Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has experienced rapid economic growth, largely through constantly adapting its economic strategies and policies to evolving challenges and priorities. More...
Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has experienced rapid economic growth, largely through constantly adapting its economic strategies and policies to evolving challenges and priorities. Today, Singapore is one of the most developed economies in the region, a testament to the city state’s strong economic growth rate and highly free economy. Singapore’s GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) is among the world’s highest at US$78,763 in 2013, according to World Bank figures. Seventy-six percent of women ages 25–54 are in the workforce. While there continues to be high female representation in low-level jobs, women’s employment opportunities are increasing, evidenced by improvements in the female share of managers and administrators over the last decade (30 percent in 2003 to 35 percent in 2014).
Singapore’s economy depends largely on trade, particularly in electronics, information technology, petrochemicals, and financial services. It has one of the busiest ports in the world and most vibrant financial centers. Fittingly, Singaporean new businesses have one of the highest percentages of international clients with 14.5 percent of businesses reporting more than 75 percent of their customers to be based overseas. Technology use is also high among new businesses. According to the 2013 Annual Survey of Infocomm Usage by Enterprises, the proportion of enterprises in Singapore that used the Internet increased from 81 percent in 2011 to 86 percent in 2013.
Singapore’s business efforts are aided by its educated and driven workforce. The state of entrepreneurship in Singapore is strong. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2015 report found Singapore to be the top-ranked economy in “ease of doing business.” Singapore’s total early stage entrepeneurship (TEA) rate – the rate at which the working age population starts a business or runs a business that is less than 3.5 years old - was 10.7 percent in 2013 which represents the 3rd highest rate in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s scan of 25 economies. Still, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2013 Singapore Report found areas where further support is needed. In a survey of 2,000 citizens between the ages of 18 and 64, 19.6 percent reported that they had received some form of entrepreneurship training, a lower share than the average of 23.1 percent across innovation-driven economies surveyed in 2008. Of those responding, 39.8 percent reported that a fear of failure would prevent them from embarking on new start-ups and 24.8 percent thought they possessed the skills, knowledge, and experience required to start a business.
Despite the many highlights of Singapore’s economy, women’s ability to contribute their full potential has historically been limited. The 1999 book, The Three Paradoxes: Working Women in Singapore, by Jean Lee S.K., Kathleen Campbell, and Audrey Chia, highlights three challenges facing working women in Singapore. The first paradox, and a familiar one globally, is that women in Singapore are expected to be active contributors both in the workplace while still fulfilling traditional family roles. This paradox reflects the reality of women’s changing role in society with women receiving higher levels of education and having increased opportunities to enter the workforce while still experiencing expectations of women’s traditional roles as mothers and wives at home. In fact, women now constitute over half of the student population at local universities. This dilemma is exacerbated by government policies, which both support women in the workplace and encourage them to have more children (due to Singapore’s declining birth rate). The second paradox furthers this point, highlighting the conflict women face between work and family. With the higher cost of living in Singapore, both women and men often need to work, increasing pressures on families, and especially women, to maintain a work-life balance.
The third paradox highlights barriers faced by women as they strive to advance in their careers. While women are encouraged through government policies and society to progress in their careers, they face barriers to their success, including gender stereotypes limiting women’s advancement into managerial and other leadership positions. Slowly, numbers of women in these leadership positions is increasing. In 2012, women accounted for 27.3 percent of employers in Singapore, up from 19.4 percent in 2002.
Another key challenge is improving women’s representation on corporate boards. A report published by the Diversity Task Force, a government body established to examine gender diversity on boards and senior management, regarding women on boards, Gender Diversity on Boards: A Business Imperative, reveals that as at April 2013, only 8.3 percent of director positions in Singapore were held by women. The proportion of all-male boards among Singapore Exchange-listed companies was 57 percent.
Despite challenges, promising trends highlight an increasingly supportive environment for women in the workforce. Many business networks in Singapore specifically target women and provide support, advice, and business development opportunities. Further, the appeal of entrepreneurship for women is evidenced by the fact that more women than men start businesses in Singapore. Further, the number of women in leadership positions is increasing. Women’s representation in the Singapore Parliament has risen. In 2013, women held 25 percent of Parliamentary seats,which exceeded the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s world average of 21 percent. Singapore’s first woman Speaker of Parliament was appointed in January 2013. Women made up 11 percent of judges in the Supreme Court, 52 percent of Judicial Officers in the State Courts and 50 percent of Judicial Officers in the Supreme Court.
The government is committed to advancing the status of women in Singapore. The government’s Employment Act, originally enacted in 1968, sets basic employment standards of employees, regardless of gender, and, in 2002, Singapore ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention Number 100 regarding Equal Renumeration, which further mandates supportive workplaces for women. This has narrowed the gender wage gap. Women now making 88 percent of what men make. The Office for Women’s Development (OWD) was set up as the national focal point on gender policy matters and regional and international cooperation on women. The OWD identifies issues, challenges, and trends affecting women’s development in Singapore and provides advice from the gender perspective to public agencies.
