Singapore

Sarah G. Besnoff, Associate
Paul Hastings (Washington DC)

Introduction

Gender diversity on the boards of Singapore-listed firms has been the subject of much study and analysis in recent years, with a steady increase reported in women’s representation since 2011.1 

A 2016 Korn Ferry study reported that the proportion of female directors across all companies was 7.7%,2 with other studies showing that companies with all male boards represent between 46 percent,3 and 52.5 percent of all companies.4  In another study, it was reported that, as of June 2017, women held 12.2% of all boardroom positions of listed companies on the Singapore Exchange Limited (SGX) and 10.3% of all companies listed in Singapore.5 

These figures demonstrate a modest improvement from 8.6% in 2014, 9.5% in 2015, and 10.9% in 2016 of the top 100 primary-listed SGX companies.6  As of December 2017, women directors increased to 13.1% on boards of the Top 100 primary-listed companies on the SGX.7  Another study found that the proportion of all male boards fell from 55% three years ago to 50% last year.8  As of June 2018, the number of top 100 companies with all-male boards had decreased from 50 in 2013 to 27.9

The underrepresentation of women on the boards of Singapore-listed firms is more concerning against the backdrop of the general demographics of the Singapore workforce, which would suggest an expectation of greater participation by women:

The lack of gender diversity of boards is particularly surprising given the high levels of educational attainment for women.  Singapore is known for its above average education; Singapore ranks first on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a global standardized test of secondary school students administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).13  More than half of university graduates are female.14

According to cross-national studies, the underrepresentation of women on corporate boards of directors in Singapore is low, even for the region.  According to a Credit Suisse Report comparing representation across the region in 2015, women represented 9.9% of seats on Boards in Singapore, 10.9% in the Philippines, 12.7% in Thailand, and 13.9% in Malaysia (though only 3.5% in Japan, and 4.1% in South Korea).15  According to Ernst & Young’s 2016 study, Singapore was the third lowest in terms of gender representation on corporate boards in the region, ahead of only Japan and South Korea.16  According to Sustainable Stock Exchanges’ Initiatives 2017, Singapore was, in fact, the second to last of countries with international capital markets, with only Japan trailing behind.17

Demographic Profile of Singapore Female Directors

The Singapore’s Diversity Action Committee has found that women directors in Singapore are, on average, younger than their male counterparts.  As of September 2016, most female directors were between 50-59, while most male directors were between 60-69.18  Male and female directors hold business degrees at about equal rates, although female directors are more likely to have an accounting or law background.19 

Further, different business sectors reflect varied percentages of representation of women on boards.  For example, the materials sector reflects representation at 30%, while the health care sector is 3.7%, energy sector at 3.2%, and information technology at a staggeringly low 0%.20

Interestingly – and concerning – women’s tenure on corporate boards in Singapore tended to be shorter than males’ tenures.21  Male directors serve on boards for an average of 9.4 years; female directors serve for 7.2 years (both among the highest in the region).22  Thus, a major limiting factor for inclusion of women on boards is the long tenure of Singapore directors.  “The low turnover limits opportunities for women to obtain directorships.”23 

The 20 by 2020 initiative cited the entrenchment of board members as an obstacle to increasing female participation: “Entrenchment works against aspiring female directors because it is less likely for entrenched boards to be renewed with new independent directors, and hence, a lower likelihood that aspiring female directors will be considered for board roles over those already appointed.”24 

Gender Equality Under Singapore Law

Singapore Constitution

Article XII of the Singapore Constitution guarantees the equal protection of all people under the law.  However, as written, the Constitution does not specifically protect against discrimination on the basis of sex or gender.25 

During meetings of the United Nations’ Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), delegates of Singapore interpreted Article XII to prevent discrimination based on gender, marital status, age, disability, or other such grounds:  “The delegation replied that while Singapore lacked specific legislation prohibiting discrimination based on gender, article XII of its Constitution guaranteed the equal protection of all people under the law and, therefore, prevented discrimination based on gender, marital status, age, disability or other such grounds.”26 

That said, human rights focused organizations continue to recommend that Singapore formally enshrine such protections into the Constitution.  In October 2017, the Coalition Report of National NGOs presented a report with the main recommendation that Singapore “[i]ncorporate in the Constitution and legislation a definition of discrimination against women, and prohibit all forms of such discrimination on all grounds.”27  In December 2017, the United Nations’ CEDAW recommended that Singapore include a prohibition against discrimination against women in its Constitution.28

