NTU, are you sexist?

Chua Yini

— September 14th, 2011, 12.48am

Last Monday, at the much-anticipated Dialogue with Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the following exchange occurred between the former prime minister and Joan Sim, a 27-year-old female PhD student:

Mr Lee: how old are you now?

Ms Sim: I’m 27 this year.

Mr Lee: You are…?

Ms Sim: 27.

Mr Lee: Are you married? [audience laughs] You’re doing a PhD?

Ms Sim: Yes.

Mr Lee: And when will you finish your PhD?

Ms Sim: In another two years. [laughter from audience]

Mr Lee: Are you married?

Ms Sim: [shakes head]

Mr Lee: have you got a boyfriend? [laughter and clapping from audience]

Ms Sim: No. [laughter from audience]

Mr Lee: Childbearing years are until 35. After 35, the dangers of having mongoloid children, Down’s Syndrome, in other words, a dull person, rises. So, my advice is, please don’t waste time. It’s more important and more satisfying than your PhD. Good luck to you, I hope you get your PhD and your boyfriend.

The exchange occurred after Ms Sim asked Mr Lee about Singapore’s social cohesiveness given that a large number of foreign immigrants had been accepted. The latter replied that Singapore needs to accept a sizeable number of immigrants to counter her ageing population and low birth rate, and started to quiz her about her personal life.

Singapore’s newspapers portrayed it as a humorous exchange.

The Straits Times wrote: “Mr Lee then turned the tables on Ms Sim and started gently quizzing her about her personal life, to the surprise and amusement of the audience.”

TODAY described Mr Lee’s comment as a ‘quip’, saying that “…Mr Lee quipped to rapturous applause…”

What the newspapers failed to include, apart from the ‘rapturous applause’ was the raucous laughter of the audience present at the dialogue, both male and female.

At that point in time, as I was surrounded by my fellow university undergraduates laughing and clapping about a highly educated and intelligent woman being interrogated in public about her personal and reproductive life, I felt disillusioned and strangely disconnected from them.

I could not understand why people would find the exchange entertaining, much less express their amusement in such blatant ways. The whole incident left a bad taste in my mouth and made me think about the value of education here in Singapore.

How could such obvious sexist undertones of Mr Lee’s comments slip by, undetected, among the supposedly more educated, independent and intelligent citizens in Singapore?

To make sure I wasn’t being oversensitive, I consulted Assistant Professor Emma Jane, whom agreed that Ms Sim had been treated unfairly.

The 35-year-old, who teaches gender history in NTU, said: “The fact that so many people laughed suggests that there is a lack of awareness to the problem of sexual discrimination.

“The demeaning reduction of a woman to her reproductive status is a classic technique of disempowerment, one that has frequently been used to socialize women into believing that ability to reproduce constitutes her most important function for society.”

Likewise, in a letter to the Straits Times Forum, AWARE president Nicole Tan stated: “Implying that marriage and motherhood are more important than education and work belittles the choices and contributions of women who prefer to be single or childless.”

Unfortunately, race and religious issues are landmines in Singapore while sexism remains an uncharted territory.

Students are conditioned to exercise caution when handling racial and religious issues, but since sexism has never been mentioned explicitly by the government and our moral education textbooks in secondary school, we are almost running blind in the uncharted territory of sexism.

Therefore, I wouldn’t say that the people who laughed at the dialogue are sexist but they are most certainly ignorant and insensitive.

Adding on the pressure to reproduce is our local newspapers’ extensive coverage on our ageing population, which seems to point the finger at women putting off marriage or choosing not to have children.

It does not help that respected figures like Mr Lee are making statements that may seem pragmatic at first glance but actually have the negative effect of perpetuating sexism in Singapore.

To all intelligent and confident Singaporean women out there: Do you think that getting married and having children are more important than your education?

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Disclaimer: Comments left on articles in The Enquirer are contributions from readers and do not reflect the views of the editorial team. The Enquirer is not responsible for the comments and reserves the right to remove any comments deemed inflammatory or in bad taste.

  1. I think, you think, he thinks, she thinks. Everybody has got an opinion. Opinions aren’t mandatory to be acted upon.

    This is a ministerial forum with LKY. Hence, LKY gave his honest opinion based on his own experience, coupled with the state of things in Singapore (abysmal birth rates).

