International Women’s Day Edition: The ’80s – Mrs. Josephine Teo

This is 1 of the 11 interview features as part of our International Women’s Day Special Edition.

By Shaun Loh (21A01A) 

RJC alumnus Minister of Manpower (MOM) Josephine Teo is the third woman to be made a full minister in Singapore’s history after Lim Hwee Hua and Grace Fu. I spoke to MOM Mrs. Teo on her time in Raffles, her opinions on gender-related issues in our corporate landscape today and words of advice for younger women aspiring towards leadership. 

  1. What are your fondest memories of studying at RJC? What were the best things to do in the Mount Sinai Campus back in the 80s’? 

Whenever an RJC team got to a decisive round of a major sporting competition, we would all get time off from lessons to go support them. These announcements over the PA system were inevitably greeted with enthusiastic approval. The competitions themselves were always tense in an enjoyable way. Regardless of the outcome, we would have cheered till our voices were hoarse.  If our team won, we’d get a bonus day off.  There was always one competition or other and yet somehow, in between, we managed to study.

As for the Campus, everything was nice and new. Its proximity to Ghim Moh market was an absolute delight.

2. What was your favourite subject in RJC, and what extracurricular activities did you partake in? 

I’m afraid it was not academic. I played basketball but a lot less than in high school. College was enjoyable because of the social activities. That’s important. We were all reasonably good in our studies. We also needed to learn about getting along with people and building relationships.  These life skills are indispensable.

3. What aspect of politics excites you the most?

The potential to do good at scale and shape a better future for many people.

4. In Parliament last year, you reported on our public sector utilisation rate of paternity leave exceeding that of countries like Denmark, which is well known for its family-friendly policies. How else do you think we can reshape gender norms on parenting in Singapore?  

It begins with the choices we make as individuals. For example, if you are a new father and your wife has a potential career-lifting opportunity, would you be prepared to shift your own focus to the family for a few years to support her advancement? Likewise for women, can we give space for our husbands to take the lead in parenting, accepting their differing styles and priorities?  Full partnership in parenting is not easy to achieve, but well worth the pursuit.

At the broader level, employers and companies can do their part by providing family-friendly workplaces for employees – both men and women. This includes recognising the important roles that fathers play and supporting them when they take Paternity Leave, Shared Parental Leave and Childcare Leave to spend time with their families. It’s win-win, really – organisations with progressive practices tend to better attract and retain talent.

5. If you could give one piece of advice for young women aspiring to join politics, or rise up the corporate ladder, what would that be?

Years ago, I came across a quote of unknown authorship: “Don’t climb the ladder only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall.”

Few significant things in life are achievable without effort and some sacrifice. It is therefore important to be clear about our aims and why they matter. At the same time, we need to set personal “red lines” beyond which we refuse to cross. For me, honesty and integrity, marriage and family are paramount.  If I must compromise on these to do my job well, there’s no doubt in my mind that it is the job that must give way. Whatever you set your sights on will still be a hard slog, but hopefully, one with more lasting satisfaction than regrets.

6. What do you envision for women in Singapore in 2030?

Around the world, women have been disproportionately hit by the effects of COVID-19. But in Singapore, management of the pandemic and budgetary interventions have cushioned the impact on everyone including women. Our female labour force participation rate actually continued its uptrend in 2020.  This fact alone is remarkable.  It speaks to our women’s resilience as well as the broad support of our society for women.

Beyond employment, we must keep improving support for caregiving so that women can exercise a real choice.  Women deserve the opportunity to fulfil both their family and career aspirations, and to have their talents benefit society in multiple ways.  Singapore is doing a lot more, whether in terms of quality and affordable preschool education or elder care. Over the next 10 years, I hope these efforts will allow every woman to succeed in any domain they choose, and still care for the people they love.

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