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The Female Eunuch

By TAN Kee Wee

(MediaCorp 938LIVE’s Money Talks, Thursday, 28 August 2008, 7.50 am and 7.20 pm)

During the Ming Dynasty in China, there was a specialist group of professionals called eunuchs. These were men whose sexual reproductive organs had been surgically removed or castrated.

Castration initially served as a form of punishment. Eventually, it served as a means of gaining employment in the Imperial Service of the Ming Court.

There was a practical reason for castration. Since these eunuchs were going to work and come in contact with the emperor’s concubines, there must be a guarantee that none of the concubines became pregnant.

Initially, eunuchs started out as guards and servants. Over time, many upgraded their job skills and moved up the management ladder.

The Imperial officials welcomed these eunuchs. This is because, since the eunuchs could never have children, they could not challenge the sons of the Imperial officials they worked under.

The question is: why would a sane man offer himself to be castrated and remove all prospects of ever fathering children?

Two groups of job-seekers come to mind. The first group covers those who don’t want to bring up a family anyway, and wish to climb up the Imperial corporate ladder. The second group of job-seekers is less ambitious. All they want is a job to pay for whatever expenses they need to live comfortably.

Many young women in Singapore, those between 20 and 35, have suddenly found themselves in the same situation as the second group of job-seeking eunuchs. Both must choose either family or career.

This situation has come about because of the baby incentives recently introduced to encourage bigger families. Many businesses now find young women unattractive as workers. Should they become pregnant, it’s going to be very disruptive for the business.

This does not apply only to SMEs. It applies to big firms too. In the short term, big firms may be able to pass the pregnant employee’s workload to her colleagues. But in the long term, it’s not viable because it will lead to overwork and subsequent resignations by her colleagues.

One way out is for young women to start their families first and then join the workforce later. But this is not realistic because today’s businesses prefer to hire young people.

The only way out is for these young women to offer a guarantee of “no pregnancy” to their employers. In other words, they must offer themselves as modern-day female eunuchs.

Of course, this will not be done surgically. The guarantee of “no pregnancy” could be included in the employment contract. But imagine the negative publicity should a company sue its female employee for breach of contract.

In the end, this guarantee of “no pregnancy” will probably be carried out quietly. Young women who choose to be modern-day female eunuchs will just stay single. Financially, it makes a lot of sense for them to choose the career path.

In the Ming Court, career prospects for eunuchs were also very bright. Many ambitious young men submitted themselves to castration. Some even castrated themselves before securing their jobs.

The danger for Singapore is that our plan to increase the population could be undermined by the growing number of female eunuchs who choose career over family.

The Ming Court also faced this problem of too many eunuchs. The flood of applications to become eunuchs became so overwhelming that the Ming Court had to turn many away, and made self-castration illegal.

It’s unthinkable now but society may one day make it illegal to remain unmarried. Until that happens, young women in Singapore are in a lose-lose situation.

If she starts a family early, it’s going to be difficult to contribute to the household expenses. If she chooses the career path, and go without a constant companion, society unfairly labels her as a “freak”.

Eunuchs in the Ming Court were also unfairly given labels. Ming society also thought of the typical eunuch as a “freak”. Because he also had no constant companion.

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