Speech at the Women’s Foundation Annual Gala Dinner
“Break Free without Breaking Apart”—— Speech by Mr Lam Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission （只备英文版）
Thanks, Women’s Foundation, for inviting me. I am delighted to be here with this cheerful crowd.
They say it is best to invite a stand-up comedian for a dinner speech, but I guess they would be pretty expensive and at times too vulgar. And the worst is to invite a politician for he would only blow lots of hot air, and recycled ones for that matter.
I am conscious that often I am classified under the latter category, stereotyped no doubt, because of my background. So tonight I am going to drop all my official hats, former and current ones. And I am going to speak, of course on the subject of gender equality since that was the condition of the Women’s Foundation’s invitation, but I will speak direct from the heart as a person, as a man if you like.
The title of my speech tonight is “Break Free without Breaking Apart”. I coined it from the movie “Revolutionary Road”. It is a 2008 movie, played by the brilliant Titanic couple, Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet, based on Richard Yates’ classic novel of the same name, published in 1962. I used to think Francois Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim”, the French new wave movie, made also in 1962, is the most emotionally charged movie on the inextricable men-women relationships. That was until I saw the Revolutionary Road.
The movie is about a young married couple trying to break free from the “hopeless emptiness” of their middle class life; from the hypocrisy and social manipulation of a structured community where everybody is supposed to conform to his/her stereotyped role. The wife pioneered that the family should give up their haven in Connecticut, in search of liberty and meaning of life in Paris. The husband initially went along. Then something unplanned for happened. The husband lost heart, and the couple’s “Paris Dream” ended in tragedy, with the family breaking apart.
And the cause of the tragedy? It is, I think, because the one who really desired to break free was the wife. Throughout this powerful movie, I kept wondering what would the outcome have been if it were the husband who had initiated the venture idea in the first instance?
The outcome could have been very different: men, it would be said, should be allowed to take risk. The husband should of course decide. All the wife needed to do was to follow suit. If it worked, from the man’s point of view that is, then his woman should be contented. If it failed, then the woman would pick up the pieces, life-boat the family, and hope her man would recover his senses soon. End of story. No movie can ever be made out of such an “ordinary” storyline.
Gender stereotyping is an all pervasive monster. From New York to Beijing, from the days of King Solomon to the present digital age. The monster is in you, is in me, and in everyone’s mind. Societies set their norms, their DOs and DON’Ts according to their own version of stereotyping. Governments, corporations, social clubs, families, and individuals alike then dance to the tune, not infrequently consciously, but more often subconsciously. This monster discriminates, depletes human capabilities, and tears apart relationships, often in the name of order and harmony.
Stereotyping is the genuine stumbling block to gender equality. Don’t many of us, men, have sisters and daughters? Don’t most of us have wives? And don’t all of us have mothers? Why should we, and how can we discriminate against our own sisters, daughters, wives and our own mothers when they are part of our families, part of our lives? If it is not for this all pervasive, and deep-rooted monster, nurtured by archaic social norms, obsolete cultural traits, and nonsensical consumerism, how could we have made the opposite sex our enemies?
Men and women are not diametrical opposites, and they should not be so treated. We are indeed the Yin and Yang of a holistic form of intelligent life on Earth. So in fighting this monster and in breaking free from stereotyping, don’t pitch women against men, don’t break apart this holistic whole. Try to see through the patriarchal nature of stereotyping. Target at its systemic faults. And focus on the mission of putting women back to the word “Society”, which unfortunately is still regarded by too many as the collective world of men.
Take for example, why shouldn’t married women keep using their maiden names? Why must a child bear the father’s family name? Can’t there be a choice by consent? Shouldn’t employers and employees work together to cater for more family-friendly working hours and work conditions? Shouldn’t we all push for better childcare support, from corporations and from Government, which will bring about instantaneous public good by relieving more mothers back to the workplace. The list can go on.
Before I end my speech, I do want to throw one more stone into the pool. My wife occasionally throws this question at me: “Do you want to be a man or a woman in your next life?” No doubt the question is designed to check, from time to time, on my genuine devotion to gender equality in the family, which I pledged prior to marriage.
Pondering the answers, I can’t help thinking that it should be a rational choice to be a woman next time round. First, they study better. Second, they get employed easier. Third, they live longer. Sounds like a good deal.
But then I don’t really want to stand the regular monthly pains. I would almost certainly dread the anxiety of pregnancy, and detest the prospect of having to set my career back for the sake of child birth. I would also rather hide in the office to play with my i-pad than to supervise the average 8 pieces of home work that my child has to complete before going to bed, 7 days a week. So it may not be such a good deal after all.
I won’t tell you the answer I gave to my wife, but I am going to leave all of you in this room with this question: would you rather be a man or a woman the next time round?