Singapore’s feminist history is largely forgotten and not often referred to in schools or newspapers. However, the rights that Singaporean women enjoy today did not come from nowhere. Trina Liang-Lin, writing for The Straits Times, celebrates the unsung heroes of Singaporean feminism.
AS SINGAPORE marks 50 years of nationhood next year and as we recognise our pioneer generation for their contributions to nation-building, I hope we also pause to remember the women in Singapore who fought for gender equality that we largely take for granted today. By doing so, our next generation can more closely identify and be inspired by our own local female role models.
Building on these foundations, present-day Singaporean feminists have forged their own unique set of paths.
The average Singaporean woman in 2014 is healthy and has ready access to world-class health care. She is educated, having at least 10 years of world-class education, has equal opportunity and access to local and global jobs, is largely equally paid for the same job and is encouraged to move up to the very top of the career ladder. She has access to affordable childcare and has clean and safe living and working conditions. In marriage and in divorce, her rights and those of her children are protected under Singapore’s Constitution.
But she did not get here by sheer luck. A Singapore-born feminist movement made sure this could happen and we are the happy beneficiaries of that crusade.
People I speak to are often surprised that there ever was a feminist movement in Singapore. Following World War II, Singapore women began to be aware of their rights and contributions to the war effort. They became indispensable to Singapore’s post-war rehabilitation efforts, although they remained largely nameless.
Women set up food centres to feed the hungry and set up the first family planning association under Mrs Constance Goh and Mrs Celeste Amstutz who believed that a family should not have more children than it could feed, clothe and educate. Women even tried to set up creches in factories – an early glimpse of women’s groups looking for practical solutions to the work-family life balance conundrum.
During this time, women also found their political voice. The first two women ever elected in Singapore were Mrs Robert Eu and Ms Amy Laycock in 1949 into municipal councils, followed quickly in 1951 by Mrs Elizabeth Choy and Mrs Vilasini Menon into the Legislative Council. In 1952 a number became Justices of Peace, such as Mrs Lim Boon Keng and Mrs Tan Chin Tuan. The Singapore Council of Women was also formed in 1952 under the leadership of Mrs Shirin Fozdar and Madam Zahara Noor Mohamed, the only unifying Singapore association that fought for the advancement of women’s rights and to end the practice of polygamy.
And in 1961 the Women’s Charter was passed. The charter provided protection for the rights of Singapore women and included that the only marriage permissible would be monogamous. It is hard to believe now that this basic female dignity took almost 10 years of concerted effort to secure.
The Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations was set up in 1978 and the Association of Women for Action and Research, in 1985. Both organisations continue to be key advocates and guardians of women’s rights in Singapore, poring over local legislation and conducting research on various topical women’s issues. Singapore feminist voices that rose to prominence around this time and continue to be active include Dr Kanwaljit Soin, Mrs Constance Singam, Ms Claire Chiang, Ms Braema Mathi and Dr Anamah Tan.
The feminist movement in Singapore today is no longer just about fighting for causes within national borders that have a direct personal impact on Singaporeans. It is also about taking action for causes that are sometimes thousands of miles away and which bear little association with one’s own daily living conditions. Men have also become great leaders and supporters in this movement.
Modern Singapore feminism is transnational and global, concerned with not just monetary and physical support, but strong virtual support as well. I feel it can widen its reach beyond Singapore’s shores and come under broad umbrellas which encapsulate the needs of women and girls. The more popular regional initiatives which encapsulate women’s agendas cover sex and labour trafficking, helping to build sustainable livelihoods, educating the young in regional communities, and the rehabilitation of victims of violence or natural disasters. These projects receive strong, active Singapore support.
The nexus of Singapore’s economic openness, various sources of seeding from the Government, corporate businesses, tertiary education centres, regular forums featuring world-renowned experts, mentorship programmes and scholarships have all greatly aided in the rise of Singapore as a hub for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including those supporting women and girls. NGOs and social enterprises in Singapore are beginning to be recognised as providers of viable careers and a new industry in its own right. The 2000s thus bore witness to a flurry of new Singapore-based, women-centred NGOs and social initiatives like Beautiful People, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, Emancipasia, Daughters of Tomorrow, Women on a Mission and UN Women Singapore’s global social entrepreneurship competition, Project Inspire.
Singapore, being an international centre of finance, also finds itself at the forefront of Asian philanthropy and, in particular, a rather new subset termed “women’s philanthropy”. It is acknowledged women can now create their own wealth and decide how they want to spend it, which includes donations and other philanthropic efforts. The areas these women philanthropists typically focus on are education, social enterprise and the arts. In many cases, they are silent but strong supporters whose names are seldom found on university buildings, hospital wings or school blocks.
Further, many foundations are now led by Singaporean women – Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, Tsao Foundation, Community Foundation of Singapore and Como Foundation, all of which dispense tens of millions of dollars annually to projects in Singapore and around the region.
We should be proud that at 50, Singapore has largely achieved gender equality. That is certainly something to celebrate. Many other nations – some with longer histories – still struggle with this and, in some cases, their women continue to be oppressed even if their legislature states otherwise.
Let us not take gender equality for granted and may our present and future generations never forget our own female role models in our journey to a gender-equal country.