A voice for the less advantaged

Singapore’s first woman Nominated MP Kanwaljit Soin says moving the Family Violence Bill in 1995 was her biggest achievement.

Dr Kanwaljit Soin, 73, was the first woman Nominated MP and stood out not only for her suggestions but also for asking several questions in Parliament.

When the papers reported in 1992 that the Government was looking for a new batch of Nominated MPs, many people were very excited.

I was president of the Association of Women for Action and Research at that time, so I rang up a few women and said: "Please apply." They all said no.

I then decided I had no moral right to persuade them to do something I wasn't doing myself. So I applied, even though I had no idea what a parliamentarian did.

When I met civil servants, they would tell me: "Do you know, every time you ask a question, it costs the civil service money? We have to do research to answer it."

But that meant I got a lot of statistics from the Government, because it had to reply to me.

If there's one thing Parliament taught me, it's that if you want to be in any area of policymaking, it's important to get the statistics right.

If the statistics are wrong, you get shot down and the rest of what you're trying to say gets lost.

What I really consider my biggest achievement was moving the Family Violence Bill in 1995.

Even though it was defeated then, many of its provisions were subsequently incorporated into the Women's Charter.

Two things I suggested in Parliament have become a reality: I wanted an educational (Edusave) account set up for every adult Singaporean, and a medical savings account set up for every elderly Singaporean.

So 20 years down the line, both my dreams have been fulfilled by the SkillsFuture Credit scheme and the Pioneer Generation Package.

When you look at society in general, business, government and civil society are the three legs of the stool, but it's only recently that policymakers in Singapore have realised that it's prudent to include civil society in decision-making.

If the stakeholders are just business and government, they sometimes don't see the point of view of the rest of society, especially the disadvantaged.

There are a lot of Singaporeans who haven't done as well as the country's indicators seem to suggest. They still need people to advocate for them, bring out their difficulties, and try to make it such that more people get a share of the pie.

I feel in particular for the elderly. They are poorer in general, and things like the Silver Support Scheme and the Pioneer Generation Package are just the beginning. We can still do better - we need to give them some autonomy and dignity. We retire way too early in Singapore. Even when I was in Parliament, we were talking about moving it up to 67.

Why hasn't it changed yet? Why is there even a retirement age at all? Older people have institutional memory, they have built networks and they are loyal to organisations.

People should be allowed to work for as long as they think they can, and as long as their employer finds them producing good work.

This article was first published on May 17, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.