There needs to be a shift in the mindset of employers and women before Singapore can move towards legislating flexible work practices, said several speakers at a People's Action Party Women's Wing conference yesterday.
"Legislation may sound like the panacea of all ills but it is not," said Women's Wing vice-chairman and Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, on the sidelines of the event. "You can have legislation but if people are not convinced, they don't do it, they do it half-heartedly, it's not going to work," she added.
Legislating the right to request flexi-work was discussed in Parliament recently and also in a Women's Wing position paper last month. Participants at yesterday's conference also raised it.
West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har clarified yesterday that while its position paper had called for the Government to legislate flexi-work, the Women's Wing meant doing so in the future, perhaps two to three years down the road. "We don't think the Government should legislate immediately," said Ms Foo.
To illustrate the cultural gap that must be bridged first, she pointed to the poor take-up rate of flexible work even when employers offer the option. While 95 per cent of public agencies offer flexible work hours and all agencies offer part- time employment, only 1.4 per cent of Division One officers and 0.6 per cent of non-Division One officers took up part-time work, she said.
Professor Lily Kong, vice-president of university and global relations at the National University of Singapore, said legislation might not be the appropriate step to take now as Singapore is starting "at such a low level" in terms of family-friendly benefits offered by employers. "To suddenly dramatically say we all have to go there could be problematic and painful to the extent that you get potentially negative pushback," she said.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Women's Wing chair Grace Fu also acknowledged the need to get companies "comfortable and ready" for flexi-work. "We don't want to hasten the pace of change too much that it may affect the businesses adversely, so it's a careful balancing of the pace of change," she said.
Minister of State for Manpower Amy Khor cited Australia, where the take-up rate for flexi-work did not change after the right to request it was made into law.
People may be worried about being negatively assessed or how their colleagues view them, said Dr Khor. But the Government will continue studying the issue and will keep an open mind, she said.
The speakers were not short on ideas of what could be done to improve the situation. Madam Halimah highlighted the need to "redesign work" from all sides. As the Government tightens the foreign worker supply, employers should look into tapping on women as a resource, she said. This comes with being more sensitive to their needs in scheduling work hours. The Government can do its part by offering incentives and other means to encourage family-friendly companies, she said.
In her keynote address, Ambassador-at-large Chan Heng Chee called for a "reset" in societal attitudes and more support from society and state for work-life balance. She raised, as an example, the importance of having creches at the workplace. It can be very comforting for the mother to look in on her baby throughout the day, she said.
Asked about this, Ms Fu agreed it was a good idea. The Women's Wing would like to push for having childcare facilities that are accessible and convenient, she said.
Ambassador Chan also spoke of women's right to make their own choices in how they wish to balance their career and family. "But the important thing is not to have a guilty feeling about what you have chosen... Whatever choice you make, it is okay," she said.
People can also reduce the guilt women feel by being understanding when colleagues have to take time off work for their family, said Ambassador Chan and Prof Kong.
But Ms Fu and Madam Halimah noted that progress was made in the parliamentary debates on the Population White Paper and Budget. Ms Fu said the MPs - across party and gender lines - recognised that men and women share an equal role in parenting, and also spoke up for groups like unwed mothers, who deserve special attention.