Women’s Charter

In 1961, Singapore adopted the Women’s Charter, intended to improve and protect the rights of females in Singapore and to guarantee greater legal equality for married women.29  The Women’s Charter gave equal rights to wives in the management of the homes, created legal recourse for victims of domestic violence, and created punishments for violence against women.30   In 1997, the Women’s Charter was amended to give greater legal protection to women and children, including greater legal rights for women to marital property after a divorce and greater access to protective orders for victims of domestic violence.31

In February 2016, the Women’s Charter was further amended by the Amendment Bill 2016 to:

Corporate Governance Code

The Code of Corporate Governance (the “Code”) is issued by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) and the Singapore Exchange LTD.  The Code provides that boards and their committees should be comprised of directors who, as a group, provide an appropriate balance and diversity of skills, experience, gender, and knowledge of the company. Gender diversity is included in the MAS Code, but there are no mandatory requirements for gender diversity.33

The Code defines independent directors as those having no relationships that could interfere or be reasonably perceived to interfere with the exercise of his or her judgment.  In addition, the independence of any directors who serve more than nine years is subject to rigorous review.  Companies must comply with the Code or explain their non-compliance.  Despite this rule, Singapore reflects some of the longest tenured directors among peer countries.  In the Singapore Directorship Report from 2014, 54.1% of the firms surveyed had at least one independent director who has served for more than nine years on the boards.34

Non-Governmental Initiatives

In Singapore, the two leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)35 and BoardAgender.36  AWARE is Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group and promotes a wide spectrum of women’s rights issues. BoardAgender, an outreach arm of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organizations, has a more focused mission: to facilitate discussions and activities on the topic of gender diversity in the workplace and in the boardroom, and to promote economic and commercial advantage for companies in Singapore.

In March 2017, the People’s Action Party Women’s Wing and BoardAgender, an initiative of the Singapore Council on Women’s Organisations, recommended to MAS that it set a 20% by 2020 target, representing at least 20% female directors on boards by 2020.37  To reach this goal, the authors recommended that “all current female directors must be reappointed annually and approximately 130 new appointments of female directors must be added every year from now till the year 2020.  This is an achievable goal if at least half of SGX companies appoint one more female director onto their board…”38  As of January 2018, in order to reach the 2020 goal, an additional 130 female directors will have to be appointed.39

In 2012, AWARE and the National University of Singapore sponsored a conference on the rights of women.  The following key recommendations were proposed by the conference delegates:

Although the recommendations did not relate directly to increasing board diversity, they indicate a general trend toward creating greater access for women to participate and take on leadership roles in society.

Another leading non-government group is the Diversity Action Committee.41  After discovering that 38 of Singapore’s 100 biggest companies had entirely male boards in 2016, the Diversity Action Committee began publishing a bi-annual ranking of firms based on gender representation.  The Diversity Action Committee is comprised of 18 members, including corporate leaders and business professionals.42

Conclusion

The disparity between representation of men and women in positions of leadership in the private sector has been the subject of much debate and discussion in Singapore.  Although there has been no institutionalized action or formal proposal undertaken by the Singapore government, various non-profit organizations and interest groups such as AWARE and BoardAgender, have successfully raised this issue to the general public for  broader discussion.  As Claire Chang, co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts explained: “Having women insufficiently represented on boards is not a woman’s problem.  It is a talent maximization problem.  Women make up 50% of the workforce and are just as qualified and ambitious as men at work.”43


1 Can ASEAN move forward if women are left behind? Women in ASEAN: unlocking possibilities, Ernst & Young 5 (2017), http://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/ey-women-in-asean-unlocking-possibilities/$FILE/ey-women-in-asean-unlocking-possibilities.pdf.

2 The Diversity Scorecard 2016: Building Diversity in Asia Pacific Boardrooms, Korn Ferry Institute 5, 7 (2016), https://www.kornferry.com/institute/korn-ferry-diversity-scorecard-2016-building-diversity-in-asia-pacific-boardrooms.

3 Id. at 5.

4 Women on Boards: Tackling the Issues, Diversity Action Committee 12 (Sept. 2016), http://www.diversityaction.sg/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/a-DAC_Report_Women_On-Boards.pdf.

