SINGAPORE -- When Singaporeans go to the polls to elect a new government on Friday, the People's Action Party is all but certain to emerge victorious. It will also be a watershed moment for female politicians in the city-state.
A record 40 women are vying for seats in parliament, up from the 36 who contested the 2011 election and 35 in 2015. The ruling PAP, which until recently enjoyed a near-monopoly on political talent, is fielding 25 women among its 93 candidates, versus 20 five years ago. That is more than all the other parties combined.
The Workers' Party -- Singapore's largest opposition group and the only major party chaired by a woman, Sylvia Lim -- is running five women on its slate of 21 candidates, a similar number to the last polls. And the new Progress Singapore Party counts five women among its 24 would-be lawmakers.
It appears likely that the elected composition of the next parliament will be just shy of 30% female, a longtime target of activists. "When you have that critical mass, women politicians are seen as normal," said Corinna Lim, executive director of the Association of Women for Action and Research, or Aware. "There'll be less attention to the fact that a person is female and she'll be judged on her own terms."
Observers also say that there has been unprecedented substantive discussion of gender during this campaign. The Workers' Party manifesto, which dwells at length on issues like the gender pay gap and the need to compensate unpaid household labor, has been praised for its progressiveness. The PAP has dedicated at least two lengthy Facebook Live sessions to issues like violence against women and female participation in the economy.
"Having [this many] women candidates on board is probably the reason why all the main parties focus on such issues," said Lim.
While Singaporean women have outnumbered men in higher education for some time, female political representation has lagged behind. The World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap Index ranks Singapore 92nd for political empowerment, lower than South Korea and Indonesia. When the government named a 17-member task force to guide Singapore's post-coronavirus economic recovery, critics pointed out there were just two women.
Female politicians have also faced online harassment with gendered language. When Tin Pei Ling, a millennial PAP lawmaker, first stood for parliament in 2011, a Facebook photo of her posing alongside a designer handbag drew much vitriol. (She was subsequently re-elected by a sizable margin.) Nicole Seah, who is now running for the Workers' Party, was previously mocked for tearing up while campaigning.
"It's a reflection of how harsh the public can be to female politicians," said Tania Lim, a lecturer at Australia's Murdoch University who studies how women are portrayed in Singaporean media. "Weeping women and materialistic women. ... These are labels that people hang on to which reflect very negative stereotypes."
Additionally, gender parity in politics has been held back by traditional attitudes that judge women for not putting their families first. When opposition politician Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss ran for office in 2011 and 2015, she recalls that voters occasionally asked for the age of her children.
"People might feel uncomfortable if you say you were a mom to young kids and ask why you're not spending more time with them," said Chong-Aruldoss, who is not a candidate this year. "That conflict with family is still on people's minds."
Many backbenchers also have a full-time job alongside their legislative duties, which increases the burden on women. "If you are already a caregiver, then being a member of parliament is your third job," said Aware's Lim. "You have to be very lucky to have an extremely supportive spouse who is willing to give up some of their career pursuits, but house husbands are very rare in Singapore."
During two recent televised debates featuring senior politicians, there were no female candidates on stage. And there were just three female cabinet ministers in the outgoing government -- a record that indicates that increased female political participation has not fully penetrated the uppermost levels. This partly reflects the ruling party's habit of drawing former members of Singapore's male-dominated military and business community into politics.
There were more cabinet ministers who held general or rear admiral ranks in the armed forces than women.
But that too is changing, said Corinna Lim. Several women who held senior military positions are contesting Friday's polls, including Gan Siow Huang, Singapore's first female general and a PAP candidate. Another of the ruling party's new stars is Mariam Jaafar, one of Boston Consulting Group's senior leaders in Southeast Asia.
There are signs that a younger generation of female politicians will play a different role from their older counterparts. The latter have focused on bread-and-butter issues like the economy and emphasized authoritativeness "rather than seeking to appeal [through] the softer qualities that we tend to associate with female politicians," said Murdoch University's Lim.
By contrast, millennial women like Tin are known for engaging on topics ranging from the role of migrant workers in Singaporean society, to mental health and the challenges facing single parents. "These are issues which non-female politicians in parliament probably don't want to address," said the academic. "So at least they've created space for discussion ... on causes that go beyond traditional economic and family issues."
Two other female candidates that have caught the public's attention are the PAP's Carrie Tan and Raeesah Khan of the Workers' Party. Both come from feminist activist backgrounds that are relatively unusual in contemporary elected politics.
Khan has been compared to the firebrand U.S. Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her popularity with Generation Z and millennial internet users -- and the backlash she has received from conservatives. The 26-year-old, who is under police investigation for remarks made on alleged class and racial discrimination by law enforcement, has apologized for her comments and stressed that she was seeking to highlight the concerns of minorities.
Another issue that Aware's Lim hopes female lawmakers will tackle is a sharp rise in sex crimes. While Singapore's crime rate remains extremely low by global standards, the combined number of rape and "outrage of modesty" molestation offenses increased by 35% between 2016 and 2018, government data show. The British version of the youth culture publication Vice recently asked if Singapore's "pervert problem" was worsening.
"The government has made our laws very progressive and modern to deal with technology-facilitated sexual violence," said Lim, who is calling on legislators to turn their efforts to creating a more supportive environment for victims who want to file police reports.
Even as they laud the increased number of female politicians, some also say they hope the focus on gender diversity will not minimize the electorate's desire for partisan pluralism. Opposition leaders have recently raised the possibility of the PAP sweeping all elected seats on Friday.
"Before we get to that, we need more diversity of ideology in parliament," said Chong-Aruldoss, who is volunteering for Workers' Party candidates. "The ruling party has a supermajority, [so how can] we talk about representation in gender, when we don't even have a diversity of views to begin with?"