Men outnumber women two to one at Singapore’s only medical school thanks to a government quota system that gives preference to lower-scoring males over brighter females.
National University of Singapore limits female enrollment because, officials argue, women leave the profession to have babies and this city-state cannot afford to subsidize expensive educations for those who don’t make medicine a lifetime career.
Dr. Kanwaljit Soin, one of the women who made it into medical school and now an outspoken critic of the system, calls it blatant sexual discrimination.
“A university that practices discrimination against women is not a university that I feel very proud of,” she said in an interview.
Singapore’s leaders have a reputation for putting what they see as the country’s needs ahead of appearances. They have long engaged in what critics call Orwellian-style social engineering, setting up a dating service just for professionals, for instance, or paying well-educated women to have children.
While the city-state enjoys one of Asia’s highest standards of living, few dare speak out against the government or its policies, and there is no mass movement to eliminate the gender quota.
The Assn. of Women Doctors in Singapore refused to be interviewed on the quota, saying in an e-mail that “the issue may be politicized.”
“There just doesn’t seem to be the political will,” said Soin, an orthopedic and hand surgeon who as a former member of Parliament tried and failed to abolish the quota.
In 1979, the National University of Singapore began limiting the number of women entering medicine to one-third of each class, which means women with higher entry scores get rejected to make way for men.
Soin says the quota forces some of Singapore’s brightest young women overseas to pursue their dreams of becoming doctors.
“What worries me is the women who are not so wealthy,” she said. They “are being penalized.”
Critics say the quota will sideline talent the city-state needs for its quest to become an Asia-Pacific “life sciences hub” on the cutting edge of biotechnology. They also say it hurts the medical profession in Singapore by keeping out qualified women who, if given the chance, could be among the country’s best doctors.
But the university insists that it has no intention of removing the quota system.
“The rationale for the quota on females for admission to medicine is because a large proportion of female doctors, particularly after marriage, stops practicing medicine, and many of those who remain in the profession cannot be assigned duties as freely as their male counterparts,” the university said in an e-mailed reply to questions from the AP.
The school said that in 1999, 18% of female doctors were not working or were working only part time, compared with 7% of male doctors.
But Soin disputes these figures. She says women have a different definition of part-time work than their male counterparts.
“Often women, when they take two or three afternoons off to look after the children, they say, ‘We work part time.’ Men take two or three afternoons off to play golf and yet they never report they work part time,” she said.