Why did Singapore need a women’s rights organisation?

In the early 1980s, to increase the birth rate, the government ran a series of campaigns using slogans such as: “Are you giving men the wrong idea?” “Life will be lonely without a family. Don’t leave it too late.” The suggestion that women’s primary role was of wife and mother left a sour taste for many Singaporean women of the time. Amidst these arguments over women’s roles in society, AWARE was born. 

“Most of us have a gut feeling that things are not quite right. We know that discrimination exists, for example, but to what extent and intensity we may not be able to tell. With research we hope to get a more accurate reading of the sex discrimination in our midst.”
(Lena Lim, in The Straits Times, 1986).

Why did Singapore need a women’s rights organisation?

We must further amend our policies, and try to reshape our demographic configuration so that our better-educated women will have more children to be adequately represented in the next generation… Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers. … You just can’t be doing a full-time heavy job like that of a doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children.
(Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in The Straits Times, 1983). 

In August 1983, in his National Day Rally speech, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew referred to Singapore’s falling fertility rate. Quoting from the 1980 census, Lee said that while less-educated women were producing an average of three children, those with secondary or tertiary education had only 1.65 children. He feared that a decline in birth rate amongst the well-educated would result in a “thinning of the gene pool” and national economic disaster. Lee referred to this as a “lop-sided procreation pattern”, and the issue was dubbed the “Great Marriage Debate” by the local press.

Prior to Lee’s speech, the government had been emphasising population control. The Singapore Family Planning and Population Board encouraged young couples to “Stop at Two” and space out their children. Women with two or more children were urged to seek sterilisations to keep their families small. By 1980 the total fertility rate had dropped to 1.82 from 4.62 in 1965. This rapid decline in birth rate was due not only to the government’s anti-natalist policies but also to increasing educational levels, widespread female employment, rising affluence and improvements in housing conditions. An accompany trend of reduced birth rate was that women with higher education were having a smaller number of children than women with lower education levels. 

To increase the birth rate, the government ran a series of mass educational campaigns using slogans such as: “Are you giving men the wrong idea?” “Life will be lonely without a family. Don’t leave it too late,” “Why not reality? You could wait a lifetime for a dream”. In January 1984 the Social Development Unit was set up within the Ministry of Finance to matchmake male and female university graduates in the public service. Two years later the scheme was extended to graduates employed in the private sector. […] In addition to matchmaking activities, the government introduced financial and social incentives to encourage graduate women to marry and procreate. […] At the same time the government announced that it would give $10,000 to less-educated, low-income mothers below the age of 30 years if they were sterilised after their first or second child.

Lee’s comments sparked fierce debate in the forum pages of many newspapers and were a source of constant discussion in the boardrooms and dining rooms of the nation. Young women and men felt enormous pressure to marry early and have more children.

It was against this backdrop that in November 1984 the National University of Singapore Society held a forum titled “Women’s Choices, Women’s Lives”. Organised by Zaibun Siraj, an active member of NUSS, and Vivienne Wee, a faculty member at NUS, the forum brought together women from different professional backgrounds to talk about the issues facing modern Singaporean women. In addition to Siraj and Wee, the speakers included Kanwaljit Soin, an orthopaedic surgeon, Hedwig Anuar, the director of the National Library, and Margaret Thomas, the deputy Sunday editor of The Singapore Monitor. The women were chosen specifically because they were not the current women leaders of the time – the organisers wanted fresh faces and new perspectives. Although few of the speakers knew each other, and most had never before spoken at a forum on women’s issues, they were all passionate about women’s right to choose their own destinies. 

I really think I was completely like a blind choice, no connection with anyone. Zaibun picked me out of the blue. I was a doctor, cloistered away, doing my work, doing my surgery, looking after my children, looking after my husband, and I didn’t really know what feminism meant. I don’t think I gave anything to AWARE, AWARE gave me everything.
(Kanwaljit Soin, 2005). 

The forum attracted a crowd of several hundred women and some men, all keenly aware of recent controversies surrounding Lee’s statements about “graduate mothers”. Many were angry that the government seemed to be suggesting that women’s primary role was of wife and mother. They argued that women had diverse aspirations – some wanted to pursue professional careers, while others wanted to stay home and look after their families; some women wanted to marry, and some wanted children. But all wanted to make these decisions for themselves. 

