SINGAPORE: Dr Aline Wong made headlines in the 1980s as one of the first women MPs to enter Parliament after a 14-year hiatus.
A sociologist by training, Dr Wong came to Singapore as an academic with a focus on issues affecting women. As a politician, she was intent on walking the talk by continuing to champion women’s rights, and led the People’s Action Party (PAP) women’s wing until her retirement in 2001. She also made her mark in leading policy on other issues, as Minister of State for Health, and in the mid-1990s, as Senior Minister of State with the additional portfolio of Education.
Recently, she made headlines for blazing the trail for women again, being appointed as Chancellor of UniSIM – the first female Chancellor in Singapore’s educational history.
She went On the Record with Bharati Jagdish about her past political life, women’s rights and politics today. But first, they spoke about what brought her to Singapore from Hong Kong all those years ago.
Aline Wong: In the 1960s, my husband and I were already lecturing at two separate universities in Hong Kong but we didn’t particularly like the British colonial system there. And we had strong feelings about issues of our citizenship and giving our children a country to call home. So when we came to Singapore in late 1969, on our way to a conference in Australia, some friends we knew from a long time ago, talked to us and said: “Why don’t you just come and make a career here, make a life here?”
Singapore was young and independent and needed people. So that was the time that the university here was looking far afield for foreigners who had the qualifications to be academics. So we both happened to already have our PhDs and have a career in academia, so we went for interviews and we landed two jobs at the same time. So it was a very natural thing for us to come but it meant uprooting. We did it, and we have never really turned back since then.
Bharati: Why did you enter politics?
Wong: I think the simple answer to that was that it was really answering a call to duty. I say duty because by then I had lived in the country and had been a citizen for so long. I had always been teaching social issues, political issues, and so on. I received that call to tea, interviews. And so I said: “If you are asked to serve, what’s the reason for saying no?” I had no reason whatsoever. Also, I had to walk my talk. I was advocating very much for women’s participation in all aspects of the nation’s life – economic, political, social and so on.
So when I was asked to serve, I really could not say no to Mr Goh Chok Tong then. I think they probably had noticed me in my work, in my publications, and I was quite active in serving on various Government committees. I was very outspoken then, so I think they must have spotted me.
Bharati: What influenced you? You’ve mentioned your father before.
Wong: My father just wanted me to think of a larger purpose in life, and to do something for others and for society. He never asked me to be outspoken, but it’s my personality. And as a lecturer, I taught theories and knowledge. So I spoke my mind, and was critical. I saw inequalities and I spoke my mind.
BEING A WOMAN IN POLITICS
Bharati: You were one of three women who entered Parliament after a 14-year hiatus. While it was a great opportunity, I’m sure there were challenges as well.
Wong: We were hailed as a pioneering batch of women MPs, which is not quite true because before us, there were already women legislators, but this hiatus of 14 years did make it a very special opportunity, a special kind of a challenge. But the three of us took it in our stride. I think we were professionals in each of our own fields, and it’s not that we were afraid of speaking in public or afraid of connecting with the people on the ground, so the challenge wasn’t really being the first women to enter Parliament but actually how we would carry out our role, so as not to disappoint.
Bharati: Was it a lot of pressure?
Wong: I think much of the pressure was actually brought upon us by ourselves. At least it was so in my case. I needed to show and prove to myself and to my friends that women parliamentarians make a difference, should make a difference. We had our different viewpoints. We had our issues of concern and we brought our experience, our viewpoints to bear on policy issues, and therefore having women represented in Parliament should make a difference. I consciously had to prove myself as a speaker, as an elected member in the constituency. I had to prove I could lead, that I could gel the team together, the community. I had to prove I could do all these things as a man could.
Bharati: Was it at all challenging to get the men in Parliament to take you seriously? Or was there no issue at all?
Wong: Our views were well-considered among the professionals. We did not make flippant remarks. We were well-prepared. In fact, I noticed that the women MPs tend to do a lot of homework when they speak in Parliament, they ask follow-up questions, they institute projects and so on, so why should the men not take us seriously?
I think even in the 1980s in Singapore, when the three of us entered Parliament, we did not encounter a patronising attitude towards us. So there was no overt negative feeling targeted at us. If anything, I think they began to realise they had to watch their language a little bit more, be respectful and so on and so forth. Altogether it was positive.
Bharati: Even among the constituents?