    LKY did not imply that marriage and child rearing was more important than education. He said that marriage and child rearing are more important than a PHD. Given the policies the govt has implemented (compulsory education up till primary 6, and almost everyone goes on to secondary school as well), im very sure he isnt saying that marriage+childbearing > education.

    It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Get a good education, but also, get a boyfriend and hopefully get married and bear children.

    Is it really worth pursuing a career at the cost of being unmarried (if it had to come to choosing between one or the other)? Regardless of your answer, it’s your own opinion. LKY is entitled to one as well (and that’s the purpose of the forum, to get his opinion right?).

  2. Hi Jon,

    I think you’re missing the point here. The article is simply asking why is it the woman’s responsibility to ensure birthrates? Would this conversation take place if the other party was a male?

    Cheers, JJ

  3. As blunt as it may sound, yes woman do hold a certain amount of responsibility when it comes to the issue of declining birthrates by the simple fact that women are the only sex that can actually reproduce. I am not saying that men should not be responsible too or that women should be forced to have children but women must accept that because they are the only gender that can create another human being and the choice of whether to have children is theirs, a large part of the responsibility is on their shoulders.

  4. While I do think our low birth rate is of significant concern, I don’t think women pursuing higher education should be an issue. Wanting to pursue a PhD is a valid career choice and everyone should be respected for choosing what they want in life. If you look at celebrities, most of them only choose to get married and have children into their 30s.

    I read this off an acquaintance’s Facebook comment which I felt to be true. “A man may leave you, but your qualifications will stay with you for life”. Should I one day get married, have kids but unfortunately get divorced, I would like something to fall back on and that’s where my career comes in, just that something else to invest my time and energy in.

  5. what blatant insensitivity. No figures have the right to determine, ” in their advice” , whether childbearing or higher education should be more important or satisfying. this is no difference from propaganda at a higher level and the fact that the government have chosen to take the easy way out by opening doors to immigrants have already further discouraged locals to focus first on having a family as survival is clearly at stake for the general public as inflation and foreign competition increases. Those who laughed were clearly high likely ignorant of the significance and impacts of sexism.

  6. inspector fu


    September 14th, 2011 at 11.21pm

    Yeah, it’s sexist. Not only that, it’s a red herring fallacy. Her personal life has nothing to do with economic policy and it’s pretty insulting to not just her but women everywhere.

    So this is the best and brightest of Singapore, laughing with a sexist old curmudgeon at a woman for not being married. Staggering.

  7. All this silliness about women being responsible for child-bearing, pfft…

    I totally think the govt should and all this nonsense and push for men to have ovaries implanted into them. You know, with those magical stem-cell thingys.

    And honestly, while we’re at it, let’s make it really clear that we should restrict this freedom of speech thing to members of the public only. Politicians can only say what we approve, you know, ‘cos it’s upsetting to hear stuff and no one likes to be upset.

    It’ll grind the whole nation to a halt and have a whole lot of outraged folks calling huge groups of other folks insensitive and sexist.

    Who wants that?

  8. The State does not own my womb, nor my ovaries, nor my vagina. And most of all, not my reproductive choices. It’s as simple as that.

  9. It is easy to comment after what had happen. sexist or not who knows. but what if we look into another of view Mr Lee is just trying to imply that our generation is so indulge in pursuing our education and lifestyle that we are missing out something humane? we all talk about how our government is treating Singapore like a machine/factory. But what are we Singaporeans doing?

    I solely believe woman can be much more intelligent than man and stuff. But at the end of your day what do you bring to your life? Man as well, we are all thriving for something that makes us comfortable. Thus i say both education and having a family is important. No one is stopping to continue pursuing your education even if you are married?

  10. Hi in regards to your title Is ntu sexist?- I’d just like to point out that before Ms Sim, there was a guy, also 27, phd student, who asked Mr Lee a question. This guy got the same treatment from Mr Lee, i.e was asked whether he was married or not and stuff. Same treatment from the audience -i.e the laughter. So if ntu is ‘sexist’, they are ‘sexist’ to both genders.

    I also think that the laughter from the audience during ms sim’s exchange was partly triggered by the similarity of Mr Lee’s response to the phd guy before her, and not exactly to humiliate her. If you realise, in your transcript of the exchange, the first wave of laughter came straight after Mr Lee posed the question, and not when she answered no. This is partly from the unexpectedness of Mr Lee’s completely unrelated response to her question on immigration, and also partly due to the similarity of the precious exchange with the male phd student. my main point is that the audience was first amused by elements of the exchange that are not sexist-related. I can argue for the rest of the instances of laughter but that would go into subjectivity of interpretation, which makes it rather debatable.