Many of us felt the injustice of being ordered around, being told to do this or that, but never being consulted. Like this graduate mother scheme for schools, and “Stop at Two” which said when to have your babies. Most of us felt very, very angry that we were not consulted on such important issues. I think that we were all at boiling point when that forum was held.
(Lena Lim, 2005). 

Participants were also angry with the government for singling out women (rather than men and women) as the cause of the fertility decline. They further felt that the focus on women with secondary and tertiary education devalued the important contributions of women with less education as wives, mothers and workers. They were concerned that these class divisions disadvantaged women from the Malay and Indian minorities, who tended to have larger families and lower education levels. Other issues raised at the forum were the problems of working mothers, shared parenting and home management, birth control and health, sex education, the Social Development Unit, compulsory domestic science for girls, and sexism in advertising. Many of these issues continue to be important today. 

At the end of the forum an audience member, Evelyn Wong, provocatively reminded the assembled group that talk was well and good, but “what are we going to do now?” The speakers and several members of the audience took up the gauntlet. They met frequently over the next few months and, taking their challenge seriously, these women studied all the women’s organisations in Singapore to determine whether or not a women’s rights association was needed. Their survey showed that although there were many women’s organisations in Singapore, none focused specifically on trying to improve women’s social and legal status. So they decided to start their own organisation. 

There was nobody who was looking at policies that affected women or annoyed women. We saw ourselves as something different – all career women, professional women, academics, women with brains essentially and not afraid to show that we had brains. So we decided to start our own group.” (Margaret Thomas, 1995). 

A pro-tem committee of ten to fifteen women met during 1985 to determine the new organisation’s aims and objectives. They met initially after hours in Soin’s surgery, and sometimes in each other’s homes.

The members of the first Exco [executive committee] were highly motivated, full of ideas, dedicated and willing to work. We were full of hope and confident we could bring about change. Meetings were long, highly charged, exhausting sessions. We averaged two or three meetings per week.” (Lena Lim, 1995).

The meetings were riots. Especially in that core group you have a lot of women with definite viewpoints, very articulate… but we had a lot of fun and I think that kept us together and kept us going. And we really enjoyed what we did.” (Zaibun Siraj, 1995). 

The group spent one year refining and developing the constitution until it was approved by the Singapore Registrar of Societies. The pro-tem committee originally wanted to include women aged eighteen and above, including foreign citizens, as full members. However, after lengthy negotiations with the registrar, the committee agreed to increase the age limit to 21 years, and to exclude non-citizens from full membership.

At AWARE’s inaugural meeting on December 9, 1985, the first executive committee, or Exco, was appointed. 

The founding members were still unsure how the new organisation would be perceived by the public. They wanted to avoid the negative imagery of some public perceptions of feminism. So they chose for their first president a woman who embodied the politically acceptable combination of a wife, mother and career woman – Lena Lim. 

Many of us who came together didn’t have feminist history, we didn’t know what feminism was, we came together because we had a sense of injustice being done to women.
(Kanwaljit Soin, 2005). 

We had an understanding of what injustice is all about, what inequality is all about, and the need for equality, that was the drive in all of us.” (Zaibun Siraj, 2005).

I remember a sense of fairness being the main motivating factor for me.”
(Lai Ah Eng, personal communication, 2006). 

When I came into AWARE the only feminist book I had read was The Second Sex. But growing up as a girl, in a conservative Chinese environment, made me very aware of the helpless predicament of economically dependent women. So I was looking for a women’s organisation that I could join.” (Lena Lim, 2005). 


AWARE’s First Exco (1985-86)
President – Lena Lim
Vice President – Kanwaljit Soin
Honorary Secretary – Chua Siew Keng
Assistant Secretary – Sylvia Jackson and Lim Li Kok
Treasurer – Margaret Thomas
Committee Members – Hedwig Anuar, Lai Ah Eng, Lim Li Kok, Jennifer Ang, Zaibun Siraj, Vivienne Wee, Evelyn Wong

Professor Lenore Lyons is internationally recognised as the leading scholar on the feminist movement in Singapore. She also maintains a long-standing research collaboration with Associate Professor Michele Ford on the Riau Islands of Indonesia, and migrant labour activism in Southeast Asia. Before Professor Lyons’ appointment as Honorary Professor to the University of Sydney, she was Research Professor in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia (2009-2011) and Director of the ARC Key Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS) at the University of Wollongong (2005-2009).

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.

Featured Image: The Founding of AWARE, from Women’s Action


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