Nicole Tan, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), argued that his views run counter to statements by Minister of State for Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports Halimah Yacob to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Yacob had said that gender equality is “central” to Singapore’s socio-economic growth, and that it is a “priority” to maximise the full potential of every individual, regardless of the gender.
In a ministerial forum at Nanyang Technological University last week, Lee told Joan Sim, a female PhD student who asked about the influx of foreigners, “My advice is please don’t waste time (in trying to have a family). It’s more important and more satisfying than your Phd. I hope you get your Phd and your boyfriend.”
Lee noted that to keep Singapore’s economy young, 60,000 migrants a year would be needed. However, as that would be “politically indigestible”, the solution would be to get couples to have an average of 1.8 babies or even 2.1 babies, he added.
Tan pointed out that under Cedaw, the government has the obligation to “take appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of the conduct of men and women based on the idea of stereotypical roles of men and women”.
She also stressed that statements made by “influential figures” such as Lee also play an important part in shaping the social attitudes.
“Remarks that imply that women belong at home and men should be primarily providers undermine the efforts of men and women who struggle every day to meet the demands of family and working life,” she said.
“Implying that marriage and motherhood are more important than education and work belittles the choices and contributions of women who prefer to be single or childless.”
Such comments, added Tan, allow the sexist stereotypes to continue to exist within the younger generation.
In addition, she also claimed that the country’s policies have not been in sync with social developments and changing gender roles.
She pointed out that since fathers are not entitled to paid paternity leave, it reinforces the social expectation that mothers should shoulder most of the caregiving responsibilities.
Saying that flexible working arrangements suitable to mother of young children are not widely available, Tan added that infant care facilities are also insufficient to meet the country’s needs.
Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries have shown that appropriate state policies that counter social norms can reverse declining fertility rates, she noted.
The present policies she said also make raising children a “daunting prospect” for working women who want to continue their careers after motherhood.
“The state should take the lead in making family a more attractive option for these women, starting with a change of governmental attitude and the policies stated above,” she emphasised.