5 20 by 2020: Gender Diversity on Singapore Boards, A Path to Action, Human Capital Leadership Institute & BoardAgender 6 (June 2017), http://www.boardagender.org/files/20_by_2020-A_Path_to_Action-BA_HCLI_2018.pdf.

6 Statistics, Diversity Action Committee Singapore (Dec. 31, 2017), http://www.diversityaction.sg/statistics/ (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).  

7 Id.

8 Rachel Mui, Higher proportion of women on boards of listed firms in Singapore, The Straits Times (Feb. 14, 2018), http://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/higher-proportion-of-women-on-boards-of-listed-firms-here.

9 Livia Yap, Name-and-Shame Approach Puts More Women on Singapore Boards, Bloomberg (July 30, 2018), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-31/name-and-shame-approach-puts-more-women-on-singapore-boards.

10 Human Capital Leadership Institute, supra note 5, at 15. 

11 United Nations Millennium Development Goal Indicators, http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Data.aspx (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

12 Population Trends 2017, Department of Statistics Singapore 6 (2017), https://www.singstat.gov.sg/-/media/files/publications/population/population2017.pdf (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

13 Ernst & Young, supra note 1, at 11.

14 Yap, supra note 9.

15 The CS Gender 3000: The Reward for Change, Credit Suisse 8, tbl 1 (2016), https://glg.it/assets/docs/csri-gender-3000.pdf.

16 Ernst & Young, supra note 1, at 32.

17 Human Capital Leadership Institute, supra note 5, at 6.

18 Diversity Action Committee, supra note 4, at 11.  

19 Id.

20 Korn Ferry Institute, supra note 2, at 33.

21 Id.

22 Id. at 32, App’x 2.

23 Id. at 32.

24 Human Capital Leadership Institute, supra note 5, at 15.

25 Const. art. XII, §12 (“[T]here shall be no discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in any law or in the appointment of any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.”).

26 Minutes of the 993rd & 994th Meetings of the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women held on July 22, 2011, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2011/wom1875.doc.htm (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

27 Report on CEDAW and the Republic of Singapore: Many Voices, One Movement” Coalition Report of National NGOs (2017), https://sgcedawcoalition.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/many-voices-one-movement-coalition-report-of-national-ngos-on-singapore.pdf (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

28 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, U.N. CEDAW Report (Nov. 21, 2017), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW/C/SGP/CO/5&Lang=En.

29 Legislation, The Women’s Charter, Ministry of Social and Family Development, https://www.msf.gov.sg/policies/Women-Celebrating-Women/Legislation/Pages/default.aspx (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

30 Women’s Charter, Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, http://www.scwo.org.sg/resources/womens-charter/ (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

31 Id.

32 Women’s Charter to Support More Complex Family Needs, Ministry of Social and Family Development, https://www.msf.gov.sg/media-room/Pages/Women%27s-Charter-to-Support-More-Complex-Family-Needs.aspx (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

33 Korn Ferry Institute, supra note 2, at 32. 

34 Human Capital Leadership Institute, supra note 5, at 23.

35 Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), http://www.aware.org.sg (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

36 BoardAgender, http://www.boardagender.org (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

37 Singapore Businesses Need to Increase Gender Diversity, Women’s Wing & BoardAgender (Mar. 23, 2017), http://www.boardagender.org/files/PAP_Womens_Wing__BoardAgender_SCWO_Press_Release_Singapore_Businesses_Need_To_Increase_Gender_Diversity.pdf.

38 Human Capital Leadership Institute, supra note 5, at 7.

39 Jacqueline Woo, Singapore must appoint 130 new female directors each year to reach 2020 board diversity goal: Grace Fu, Business Times (Jan. 27, 2018), http://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/singapore-must-appoint-130-new-female-directors-each-year-to-reach-2020-board.

40 AWARE: Prohibit gender discrimination and set quota for women in Parliament, The Online Citizen (Mar. 9, 2011), http://theonlinecitizen.com/2011/03/aware-prohibit-gender-discrimination-and-set-quota-for-women-in-parliament/.

41 Diversity Action Committee, http://www.diversityaction.sg/ (last visited Aug. 27, 2018).

42 Yap, supra note 9.

43 Human Capital Leadership Institute, supra note 5, at 11.