“Given Singapore’s colonial past, many women pioneers were European, mainly British.” Mandakini Arora and Constance Singam write about the impact of Western feminism on Singapore’s women’s rights movement.
Singam points out that feminism is not a Western import and that there have long been voices in Asia that questioned the gender relations of their day. While the terms “feminist” and “gender” may be new, what they refer to is not. Over the centuries women have broken out of the traditional mould of gender in different societies and spoken out against the iniquities of their time. Such women include Raden Kartini of Indonesia and Pandita Ramabai of India.
Stereotypes of feminism as a Western movement that threatens “traditional” Asian values, and seeks to rent asunder the very fabric of society detract from the value of feminism, which is, in a fundamental sense, simply a quest for sexual equality.
Given Singapore’s colonial past, many women pioneers were European, mainly British. The educational and medical women pioneers were missionaries. While one has to acknowledge the colonial context that framed their work, the contribution of these women to improving the lives of women and girls in Singapore is enormous. Inevitably, the work of the British women pioneers was sometimes tainted by racial discrimination. Janet Lim, in Sold for Silver, recalls her early days at the St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital, which she joined to train as a nurse in 1940. She was struck by the special facilities enjoyed by Western nurses and doctors and recalls the racial slurs cast on her by a particularly opprobrious English nurse. But more often than not, those who were taught by or worked with Western missionary women remember them as being kind and gentle. For some of the medical missionaries, such as Dr Elsie Warren, who worked in the Malacca Medical Mission in the early 1900s, the work of curing the sick took precedence over everything else and, by her own admission, left little time for evangelising.
Arora writes about charitable work by British and local women, individually and in organisations; about education and medical welfare work; and family planning that was begun after World War II. While early women’s organisations were welfare organisations or organisations devoted to enhancing women’s traditional skills, such as cooking or sewing, they are still significant in that they provided a community for women who might otherwise have been cloistered in their homes, and they encouraged women to feel responsibility for others who were less fortunate than them. Arora ends her chapter with the Singapore Council of Women – formed in 1952 by women of different races, including Shirin Fozdar, Mrs George Lee and Zahara bte Noor Mohd. – which called for an end to polygamy.
Constance Singam was President of AWARE in 1987-88, 1994-5, and 2007-8. In the last 30 years, she has worked on behalf of women’s rights and migrant workers’ rights. She has been described as the “mother of civil society”, an inspirational leader who spearheaded many of the projects and initiatives that shaped Singapore’s civil society, and which continue to do so.
Dr Mandakini Arora is an independent historian and writing consultant. She studied History at Duke University, and was a part-time lecturer at the National University of Singapore.
Arora, Mandakini, ed. Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore. Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.
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