Whilst various jurisdictions, including Hong Kong and China, have a host of legislation seeking to prevent various forms of discrimination, Singapore is lagging behind on this front. There are no laws specifically prohibiting discrimination based on gender, nationality, ethnicity, race, religious beliefs or sex, for example.
Whilst the Constitution of Singapore guarantees the general equality of all individuals, legislative measures encouraging a diverse workforce are few and far between. Two examples are the Retirement and Reemployment Act, which prohibits dismissal of employees based on their age, and the Employment Act (EA) which prohibits the dismissal of a female employee who has given notice of her pregnancy. However, homosexual acts remain a crime under the Penal Code.
In 2008, the Prime Minister announced an enhanced benefits package to assist working mothers in Singapore. Under the Child Development Co-Savings Act (CDCSA), every female employee who satisfies certain eligibility criteria is entitled to 16 weeks' paid maternity leave, with the first eight weeks being paid by the employer and the last eight weeks reclaimed from the Singapore Government (capped at a maximum of S$20,000). For third and subsequent births, the full 16 weeks are funded by the Government.
Employees who not eligible for maternity benefits under the CDCSA (for example, if the child is not a Singapore citizen) can still receive an aggregate of 12 weeks' maternity leave under the EA, of which eight weeks are paid and four weeks are unpaid. In addition, subject to certain eligibility requirements, the Singapore Government has introduced various benefits to encourage working mothers, including one week shared parental leave with the father; up to two weeks' paid paternity leave and up to six days' paid childcare leave.
However, various NGOs have pointed out that despite a high number of pregnancy-related claims for unfair dismissal, prosecutions are rare and weak penalties for violations have made the law ineffective as a deterrent. The EA contains no protections against pregnancy discrimination in the recruitment process and maternity protections do not apply to migrant workers, who can be deported if they test positive during compulsory pregnancy checks.
Despite the lack of formal anti-discrimination laws, gender diversity is increasingly recognised in Singapore as essential to robust decision-making and enhanced corporate governance and performance. The Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices has set out guiding principles for all employers in Singapore:
- Recruit and select employees on the basis of merit, regardless of age, race, gender, religion, marital status and family responsibilities or disability.
- Treat employees fairly and with respect and implement progressive human resource management systems.
- Provide employees with equal opportunity to be considered for training and development based on their strengths and needs to help them achieve their full potential.
- Reward employees fairly based on their ability, performance, contribution and experience.
These and similar policies appear to be working. The Diversity Action Committee's latest report on women's representation in SGX-listed companies shows an increase of 10% in the number of female directors on boards. At the beginning of 2015, women held 8.8% of the directorships on companies listed on the SGX. Women directors accounted for 25% of the overall increase in directorships in 2014, with the biggest percentage increase in the number of female directors at companies with a market capitalisation of over SGD 1 billion.
However, over half the companies listed on the SGX have entirely male boards and Singapore trails behind other international financial markets in terms of women’s representation. Whilst the most marked gains are in Europe, Singapore also loses out to China (13.2%), Indonesia (11.6%), Hong Kong (11.1%), India (10.6%) and Malaysia (10.2%).