Wong: Constituents, the grassroots leaders – definitely. You should look at some of the old pictures I kept when I first entered Parliament. When we took pictures with grassroots leaders, I was the only woman there in the centre. I don’t think it was bad at all because I think first of all, if you had a good education, they respected you. If you worked and you were serious, they also had to be serious with you.
Bharati: I’m sure politics was quite different then. These days, I’m sure you would have noticed that people are more outspoken, more demanding of their MPs.
Wong: They also have their own views which are well-considered. They are well-educated. They can talk about policies and give you views on the same level as you. Politics in contemporary society is a bit more complex, and not just because people are better-educated, but because there’s more diversity. And now there’s social media to contend with, so politics is more complex and more challenging now.
Bharati: Would the young Aline Wong enter politics the way it is today?
Wong: If I were a young person of this contemporary age, I would still do it. But thinking back, I was just suitable for that period when there were burning issues to be settled in the area of women’s representation for example, and they were settled on very reasonable grounds.
GETTING MORE WOMEN IN POLITICS
Bharati: Why was there this long hiatus? You’ve mentioned some theories before.
Wong: Well, I had written and speculated about it in my previous publications. I think ever since the Women’s Charter was passed in 1961, there was a mini-victory of sorts that there was equal pay between men and women in the civil service in 1960s. Then the start of the women’s movement in the early 1960s – in those days the focus was on women’s right to vote, women’s right to education, and legal reforms in the marriage institution and they got it.
So after that, the women’s movement actually cooled down a lot. Then as people were getting better-educated, there was the emerging middle-class. As such, the interest of women also turned to issues of lifestyle. There was actually a network of women’s committees at the community centres already, in the 1960s. But the women there were focused on social, recreational, cultural activities. So the tenor of the women’s concern became very much focused on daily life, social participation and so on.
Bharati: What about workforce participation?
Wong: Oh, I mean in the intervening years, since the 1960s and 1970s especially, you see a steady increase in the female labour force participation rate. There was not much of a problem. Except that if you noticed at the beginning, they were semi-skilled workers in the semiconductor industry, in the service industry. Then they rose through the ranks to be executives and professionals.
Bharati: But not so much politicians clearly.
Wong: Not so much politicians. But then I remember very clearly that in 1984, Mr Goh Chok Tong was asked why there no women candidate at the previous election. His answer then… I think he has changed his stance tremendously since then. So, good of him.
Bharati: What did he say then?
Wong: He said that the women should or have to ask the husband’s permission. I remember that.
Bharati: Did you ever have to ask your husband for permission?
Wong: I discussed with him of course, because he is my husband.
Bharati: But you didn’t ask him for permission.
Wong: No, no the decision was mutual and was really even with some consultation with our growing-up kids. So 1984, he (Mr Goh) was looking out for women candidates earnestly. In ’88 he put in more time and effort but still, he netted only one more woman MP which was Dr Seet Ai Mee.
Bharati: Why do you think Mr Goh changed his mind about this?
Wong: I don’t want to hold it against him that much, now that things have changed a lot. He came from a generation of Singapore men who were brought up in the traditional way of looking at men being necessarily the head of household. But since then, women have advanced so much in status. It is not right now to even say such things, and certainly such things are no longer said.
Bharati: You say things have changed. Indeed they have, but if we’re talking about women’s participation in politics, it is still quite concerning relative to what’s happening in other parts of the world or even based on what’s in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
We currently have 22 women in Parliament out of a total of 92 seats. This is 24 per cent of the House. Better than what it was before, sure, but still lacking according to a lot of activists. More recently, of course we have Ms Grace Fu who is Culture, Community and Youth Minister, the first female full minister to helm a ministry. For a country that has advanced economically, where women are highly-educated, why are we still lacking in this arena? And as you said earlier, Mr Goh tried harder in 1988 to get more women candidates, but ended up netting only one.
Wong: It’s still tremendous progress. Even if you look back 10 years ago, I think the number was in the teens. Now we have more than 20. So it’s tremendous progress. If you look around at the percentage representation of female parliamentarians in Singapore, our percentage is very respectable. It is better than the average of many Asia-Pacific countries. Now if you are talking about previously communist countries, yes, they had more women representation but since they opened up, the percentage declined.
If you talk about the Scandinavian countries, yes they are still leading the world, but also they have a conscious policy, some with quotas for their parties to nominate a certain percentage of female candidates at each election.
But I think no country in this world has yet stated its target is 50 per cent. My point is we have made such tremendous progress, so what’s still holding women back?
Not every woman really wants to go into politics. It’s the same for men, not every man wants to go into politics.
