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Speak truth to power

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 11 min read
Speak truth to power
Ong Soh Chin, president of the current board of women's rights and gender-equality group Aware, talks about the importance of gender equality and feminism PHOTO: The Edge Singapore/Samuel Isaac Chua
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Some people have a scary impression of feminists or think feminism is a cause to be championed only by women. But Ong Soh Chin, the president of the current board of Aware (Association of Women for Action and Research), wants that to change. “If you believe in gender equality, you are already a feminist,” she says.

A journalist and communications specialist with a career in The Straits Times, oil giant Shell, streaming service Netflix and the Institute of Policy Studies think-tank, Ong stood for the Aware presidency last April because she felt it was time to contribute to a cause she champions. “I’d also had a good run on the career track and was ready to step off and do meaningful work on my own time,’’ says Ong. “I also knew the executive director of Aware, Corinna Lim, and had been a supporter of the organisation for some time.’’ Ong took over the position from veteran journalist Margaret Thomas, who has held the position since 2018.

Today, she juggles this volunteer role with editorial and communications consultancy work while pursuing a post-graduate diploma in counselling psychology. “This next phase of my life is about doing things I feel can contribute to a better society, using the skills I already have and the skills I hope to acquire. Counselling and Psychology appeal to me because, as a communicator, I feel that the world is experiencing a communication breakdown and a breakdown in empathy. It is quite a lethal combination which I hope can somehow be corrected.

“I also believe women in Singapore today stand on the shoulders of feminist giants like Chan Choy Siong, Shirin Fozdar, Constance Singam and Margaret Thomas, and it would be a tragedy if the battles they fought were to be forgotten or taken for granted,’’ she adds. “Being part of Aware is my small way of helping to keep the hard conversations going.’’

Due to the advocacy works done by associations like Aware — which has existed since 1985 — women now have a greater say in their lives. Ong welcomes the progress made in recent years to advance gender equality in the city-state. In 2020 and 2021, the Singapore government reviewed women’s issues to imprint gender equality into the national consciousness. This culminated in the White Paper on Women’s Development released in March 2022, outlining proposals to boost women’s employment, enhance laws to address discriminatory employment practices, and encourage the development of flexible-work arrangements for all employees.

“The government’s recognition of gender equality as a fundamental value signified a historic departure from its previous pragmatic approach to women’s rights, which tended to skew towards economic and political ends,” she continues.

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Mindset change

But while there has been progress, much more still needs to be done. The major challenges facing women and girls in the city-state remain the same: Sexual objectification and violence, a disproportionate share of unpaid caregiving and domestic work, barriers in workplaces and other societal arenas, and inadequacy of gender and sexuality education in schools and homes.

For things to improve, she agrees with the government that there must be a mindset change. “Gender equality is not a zero-sum game,’’ Ong says. “Giving women equal space does not mean men lose out.’’ In other words, gender equality cannot be achieved if men are not on board with the cause.

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“Men are still the majority in many areas. They have the power to make changes and speak up for women. Every man has a mother, a wife, a sister or a daughter. Why would they not be interested in women’s issues?”

While Aware supports women, it also — by default — supports other vulnerable communities. Ong recalls a recent news report about a physical education teacher who had molested boys in his school. The article stated that one of the boys, aged 12, had called the Aware Women’s Helpline but was, unfortunately, too scared to give further details when the group followed up.

“It’s utterly tragic what happened to these boys. The incident shows how traumatic and frightening sexual violence is and how victims can easily be intimidated. I am glad that the Aware number was a resource this boy somehow knew to call, and we do as much as possible to help. It shows that people recognise the support that we can provide, not just to women, but to other vulnerable communities.’’

Apart from running a helpline, the group also runs a sexual assault care centre, providing counselling and legal assistance. Ong believes outreach and education are vital to raising awareness about Aware’s mission — among women and men. One of the ways it hopes to do this is through on-the-ground events like Community Day, which will take place on Mar 25.

The all-day open house block party at the group's office in Dover Crescent is called “Fair for All” and will be a celebratory community event to commemorate International Women’s Day. Activities include a “free market” to trade pre-loved items, mini workshops centred on different facets of Aware's work, a discussion panel on the intersection of gender and climate activism, and retail booths featuring homegrown makers and artisans. “Come and spend the day with us, and find out what we are all about,’’ says Ong. “Ask us questions, and let’s share ideas.’’

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The group also spreads its message in other programmes and at its annual fundraising ball, which always boasts a fun theme that gets guests dressed up creatively. “The ball is a great way to get people together in a room to have a great time for a good cause. I also love how it has made feminism fun and approachable for many who may have been intimidated by it before,’’ she says.

Aware’s last ball, in 2022, was themed Pulau Utopia and raised a record-breaking $620,000. “The ball gets bigger and better every year. I take it as a good sign that people support and believe in what the organisation does.’’

Bridging the pay gap

This year, Aware is training the spotlight on matters in the workplace, such as discrimination and harassment. “The organisation’s advocacy efforts are currently focused on the upcoming anti-discrimination legislation, which was announced in 2021 and expected to be passed soon,” says Ong. These efforts are aligned with Aware’s Workplace Harassment and Discrimination Advisory service, which supports workers in Singapore who experience gender discrimination or harassment at work.

