Yesterday when I picked my daughter up from school, I asked her if she would like to visit Parliament and watch the Prime Minister speak.
“YES!” she squealed, promising not to dawdle with lunch so that we could make our way there as soon as possible. She made good on her word and we were there to catch a few speeches before the Prime Minister was scheduled to speak.
Our visit to the seat of Singapore’s government has been in the works since the General Elections in July.
My daughter, Phoebe, is 8 years old.
During the hustings this year, she started taking a keen interest in the campaigns of the political parties. She read all the facts and figures, researched the names of constituencies, parties and candidates, and studied the infographics put out by news outlets. Online and TV rallies actually made it easier for her to soak in all that was happening. She didn’t understand everything; I think it was the excitement of a contest that entertained her.
On Election Day, she wanted to know who I had voted for. “Just tell me, is it PAP or Opposition? Pleease….” I coyly avoided answering her, saying “my vote is secret,” and she would mock-growl at me in jest.
That night she pleaded with me to let her stay up late (“tomorrow is a public holiday!”), or wake her up when the results started rolling in. I opted for the latter, waking her up just in time for the Sengkang GRC result, what else?
Before Parliament reopened, Phoebe followed the swearing in of the Cabinet and closely watched President Halimah Yacob’s address on Aug 24.
“What happens after this?” she asked. I explained how motions and parliamentary debates happened, and the fundamentals of the Westminster parliamentary system.
But I could see that watching little snippets of debates on YouTube were not going to cut it, she wanted to watch the real thing.
An odd sight
A child walking into Parliament naturally draws some stares. In fact, the guards on duty were not sure whether a child was permitted to be let in (they are, from the age of six).
Outside the Strangers’ Gallery, the attendant briefed us on the appropriate decorum upon entering. Phoebe lapped it all up and I think, performed her bow to the Speaker better than I did. I was amused when she recognised the MPs even behind their masks, and watched her fangirling over some of them. I thank the lady MP who waved at her.
I’m so grateful that we attended yesterday’s (Sept 2) sitting. Let me explain why.
The first speech we caught was by MP Louis Ng. He proposed ways to make workplaces more inclusive and less discriminatory against women.
Don’t label women simply as “mothers”, he said, sharing a story about a constituent who told him that during an interview, the HR person called her a mother before calling her name. MP Ng quoted his constituent saying: “…the focus should be on whether we (women) are up for the job, it should not be on whether we are a mother, and then assumed that we are not able to do the role.”
I quietly cheered into my mask when he talked about gender stereotypes and the perception that “only women take care of babies”; the example he raised was how nappy changing stations were often found in women’s toilets and not the men’s. My children are way past the nappy-wearing stage, but it irks me to see this perception is something that persists in Singapore!
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He also spoke about the difficulties of parents who have differently-abled children and called for more inclusivity in the community and removing the labels in society – all issues close to my heart.
Then first-time MP Carrie Tan, founder of Daughters of Tomorrow, spoke. She called for a mindset shift in the way society views welfare and social assistance, by referring to recipients as “challenged” instead of “needy”.
“Let’s remove the shame of people feeling that if they resort to welfare, …[it] is because they did not try hard enough,’ she said. In the last few months where I’ve been writing for The Pride, this is an issue that I’ve come to understand with more depth.
Ms Tan talked about the pressures and penalties mothers face, when they choose to stay home and take care of their children. “Once a woman bears children and stays home to rear them for a few years, there is little chance, if ever, that her income can catch up again with the level she would have gotten.”
I looked at my eight-year-old girl and hoped that Phoebe would one day understand the choice I made to be a stay-at-home mother. I was glad that these issues were being debated by the nation’s lawmakers and hoped that when she grows up, she would not face the same difficult choices women today have to grapple with.
Clash of titans
Finally it was PM Lee’s speech. I got misty-eyed when PM’s voice cracked as he said, “Our economy will prosper anew. Our children and our grandchildren will continue marching forward to build a fairer, ever more just and equal society.”
Was it my imagination that when he said that, some MPs looked up at our gallery to look at the youngest person in the room?
The energy in the room picked up even more as PM Lee sparred with Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh.
I glanced over at my daughter, intrigued that she was leaning forward in her seat, straining to capture every word that was being said. “How could she not be bored by adults talking endlessly about subjects that she had no clue about?” I asked myself in amazement.
Then I understood. A child knows when something important is happening, even if they don’t comprehend the substance of it. I know this as a children’s author, and I know this as a mother – children have a sharp antennae for what is true and noble. My daughter was witnessing for the first time in Singapore’s post-independence history, the leader of the ruling party and the Leader of the Opposition were having a fiery exchange in a dignified manner.
After two hours of speeches, we had to leave to get home in time for dinner and make sure my older child had reached home safely. But the one by my side was still glued to her seat.
She gestured that Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat was still talking. “Our future PM, you know,” she whispered. I sighed. “OK, well, he’s got two minutes to wrap up,” I whispered back, starting the countdown that all parents resort to when they need compliance in a hurry.
As we left the building, we felt so buoyed by what we had witnessed. “Did you enjoy that, Phoebe?” Her girlish grin and thumbs up meant everything to me.
I gave her a big hug and said: “Thanks for bringing Mummy to Parliament, Phoebe.”