REFINING GENDER ROLES
Bharati: Yet there are more men than women, so how would you account for that?
Wong: This is a long-term kind of an analysis that women are still responsible for the family, for the household management, for taking care of children and of the elderly relatives. So these are the multiple roles that women still play in our society that do not give them that much time and opportunity to devote to public life. They’re already struggling with their professions and careers.
Bharati: It’s about gender roles and certain mindsets within the household as well. Men need to step up a little bit more and get more involved in running the household, so that you both can have fruitful careers outside if that is what you desire.
Wong: But also, some women are now opting for sequencing their priorities in life. They’ve got the education. They’ve started brilliant, very good professions, but after they get married, they want children and when they have children, some of them want to devote more time, if not all their time to the children. So they are now sequencing what’s important in their life. Previously, people were trying to be supermoms, superwomen. Then I think by and by, we realised that it is very difficult, because you have to sacrifice something, you cannot have it all at one go.
Bharati: But men never have to worry about that. It is entrenched ideas of gender roles that has led to this, isn’t it? Women might only be making those choices because their husbands won’t. How can such mindsets be changed?
Wong: It is true. It takes time, but I think in some countries like the Scandinavian countries, men and women’s roles are blurring. It is very common to find men tending to young children and perhaps stopping work. Meanwhile, the wife is devoting her time to her career. This happens quite naturally and without raising eyebrows anymore. So this may happen one day, but by and large I think we are still an Asian society. It will take much longer for us. But actually if you want to enter politics, there are so many more avenues now for you to do that. You can join a committee, make a contribution and make an impact even before you enter Parliament, and then you’ll be noticed. I don’t think there are barriers as such. If women are concerned about public life, what’s there to stop them?
Bharati: We discussed entrenched ideas in regard to gender roles. Did you get support from your husband in your political and academic career?
Wong: Yes, he was very helpful. He accompanied me a lot of times to my constituency functions, so that when I went home in the late evening, he could drive and I won’t be too tired. He also took charge of household management, especially in terms of grocery shopping, what we get to eat on the table and so on and so forth. In those days in the 80s, he was considered quite an unusual person.
Bharati: Some might say: “So what if there are not too many women in politics. It’s not important.” How would you respond to this? Why is it important to get more women in?
Wong: Let me be reflective on this. In the 1980s, when the first few of us entered Parliament, there were still quite a few burning issues that affected women that had to be settled. Things like citizenship for children born to Singapore women overseas, medical benefits to civil servants, the quota on female students in the medical school, and amendments to the Women’s Charter. So once those things were addressed over the next one, two decades, if you talked to women and asked them – what are the burning issues that affect women status in Singapore today – they may not be able to tell you very much.
Perhaps one or two things, the proportion of women in politics and secondly, the proportion of female representation on the boards of companies. This, you can still work on, and other countries have been doing it so Singapore should not be too far behind.
As for politics, I think it is a very different kind of a dedication of your life to public interest. But if you say that are there other burning issues…yes, women want their husbands to be more forthcoming in helping them to share the burden of making a home, being a father to the children and so on. But do you think the Government can do anything about that?
Bharati: The Government can encourage it by mandating even more paternity leave, and so on.
Wong: We have done that, and of course you can keep on expanding that, but somewhere you’ll hit the bottom-line of companies, and you’ll also have to pay attention to where the jobs are coming from.
Bharati: You mentioned the burning issues that affect women’s status today – there are not many and it could be that’s why women don’t feel the need to join politics in order to effect change. Ultimately though, women shouldn’t enter politics just to talk about women’s issues, or feel like that’s all they are good for and if there are no such issues, they don’t need to participate. Wouldn’t you say that any policy would benefit from a woman’s perspective?
Wong: You’ll have to think very hard. If you speak from your professional knowledge, your expertise from your knowledge of global issues, your knowledge of your particular competencies. So if you say women are different from men not only biologically, but maybe attitude-wise, women are much more for peace, much more for cooperation, more caring for social relations.
Bharati: That’s gender stereotyping too though. If we talk about the importance of female political representation, shouldn’t it be considered that certain Government policies may affect women differently from how they would affect men, and perhaps because of that, women need to be represented at that level?
Wong: Yes, there is some truth to that. But if you talk about competencies, I think there are universal standards.
Bharati: To have a say in policies across the spectrum – why don’t women feel the need to do this, to the extent of entering politics? I’ve heard you say before that you feel women in Singapore take women’s rights for granted. Could this be the reason?
