[About this blog] Inspired by local soccer player Mike Lim during my rookie reporter days at Singapore Polytechnic, I set up this blog in August 2002. I feel that blogging is a novel platform to document interesting facets of my life and my thoughts on certain issues. [Email blogger] ephraim@singnet.com.sg

Thursday, March 06, 2008

[Her World Woman of the Year]
1. Let me first apologize for my wife's absence this evening. She wanted to be here but has to host a function for some foreign visitors. In fact, she was the one who persuaded me to accept this invitation from Her World.

2. Since the organizers of this evening's event told me I could dispense with a formal speech about foreign affairs, which I'm sure is as much a relief for you as for me, let me read out excerpts from a passage I received by email a few days ago. It is titled: Why I Love Mum. Those of you who've already seen it, please bear with me. "Mum and Dad were watching TV when Mum said, 'I'm tired, and it's getting late. I think I'll go to bed.' She went to the kitchen to make sandwiches for the next day's lunches. Rinsed out the popcorn bowls, took meat out of the freezer for dinner the following evening, checked the cereal box levels, filled the sugar container and put spoons and bowls on the table. She then put some wet clothes in the dryer, put a load of clothes into the washer, ironed a shirt and secured a loose button. She picked up the game pieces left on the table, put the phone back on the charger and put the telephone book into the drawer. Mum then washed her face with 3 in 1 cleanser, put on her Night solution & age fighting moisturiser, brushed and flossed her teeth and filed her nails. Dad called out, 'I thought you were going to bed.' 'I'm on my way,' she said. She looked in on each of the kids and turned out their bedside lamps.., hung up a shirt, threw some dirty socks into the basket, and had a brief conversation with the one up still doing homework. In her own room, she set the alarm; laid out clothing for the next day, straightened up the shoe rack. She said her prayers, and visualised the accomplishment of her goals. About that time, Dad turned off the TV and announced to no one in particular. 'I'm going to bed.'"

3. It is tough being a mother. And it is tougher still for career women. Watching my female colleagues in Parliament, I know how difficult it is for them to juggle so many balls at the same time. Many of them are superwomen.

4. The differences between fathers and mothers or, more generally, those between men and women, are deep in our being. I am not making a plea for men to be better understood, just stating what I think is a fact. Some years ago, when I was Health Minister, I had an interesting conversation with Dr K C Tan, our top liver transplant surgeon. He specializes in taking a piece of the liver from a parent and transplanting it into a child who needs a new liver. Dr Tan told me that the plumbings of a child are tiny compared to those of an adult and you have to be skilful in connecting big tubes and very small ones. I then asked him whether he preferred to take the piece from the father or mother. He said, if both have suitable livers, the mother, anytime. Why? I asked. He replied that, if it is from a father, the first thing he thinks of after recovering consciousness from general anaesthesia is his own pain. As for the mother, her only concern is how well the child is doing.

5. How much of the difference between genders is inborn and how much is cultural is still unclear. In the 60’s and 70’s, the view that differences were principally due to differences in upbringing gained currency. A fascinating book published in 2005 by Leonard Sax called ‘Why Gender Matters’ quoted one professor explaining why boys and girls behaved differently: “ Because we expect them to. Imagine a world in which we raised girls to play with tanks and trucks, in which we encouraged boys to play with dolls. Imagine a world in which we played rough-and-tumble games with girls while we cuddled and hugged the boys. In such a world, many of the differences we see in how girls and boys behave – maybe even all the differences – would vanish.”

6. Such a view is way too extreme. It has now been scientifically established that there are important differences between the way the male brain works and the way the female brain works. One day after birth, baby girls are much more interested in faces while baby boys would rather train their eyes on mobile toys. Leonard Sax cited studies of primates – monkeys, baboons and chimpanzees. “Male monkeys do wild and crazy things, just like teenage boys. For example, these researchers found that male monkeys take stupid risks around highways: they try to scamper across a highway, only to be crushed by an oncoming truck. Female monkeys are much less likely to take the same risks. They tend to avoid highways.”

7. The relationship between men and women varies across societies and in different times. The balance in American society is different from the balance in, say, modern Chinese society. Looking at the position of women in Chinese society, one might even argue that the greatest contribution of the 1911 Revolution was not in politics but in the liberation of women. In Islamic society, the proper relationship between men and women is prescribed in detail in the Quran. I don’t think there is a right balance for all times. In wartime, for example, the division of labour by necessity becomes much sharper.

8. What seems to be constant, however, is that societies with strong cultures invariably have strong mothers. Without strong mothers and grandmothers, it is much harder to keep families together and transmit culture and values to the next generation. To put it in another way, societies which honour their women are strong while those that dishonour them must eventually break down. Tonight’s event is a way Singapore society honours our women.

9. But, somehow, men seem to get more of the attention in our society. Maybe it is because men speak louder. When I was a young boy, we had in the old house a little hour-glass timer for half-boiled eggs. It had a little saying on the side which went like this: “ The cock does all the crowing; but it is the hen which delivers the goods.” Three cheers for the hen!

Woman of the Year award winner Dr Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary, UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

Photo credit: The Straits Times/Singapore Press Holdings

Do also read my posts on Beyond SG


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