being able to help residents communicate the support they needed and acting as their intermediary was very valuable for me at 20 years old. It made me feel useful.”

Following eight years in Hong Kong and China as a director at Deutsche Bank AG and senior vice-president in Macquarie Securities, she returned at age 34 to raise her family here. But even though she continued to volunteer whenever she came back for a visit, entering politics “was not part of the plan”, so it came as a surprise when she was approached.

“After they called me up, I spoke with my family. I was expecting my second child then, whom I later lost, but after some discussion, I made the decision to stand for election.”

Paving the way for gender equality

Given that Ms Sun is involved in two ministries, the public servant has done a fair bit over the past seven years, including campaigning for support for vulnerable people of all age groups, in particular children. She recently started a fundraising campaign for Kidstart, a programme that supports children up to six years old from low-income families.

But one of the issues she has always been passionate about is women’s rights, so it is timely that the recently released White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development covers five areas to be implemented over the next 10 years, including ensuring equal opportunities in the workplace, giving recognition and support to caregivers, protecting women against violence and harm, and giving women the option of elective egg-freezing. In the grand scheme of things though, why do women here still struggle with gender inequality in spite of our general progress? She puts it down to traditional mindsets.

“In our society, women tend to take on larger caregiving responsibilities. It’s something they are happy to do, but regardless, it takes away more time and energy that they can otherwise spend at the workplace – I know of many women who feel stuck. On the other hand, it’s culturally ok for men to spend more time at work. That said, there is a growing number of men who want to spend more time at home because it brings them joy,” she explains.

“And then there are women who leave the workforce entirely: They go from caring for their children to caring for the elderly at home, which comes with a different set of challenges. At some point, they start to worry about their retirement adequacy and financial independence. But can the Government intervene? Is it something we can legislate? These are internal family decisions. It might be almost too paternalistic for the Government to interfere.”

She adds that this is why there are initiatives such as the Matched Retirement Savings Scheme and Home Caregiving Grant, which not only boost the retirement funds of senior Singaporeans, but also act as “reminders to families to not forget about the women at home”. To her, appreciation should “not just be shown through words, but also deeds like financial planning”. The one thing that would help alleviate this struggle? Flexible workplace arrangements.

“This will give women better control over how they manage things at home and at work. And these arrangements should not just be for women, but also men, because if men can have better control of their time, they can help women with some of the burdens,” she affirms.

And she would know: As a working mother to two girls who are eight and five, she is “always seeing if there are opportunities to take them along”.

“I feel like they are the reason for my existence. We typically say that kids need their mums, but for me, I feel like I need my kids,” she lets on.

It helps that the Government is looking at expanding the availability of flexible work arrangements by introducing a new set of tripartite guidelines by 2024, as noted in the same White Paper on Singapore Women’s Development. The guidelines will require employers to consider flexible work arrangement requests fairly and properly.

So how can we better support our fellow women? She reckons it can sometimes be as simple as having a kind word.

“Tell them that we appreciate them for who they are as mothers, wives or daughters to give them the assurance that they are recognised for their contributions. We should also stand up for women when they are unfairly treated or bullied, whether physically or online.”

This story first appeared in the May issue 2022 of Her World.

PHOTOGRAPHY Veronica Tay
ART DIRECTION Windy Aulia
HAIR Sean Ang, using Keune
MAKEUP Lolent Lee, using Dior Beauty