Wong: I do think that our younger women who enjoy so many opportunities, so much support for what they want to do in education, in their careers, in their lives, have forgotten that all these rights and opportunities were hard-won by the women who were before them. Even in terms of the parliamentary process, it was more than 20 years before those anomalies in gender inequality were finally abolished.
There are still some issues to be addressed, and I hope the young women will take them up as their responsibility. But I also think that having obtained all those rights that they now enjoy, the question is: Do they feel responsible for handing them over to the next generation of women? How are they going to preserve those rights and make the world even better for the next generation to come? My fervent hope is that they would take a look at what has been accomplished and what lies ahead, and also bring up the next generation to be as brilliant, as accomplishing as they themselves are.
POLITICS AND CONSCIENCE
Bharati: Let’s move on to other aspects of your political career. Tell me about a time when the sort of decisions you had to make as Minister of State, or an MP, collided with your conscience?
Wong: Politics is actually a practical science. You really have to be practical. You may have your ideas, your ideals, and this may clash sometimes with what is going on, but then you have to realise that perhaps the time hasn’t come for your ideas. I’ll be very frank. I can think of one area that I felt quite uncomfortable with, when I was in the Ministry of Health, as a Minister of State. I think in those days, the Government, as a matter of economic growth policy, wanted to develop Singapore into the medical hub of the region. Because of our medical expertise and excellent facilities, we could service foreign patients from around this area – Indonesians, Thais, South Asians and even farther afield. And I felt uncomfortable, because I thought it might be putting the wrong emphasis on the issue of excellence in our medical services. I thought the focus really should be our citizens first, and foreigners later.
You could see a period during which restructured hospitals devoted quite a bit of resources to expanding this kind of service for foreign patients. But now they have much toned down, turned back, and I think the Government has emphasised and rightly so, that medical excellence is really to be for our own people first. For everything else, it should be in the private sector coming in and that would be a bonus to the Singapore economy. Was it against my conscience? Well, it was somewhat against my principles at the time that I agreed to certain policies and to implement them. But I also knew there was a time for everything.
Bharati: How did you justify it to yourself at that point though?
Wong: You get frustrated, but you just realise that well, if this is the choice that is to be made, then we will see what happens. Hopefully, one day it will change.
WHAT EDUCATION SHOULD BE
Bharati: You held the Education portfolio for a period and now you are the Chancellor of UniSIM, so we should talk about education-related issues. A lot has been said about education in Singapore – PSLE, stress, our university graduates not being prepared enough for the new economy. What do you think needs urgent attention at this time?
Wong: Education is so much a concern of everybody. I don’t think it is really entirely within the Ministry of Education to change things. I think definitely the world is now so uncertain. Competition is so fierce and keen. We should not look at university education or an undergraduate degree as the be-all and end-all of the education process.
On the one hand I think, definitely we need to encourage life-long learning. And this thing goes beyond schools, beyond the university. Then secondly, I think we need society to look at education in a different manner. Previously we all hung our hopes on children’s educational attainment as a sure ticket to a life of stable jobs, a good standard of living. Then (you) don’t have to worry ever after.
But I think we all realise now this is not going to be the case anymore. Nobody can look forward to just one job. There could be several changes of careers in your lifetime. You cannot just depend on one set of skills that you acquired in school or acquired at the university. You’ve got to upgrade. You’ve got to change your skill set and learn new things all the time. Thirdly, it calls for a change in our definition of success in life. What is it? Is it happiness? Is it a sense of purpose? And last of all, should all these be equated with having an education with certification? It’s not that we should not value skills or qualifications, but we should look at different ways.
There are so many things that you can do in life. You do not need to just narrowly focus on certain professions. Go follow your passions. Go follow your talent. Go follow your opportunities. That’s the important thing to do. And if the definition of success is happiness in what you do, pursue your passions. It is possible. But how do you define happiness? Or do you really want a purpose in life? Then you can do what you enjoy and at the same time, help others and contribute to society. I think that you have to think.
Bharati: Would you say the important thing is that people are given choices and feel free to make them?
Wong: Not just individual choice. I think individuals can go a bit off tangent also. I think we value what a person can do as a member of society. It’s not just about what you want to do for yourself. Yes, you can have the choice. Yes, you can pursue this kind of life if you want, and you should not be discriminated against. But in the end you should ask yourself: Am I being useful to others?
