Singapore punishes women for living longer



Singapore has one of the world's lowest mortality rates, with a general life expectancy of above 80. A healthcare system that is ranked sixth in the world, combined with a stable economy, has brought longevity to its population. Singapore's women outlive men by about five years, making the country second in the world for how long its women live. In a cruel twist of fate, it seems the Singapore state has decided to punish women for it.

Singaporean womenIn 2018, Singapore introduced CareShield Life insurance, which, unlike actual insurance, is a compulsory program meant for all citizens. It is a government-run scheme that automatically signs up everyone aged 30 from the year 2020 and is meant to replace ElderShield, a program that provides optional private insurance. As part of this insurance policy, women are required to pay higher premiums as compared to men. They are expected to pay $47 SGD more per year than men as a consequence of living longer than them.

Dr Amy Khor, the Singapore Senior Minister of State for Health, said gender-differentiated premiums would 'more accurately reflect the differences in risks between men and women'. It is unclear what those risks might be. Women are already penalised in Singapore workplaces in terms of the gender pay gap and a motherhood tax. Furthermore, living longer in itself requires spending more money, time and effort. Hence, it seems as if Singaporean women are being doubly penalised, once for being women, and once again for daring to outlive their men.

For a country that is considered modern and cosmopolitan, Singapore has had a long history of policies aimed at controlling women's bodies and lives. In 1984, the state introduced the Graduate Mothers Scheme, which was aimed at inducing well-educated women to have more children, and women of working class backgrounds to stop having children — all in the belief that education corresponds to intelligence and future achievement. If this sounds like eugenics, that's because it is.

Academic Michael Barr of Flinders University, in his book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, points out that while the policy seemingly targeted education, it was actually directed at race and class. The majority of highly educated women in Singapore were Chinese and the least educated were Malay women, meaning that these programs 'encouraged procreation among middle class, tertiary-educated (mostly Chinese) women, and sterilisation among low-income, poorly educated (mostly Malay) women'.

The policy was essentially aimed at curbing the Malay population in Singapore (who are considered indigenous to the land) and artificially inflating the Chinese one.

Furthermore, single mothers continue to be discriminated against, especially in terms of finding suitable housing. The Singapore housing system prioritises what the state calls 'the nuclear family' — which it defines as two generations with a heterosexual couple-based household — over divorced and single parents. However, single fathers do not seem to face the same problems, leading many to point out the entrenched patriarchal values operating underneath a structure that punishes women for making certain choices.


"The fact that an organisation such as AWARE is Singapore's leading gender advocate says much about the profound liberal blindness that is endemic to the country, and to its NGOs."


I am a child of a single mother myself, and my mother has often told me stories of the many little ways that the state punished her for leaving one man and not marrying another. The government denied her tax relief and money bonuses that married mothers received, an approach that further penalised single parent households such as mine. This state of affairs has not changed in over two decades.

The backlash to the Graduate Mothers Scheme was enough for the government to scrap it not long after. It also led to the creation of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), which calls itself Singapore's leading gender equality advocacy group. However, only in 2016 did the group finally allow non-binary people to join it.

That same year, AWARE voted to give men voting rights in their organisation, in an attempt to promote 'equality'. While these votes are capped to keep women the majority, it nonetheless demonstrates a flawed understanding of parity. As long as there are spaces in which women are not allowed easy entry, there is no need for a women's organisation to make sure men have a voice in theirs.

The fact that an organisation such as AWARE is Singapore's leading gender advocate says much about the profound liberal blindness that is endemic to the country, and to its NGOs. It is the same misguided sense of 'fairness' that does not account for the historical or power differences that undergird the direction of the new state insurance policy, and the systemic discrimination women endure during the course of their existence, instead considering their long lives as a problem to be managed.

A petition to promote equal premiums for CareShield has been set up online, which reiterates the point that women 'cannot be made to pay for circumstances we cannot control'. However, like most ground-up efforts in Singapore, it will ultimately fall on the deaf ears of a state that considers itself the final authority on all matters, more so when it has the unwitting support of civil society groups that peddle the same dogmas.



Sangeetha Thanapal is a writer and social media activist engaged in anti-racism work in Singapore and Australia. She is the originator of the term 'Chinese Privilege', which situates institutionalised racism in Singapore. She can be found at @kaliandkalki

Topic tags: Sangeetha Thanapal, Singapore



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For the purpose of receiving material support from the state, the primary identity of a single mother or father is that of parent, and the primary identities of a same-sex couple is that of a birth and an adoptive parent, or just two adoptive parents. The primary clients of the state are the children being raised, their benefit being its benefit. It is for the children’s benefit that the state should not deny the non-normatives happening to occupy the office of parent the same assistance as a mother or father in the traditional model of family. While it is correct for the state to prefer the household founded by a heterosexual couple as the desired norm, and advocate robustly for it in different and numerous contexts, in none of these contexts should advocacy result in children of non-normative households receiving less welfare support than those in normative households as children are innocent of the social (re)engineering games played by adults.
Roy Chen Yee | 09 August 2018

Sangeeta, thank you for your work. These issues need highlighting.
Tina | 19 September 2019


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