    Im not saying that there are no sexist notions in the audience laughter. Some could be laughing for sexist reasons and others, just the pure absurdity of the exchange, how ‘unrelated’ and blatant Mr Lee’s agenda was. My main point is that there are many other elements in that context and that point in time that makes the exchange hilarious to the audience.

    If you meant that the audience should be taking offence at the situation and not seeing the hilarity, I would propose that because the phd MALE student before her had the same treatment, ntu did not interpret mr lee’s exchange as sexist in that context and that point in time. This is restricted ONLY to the excerpt of conversation that you have transcribed above. I believe that most of us feel differently and MOSTLY shocked at the comment about marriage, kids vs phd advice.

    In regards to your point on the laughter and your title- is ntu sexist? : I think you have misinterpreted the audience’s laughter. I believe the laughter was directed at Mr Lee’s unexpected question posed to Ms Sim. It was a surprisingly personal question, one that is not expected of the context of a ministerial forum. Studying your transcription of the exchange:

    Mr Lee: Are you married? [audience laughs] You’re doing a PhD?

    Ms Sim: Yes.

    ** Note that the first laughter came straight after Mr Lee posed the question and not after she said no. It shows us that this is the point where the audience was amused. Not at the fact that she Mr Lee: And when will you finish your PhD?

    Ms Sim: In another two years. [laughter from audience]

    Mr Lee: Are you married?

    Ms Sim: [shakes head]

    Mr Lee: have you got a boyfriend? [laughter and clapping from audience] Ms Sim: No. [laughter from audience]

    a guy was asked the same question before ms sim

  11. I find it interesting the whole sexism thing is being batted back and forth and nobody recognizes that Mr. Lee then says “mongoloid children, Down’s Syndrome, in other words, a dull person, rises”

    I have a daughter with DS and I find this kind of outdated language (mongoloid) and devaluation (‘dull person”) both hurtful and dangerous. The crime rate against people with DS is astronomical! 2 times to 3 times likely to be victims of violent crime or sexual assault. This kind of language tells people that treating humans with Down syndrome as something less than human is okay. That is both dangerous and shameful!

  12. John Schmidt


    September 15th, 2011 at 10.11am

    I think everyone is being oversensitive here. Stop looking at “underlying” issues that don’t exist. You can justify an orange out of meatloaf, but it doesn’t mean there was one in the first place.

    The issue was having more foreign immigrants accepted due to the ageing population and low birth rate. So of course if by showing that a lady such as her isn’t doing what only women can do, then why is it an issue in the first place. I wouldn’t make sense asking a man to raise the birth rate would it? It’ll just spark a whole new sexist debate about how man treat women like objects, etc.

    The crux of the issue is ignored in favor of finding fault where there is none. Stop being oversensitive; grow up.

  13. It is so easy to heap blame on women for not doing their ‘job’ as only they have the reproductive ability to bear children. How about looking at this issue from a more objective distance and see how societal expectations of career, financial stability has reduced the notion of raising children into a mere battle of economic figures? Is it not illogical to simply raise children to meet ‘quotas’ or to perform ‘national duty’? The entire beauty and notion of family and raising children has just been reduced to a bare statements balancing between economic benefits and disadvantages.

    How about looking at the issue from a more holistic perspective and see how social expectations and gender roles can be reshaped to become more pro-family? Stop calling out women to ‘grow up’ or ‘stop being oversensitive’. It is exactly this type of misogyny perpetuating as a ‘reality’ that puts women off.

  14. @John Schmidt:

    “grow up”? That’s the best you can do?

    So a “grown-up” person should simply accept that a politician has the right to chide a woman on her reproductive and/or life choices and priorities, in a public forum?

    “oversensitive”? That’s your conclusion?

    So a person of acceptable sensitivity should not feel any discomfort or irritation when it is publicly suggested that her choice of whether or not to be in a relationship, get married, have children — that these decisions must take into acount the fertility rates in her country?

    And the last time I checked, men do play a very significant part in deciding whether or not to do any of the above. It should be, and often is, a joint decision between the man and woman.

    But maybe not for you, John, given how “grown up” you are.

    And don’t be offended, as that would only make you “oversensitive”.