POLITICS AND RACE
Bharati: We talked about your involvement in women’s rights earlier. You have been known to be against quotas for women in politics. What about when it comes to race though? Recently, in light of a survey that showed most people in Singapore would be more accepting of a President of the same race as they are, has given rise to a debate about whether there needs to be a mechanism in place to ensure that a minority race President is elected from time to time.
Wong: Yes, all these studies still show some distance between people in terms of what kind of friends you make, whether you mind people who are of different races as colleagues, marrying people of a different race. So the racial distance studies have consistently showed it still exists, and I think it’s very difficult to completely eradicate. There are cultural differences that you have to accommodate when you enter into intimate relationships like marriage.
Bharati: That may be understandable, but when it comes to choosing political leaders, if the study is to be believed, isn’t it concerning that race would overpower merit?
Wong: In a society where it’s a meritocracy, the question of how people accept a person of a different race to be at the head of the government is really not just about race. It is a matter of politics and politics in a democracy is about numbers and majority. We have to consider how that plays into choices. And there’s a natural tendency for people of the same kind, same characteristics to group together. So the basics of representation have to be taken care of, but when it comes to race and the higher political offices, as Prime Minister Lee himself said before: “The time will come. When the time comes it comes.” So if you ask me if there will be a woman Prime Minister in Singapore, I would say when the time comes it will come. There’s a lot more mixed marriages now if you notice.
Bharati: Than before, certainly. Things might have improved, but we pride ourselves on being a multi-religious, multi-racial society, on being well-integrated and living in harmony. But is this just a superficial harmony that we’re talking about here? Shouldn’t more be done to deepen race relations so that race doesn’t overpower merit?
Wong: I wouldn’t belittle superficial harmony. In human interaction, how close are you to your neighbour? You may not be close, but you obviously want a harmonious relationship. You don’t want anymore than that perhaps. We are being civil. We want to be able to accommodate each other, so that we can live with each other.
Bharati: Is that good enough? Lots have been said by political leaders about this possibly fragile climate of tolerance being easily ruined.
Wong: Maybe good enough to some, but not good enough for others. Some people want to be more actively involved and try to make things better. They can work towards community bonding and so on so forth. Nothing to stop them.
Bharati: Your view seems to be that steps to improve should come from the community, or what will happen, will happen with time. But should the Government be doing more, or doing things differently in order to create a truly harmonious and accepting society. Not just one in which we tolerate each other? In Singapore, we have been known to create structures, and to create systems to ensure integration. For instance, the racial quotas in HDB estates.
Wong: In terms of racial integration, I was fully behind the quota system in HDB housing. I think that you must mix the various races. Otherwise they don’t get to mix. Even when they live next door to each other, the interaction is still, as you say, superficial, but harmonious. But then there’s nothing the Government can do to force it to be closer. But the policy was necessary. Otherwise, we may not even have what we have today.
Bharati: Some might say that if the racial quota system had worked, you wouldn’t need it anymore. People would be naturally and organically already interacting with each other and perhaps there wouldn’t even be the possibility of a rejection of minority races in positions of power.
Wong: I hear now that new immigrants are already coalescing into noticeable clusters. So should the Government enforce this more rigorously? Or should it relax it? I think it’s really a very different call. So does this work better towards racial harmony? I think not. But then the flip side of it is almost like segregation.
With regard to whether there would be a Prime Minister or President of a certain race in the future, or whether there should be more women MPs by setting up a quota system – that’s where I believe what will happen, will happen. Through interaction. Through evolution. I believe those things, we shouldn’t force.
Bharati: But some might say that the quotas or mechanisms would be designed merely to compensate for people’s racial or gender biases.
Wong: It will raise too many questions for the individual as well. I think there is also a question of whether you really want to do it. For example, when it comes to women, let me put it this way: Each person actually should enter Parliament in her own right, have her own contribution, and you do not need a special place, a special vacancy reserved for you to be able to play that role. You enter, you fight an election, and you do your job. But certain things we must do to prevent other things from happening, and that’s one of those things (the racial quotas in HDB estates) – encouraging and working to mould a community that binds together.
Bharati: What sort of legacy would you like to leave behind?
Wong: I have never really worked in order to leave a legacy. I have had a number of changes in my academic career even after stepping down from politics. I just hope that I will be looked at together with my former women parliamentary colleagues, as a trailblazer in terms of women who came forward to serve in the interest of the nation. I would be very happy and contented if people look at us as role models for the young women who aspire to contribute their talents, their abilities to a larger cause than themselves.