In 2016, it formed a corporate training arm called Catalyse Consulting, which offers workshops and private consultations to companies seeking to create and nurture diverse and inclusive workplaces. “Demand for our workshops has gone up, which is another positive sign that corporations are taking workplace fairness seriously,’’ Ong says.

Another hot topic is the discrepancy between men's and women’s salaries across industries. The unadjusted pay gap reflects the problem of men being over-represented in higher-paying occupations and sectors while women are over-represented in lower-paying ones, largely due to occupational segregation, imbalance in caregiving responsibilities and gender discrimination.

While the adjusted pay gap — which measures the pay a man and woman would get for the same job —was 4.3% in 2020, the unadjusted pay gap stands at 14.4%. This latter figure is a more accurate representation of the pay divide because it accounts for the fact that women do most low-paying jobs.

Over a lifetime, the impact of this pay gap is significant. The median amount that a working woman would lose out on throughout a 40-year career is almost $240,000. This inequality affects women’s financial ability to meet their needs and avoid ageing into poverty. According to Central Provident Fund (CPF) statistics, only 56% of active female CPF contributors who turn 55 in 2018 hit the Basic Retirement Sum of $83,000 compared to 67% of male contributors.

Some measures suggested by Aware to narrow the pay gap include getting companies to disclose pay data at all levels, separated by gender and ethnicity, and index jobs by scope instead of last paid salaries and entrenching disparities.

To highlight these issues, on Mar 2, the group launched its inaugural Pay Gap Day with a month-long fundraising campaign called “Donate Your Gender Pay Gap”. It is an appeal to male feminist allies to help eradicate the wage gap by pledging a minimum of $144 to Aware, a token sum to represent the 14.4% unadjusted gender pay gap. The donation drive on the Give.Asia platform aims to raise a total of $14,400 — which can be achieved with the support of 100 male allies.

There is much more to be done at the workplace, says Ong. Apart from raising awareness and getting the support of male allies, women also need to step up and speak up. She says that, in recent years, companies have been more conscientious about having more female representation on their boards and senior management roles. “Women bring a different invaluable perspective to the table. More importantly, when enough women are in positions of influence, they can bring about systemic change from the top.’’

Ong recognises, however, that some women feel uncomfortable because people see them as token hires, placed in a position for their gender rather than their ability. “I’ve never understood this. We want people to recognise that we got to the top because of meritocracy and not a diversity obligation. But if you have been given a golden opportunity, why not be grateful, seize it and fully accept the responsibility it entails? Don’t listen to the naysayers and detractors. Instead, focus on working your ass off to prove to everyone that you are the right person for the job. That way, you do yourself proud, and you also do the other women who will come after you a great service.’’

Advocacy and diplomacy

Another matter close to Ong’s heart is women and ageing and the lack of financial and mental wellness support to tide them through their golden years. “Women live longer than men, and women are the ones who usually step off the career ladder early and for longer to care for the family. This means women may be stuck with fewer savings than men in their old age. Something must be done about this, especially as we are an ageing population. Thankfully, I believe this matter is not polarising, and it is something everyone can get behind.’’

While Ong does not have all the answers to these looming issues, she is heartened that many young people today are not afraid to speak up for equality and justice. “They are the future, bringing a vision, fresh ideas, and a passionate and fervent idealism. At the same time, I also think it’s important to understand the past for context, and that’s where older feminists can play a role,’’ she says.

Aware is part of the Singapore Alliance for Women in Ageing (SAWA), together with the Tsao Foundation, Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura (PPIS) and the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), the latter of which Ong is also a board member. As a student of Counselling Psychology, Ong prefers to practise her advocacy in a different, quieter way. She adds: “I believe you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. Singapore is not a country that is comfortable with advocacy. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe it’s more than that.”

“I would like to see more bridges and fewer canyons between different sides. It’s getting harder to convince people to see other points of view when they are set in their ways. So, the counsellor in me might ask, ‘What is it that you feel anxious about? And let’s talk about it.’’

“The journalist and advocate in me might be less patient. It is a constant dance,’’ Ong said with a laugh. Either way, the proof is whether any progress is made towards equality.

“Sometimes, people don’t want to hear about injustices, even if it affects them. We need to highlight them to make people want to listen, not shut their ears. You still need to push the envelope now and then. Only then will you progress.

‘’As they say, a woman's work is never done.”

Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame
Feminist pioneers of Singapore

Chan Choy Siong: Member of Parliament (1959–1970) PHOTO: Singapore Council of Women's Organisations

Shirin Fozdar: Founding member of Singapore Women’s Council (1952) PHOTO: Singapore Council of Women's Organisations

Constance Singam: President of Aware (1987–1990, 1994–1996, 2007-2010) PHOTO: Singapore Council of Women's Organisations

Margaret Thomas: Founding member and President of Aware (2018 - 2022) PHOTO: Epigram

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