Singapore presidential candidate Halimah Yacob, in 2012. Photo: Flickr/e_chaya. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0). Some rights reserved. This month, Singapore will go to the polls for its next presidential election. According to local reports, it looks likely that the country will elect the lawyer, trade unionist and former speaker in Parliament Halimah Yacob. She would be Singapore’s first female president and the first member of the Malay minority, in the Chinese-dominated state, to hold this office since 1970.
Yacob’s potential victory has already been hailed as a watershed moment for women across the region. Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid asked the women in his Umno party to “pray that she wins”. Mustafa Izzuddin, a Singaporean political researcher was quoted as saying that her election would be a major step forward: “She will not only break another glass ceiling within Singapore but also put Singapore on the world map.”
But this assessment is dangerously premature. Having Yacob in the presidential seat will hardly change the reality for women on the ground, where the struggle for gender and ethnic equality is far from being won.
Singapore’s own record on women’s political representation is hardly exemplary. It lags behind countries including the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand in its number of female political leaders. In the current parliament, 23 out of 100 MPs are women, fewer than the 30% minimum recommended by the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
In Singapore, it’s also worth noting that the president is largely a figurehead position. The president can veto the appointment of certain ministers, and the way the national financial reserves are spent, but real power lies with the prime minister – a position that is unlikely to be occupied by a woman anytime soon.
Netina Tan, a researcher based in Canada, argues that gendered expectations are still widespread in southeast Asian politics, where surveys show women facing significant “institutional and cultural barriers” in politics.
The cost of gender inequality
Entrenched beliefs and gender bias force women into subservient roles as wives and mothers, sending a diminishing message to girls about their worth, and sentencing women to lives spent at home under their husbands’ control. This also drives phenomena like the abortion of female babies, particularly in India, where the practice surged by 170% between 2001 and 2011.
Dependency and mistreatment of women, at the hands of men, also seems to translate into an inordinate number of mental health issues. According to the World Psychiatry Association, in Bangladesh twice as many women suffer from mental disorders compared to men, and three times more women commit suicide.
Gender-based discrimination limits women’s employment opportunities, and contributes to wider economic underdevelopment. Although more women than men attend higher education in southeast Asia, they are underrepresented in the official workforce. The gender gap in employment ranges from 16% in the Philippines to 20% in Sri Lanka. There is an average gender wage gap in the region of 30% to 40%.
One study, from the Asian Development Bank, estimated that if female participation in the workforce rose from 57.7% to 66.2%, Asia’s economy could see a 30% growth in income per capita in just one generation.
Beyond economic figures and financial abstractions, a particularly heinous manifestation of gender inequality is violence.
Beyond economic figures and financial abstractions, a particularly heinous manifestation of gender inequality is violence. In India, crimes against women including rape and domestic abuse are reported every two minutes. 2.4 million cases were registered in the last decade. An estimated 22 women died every day between 2005 and 2015 from dowry-related violence.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, the number of brides brutalised by their husbands or in-laws because of their parents' failure to pay the expected dowry almost doubled from 2004 to 2012. These are dismal figures; sadly, real numbers are likely even higher, as many incidents of violence may go unreported.
In Cambodia, violence against women appears so normalised that it has become a regular feature of media entertainment. Media monitoring research carried out by The Asia Foundation in 2016 revealed that a staggering 33% of TV programmes aired by the five largest national broadcasters featured scenes in which women or girls were the targets of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
Where the integrity of a woman’s body means nothing, sexual assault is even considered a viable means of punishment. This was the case in a Pakistani village where the village council ordered the “revenge rape” of a 16-year-old girl whose brother had allegedly raped his 13-year old cousin.
Across southeast Asia, rape victims often face extreme stigmatisation. Women have been banished or killed by their families to clear their “honour” while perpetrators go unpunished.
Such brutality is not new. During the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975, Vietnamese women and girls, some as young as 13 or 14 years old, gave birth to thousands of children after being assaulted by Korean soldiers. Derogatorily called “Lai Dai Han” (literally “mixed-blood”), many of these children live in shame and abject poverty today.
Despite repeated pleas from survivors, South Korea has staunchly refused to recognise horrendous crimes during the war, let alone issue a formal apology. In a 2013 press statement, a defence ministry spokesman audaciously declared that “such intentional, organised and systemised civilian massacres by the Korean army is impossible” and that because the Korean military followed strict rules, “there was no sexual exploitation of Vietnamese women”.
In a region with the worst record of gender-based violence in the world, electing a woman for president is not enough to trigger fundamental changes. Discrimination and brutality against women need to be continuously exposed and remedied promptly. International pressure can help. If states were held accountable to international treaties governing equal rights, this could help shorten the long road to gender equality in the region.