Business networks in Singapore very effectively target women in various stages of business development and provide a range of support options. Networks provide women entrepreneurs with opportunities to establish both business partnerships and friendships with other women working in their sector, with business people working in different industries, and with women representing a range of nationalities. Support includes technological assistance and guidance for women balancing family and professional life, with multiple networks to choose from. A number of global business networks have also become established in the economy, further providing business development support, increasing exposure to new business ideas, and opening access to business opportunities.
Networks that support women’s access to capital and assets:
Networks that support women’s access to markets:
Networks that support strengthened capacity and skills for women in business:
Networks that support women’s leadership, voice and agency:
Networks that support women and innovation and technology:
Private-sector initiatives in Singapore provide broad-based support for women entrepreneurs. For example, there are loan programs for new businesses and IT learning opportunities, even for those new to current technologies. In addition to opportunities to connect in groups, Singapore’s private sector and networking initiatives offer women entrepreneurs many opportunities for one-on-one learning. Mentorships are offered at the university and professional level. Initiatives such as Mums@Work Singapore ensure that women have access to the support and role models critical to balancing a busy life and building the confidence to enter or re-enter the workforce.
Initiatives that support women’s access to capital and assets:
Initiatives that support women’s access to markets:
Initiatives that support strengthened capacity and skills for women in business:
Initiatives that support women’s leadership, voice and agency:
Initiatives that support women and innovation and technology:
There is no shortage of government services to entrepreneurs in Singapore, and these services are gender-neutral by design. International Enterprise Singapore, the government agency driving Singapore’s external economy, offers a range of financial and nonfinancial assistance to promote internationalization of all Singapore-based companies. SPRING Singapore and the Action Community for Entrepreneurship support home-grown enterprises. A microloan program brings together over 10 financial institutions to support micro-entrepreneurs. The government also offers economy-wide financial literacy programs and innovative remote work-stations to fill the increasing need for flexible work arrangements. Singapore has designated a national Smart Nation vision, which aims to “harness ICT, networks, and data to support better living, create more opportunities, and to support strong communities”. The efforts, led by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, will focus on infrastructure, policies, ecosystem, and capabilities.
To address Singapore’s labor shortage (caused in part by low fertility rates and an ageing population), the member economy government has chosen a strategy that seeks to address the challenge of work-life balance. In a 2013 online survey conducted by Accenture, 74 percent of Singaporean women said they turned down jobs because of concerns about work-life balance. Just 50 percent of men have turned down job offers for this reason. In January 2013, the member economy government announced enhancements to the Marriage and Parenthood Package to help working couples balance work and family commitments, and to encourage shared parental repsonsibility. Starting in May 2013, employers were mandated to provide eligible working parents with government-paid extended child care leave, adoption leave, paternity leave, and shared parental leave. The government also works with various partners to enhance the quality, accessibility and affordability of child and elder care facilities to better support families in their care functions and responsibilities.
Other efforts include the introduction of a SGD 170 million (US$127.5 million) WorkPro scheme comprising a Work-Life Grant and a Flexi Works! scheme, to provide funding support for employers to implement work-life measures and redesign jobs to create and sustain a more supportive environment for Singaporeans to form and raise families. The Work-Life Grant has two components: a Developmental Grant to help employers put in place flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and other work-life programs; and a FWA Incentive to motivate employers who support more employees on FWAs. Organizations may adopt either or both components of the Work-Life Grant. In July 2014, more incentives for employers to try out FWAs were rolled out, including a SGD 10,000 (US$7,500) grant for bosses who try the Flexi Works! scheme.
There is also financial incentive under the Working Mother’s Child Relief (WMCR) scheme to encourage married women to remain in the workforce after having children. To be eligible, a woman must be a working mother who is married, divorced or widowed, earning taxable income, and with a child who is a Singapore citizen. Eligible women can claim 15 percent of their earned income for their first child, 20 percent for their second child, and 25 percent for their third and subsequent child.
It is important to note that the schemes in place "reflect the prevailing societal norm where marriage is the first step toward family formation,” according to Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister. Still more can be done to boost female employment and entrepreneurship at large, for single or married women with children or without. These include more funding for education of women, more subsidies and grants for women to further their education and upgrade their skills, cash grants for employers to recruit and train older women under the existing Wage Credit Scheme (WCS), and more financial assistance and facilities for childcare and elderly care, as these activities often fall to women.
To encourage overall employment, in 2014, the Singapore government announced the SkillsFuture Council, which steers a national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their education, career, and access relevant trainings. All Singaporeans have access to the initiative through SkillsFuture credits that can be put towards training and skills upgrading.