Turning women into vote gatherers

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Women can be a potent force in politics, says Ms Indranee Rajah - but they need to be attracted the right way into discussion groups.

"If you put it across as 'this is about politics', most women won't gravitate towards it. But if you say, 'this is about education', poom! Everybody will be there. It's about how you frame it," said Ms Indranee, who is Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law.

"Ultimately if you talk about childcare, housing, family and education, all of which are big pieces of policy, women are front and centre. Participation is vocal and active," she pointed out.

As the PAP Women's Wing (WW) vice chairman for outreach, Ms Indranee sees her role as ensuring Singaporean women understand what the PAP stands for and why its policies benefit them.

"We want to get their understanding and support on policies. That's a minimum. At a deeper level, hopefully they will become activists, and eventually we can find who can stand as candidates, become MPs, and hopefully office holders," she said.

In the just-concluded GE2015, the PAP fielded 20 women candidates, all of whom were returned as MPs. Women activists were out in force, rallying voters to support the PAP.

The WW aims to reach out to a broad range of women, including professionals, housewives and those involved in grassroots and community work through different platforms.

Young professional women, for example, can take part in a networking initiative called the Young Women's Leadership Connection.

The WW is also trying to inculcate the understanding that being a woman activist goes beyond organising party activities and social work. Rather, women activists have to rally people to their views by word of mouth and social media and through it, turn them into PAP voters.

Women are quite excited about their role as vote gatherers and are raring to go. But some skills need to be developed, noted Ms Indranee.

"Social media is not easy. If you're not experienced, you'd be afraid of trolls and nastiness. Activists have to be focused on not being afraid when you get some nastiness on the Web. At the end, it is about who you are, what you stand for, what you support. You should not be afraid," she said.

An event held earlier this year introduced around 200 participants to the Telegram messaging application. Telegram allows groups of up to 200 people to be created where messages, photos, videos, and even word documents and MP3 music files can be shared.

"We want to help women to become more comfortable with technology. Some women, especially the older ones, who do not use technology day to day, are less comfortable," Ms Indranee said.

To attract potential activists, the WW conducts a handful of small discussion groups a year. Each group comprises 10 people or fewer, brought in through word of mouth. "It's most effective to do this in a small group. Not everyone is comfortable in a big crowd," she observed.


Women as influencers of national policies

Discussion groups and outreach events have an impact on PAP policies and eventually national policies, she pointed out.

Take the five-day work week introduced in 2004. It took in feedback from women on work life balance and the need to spend time with their families during weekends, Ms Indranee recalled. Women's views also play a key role in determining policy in areas like education, security, and tackling domestic violence. The priority now is ensuring sufficient childcare facilities.

"The heavier burden falls upon women. When we do our walkabouts or outreach events, we find that many grandparents are ageing and cannot look after their grandchildren.

"We are looking at the issue. You see the Ministry of Social and Family Development ramping up on childcare and infant care. In schools, you can see the Ministry of Education increasing the number of student care centres. That's the direction we must go," she said.

Ultimately, the WW gives women a chance to make a difference in Singapore.

"As a woman, you can do so because you have a voice. You have a great influence in the family, you influence your children, your husband confides to you. You are representative of half the population, and you can actually influence the other half. You can step up and make a difference, pointed out Ms Indranee.


Indranee's advice to women: Speak up

When Indranee Rajah was in her early 30s, she found it difficult to understand men. "There would be these misunderstandings that I just couldn't understand, and I thought I should figure this out.

She picked up a famous book on communication across genders: John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

She learnt that one key difference between the two sexes is how women are hesitant to speak up.

"When I sat back and thought about it, I realised it's quite true. I'd have thoughts going on in my head, and I wouldn't speak up because I was afraid other people would think I'm stupid, I'm in the company of people who all seem so smart," recalled Ms Indranee. She was then a junior partner at law firm Drew & Napier.

"I realised that if you don't speak up, you're firstly not contributing what may actually have been a good idea... if it's a stupid idea, then too bad, but at least you know it. Once this was brought to my attention, with the book highlighting it like that, I realised I should speak up and that was it," she said.

Ms Indranee spoke up more - and was pleasantly pleased by the outcome.

"I was surprised that people thought what I said made sense. In some cases, we couldn't run with the idea due to costs or other reasons, but it was thought through and considered. Just the process of tossing it out and having people brainstorm was very interesting. Somebody can take it and say, how about this, they add something to it…at the end of the day, you get a great product."

Thus in her dialogue sessions with women, Ms Indranee says she makes it a point to encourage the quieter ones to speak up.

"Once I realised that speaking up was part of the process (of making a great product), it's very empowering. It makes you realise everybody has something to contribute."

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of Petir Magazine.

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Published by and at the directions of People's Action Party
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