Career prospects of S’porean women before 1960s were so poor that floor-scrubbing was an ideal job
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
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The Sound of Memories: Recordings from the Oral History Centre, Singapore is a collection of accounts, interviews and anecdotes that the National Archives of Singapore’s Oral History Centre has collected since 1979.
The book, written by journalist Suk-Wai Cheong, examines people’s experiences of Singapore from the late colonial period, and early years of independence.
Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book examining the struggles of Singaporean women, as well the progress they have made to improve their lives and status in Singapore’s society.
The Sound of Memories is published by World Scientific and you can get a copy of it here.
By Suk-Wai Cheong
Women were expected to get married regardless of their achievements and ambitions
If you had 39 gold medals to your name by the age of 19, you might think your future very bright indeed.
Patricia Chan Li-Yin, who brought such honour to newly independent Singapore between 1965 and 1973, had every reason to expect such a future.
After all, she was Singapore swimming’s Golden Girl, nigh unbeatable in the pool at regional meets since she was 11 years old.
But Chan was a woman who grew up in an age when her father and his peers – men and women – did not see why women should be ambitious.
In 2014, Chan recalled:
“There was a part of my father’s generation that looked at a woman as being good enough if she could be a schoolteacher… and go and get married. So I was holding the national flag in one hand and was the beacon of hope in a new country — and then there were a lot of these comments, such as ‘Oh, that’s good enough.’
It was very confusing as a young teen to look in the mirror and know what you had achieved, and then to be told that I was just going to be… Miss Average, that it didn’t matter because I was just a girl.”
Society frowned upon women who wanted careers
For much of the 20th century in Singapore, society frowned upon girls who aspired to careers – as well as women who actually held down nine-to-five jobs.
Journalist Khoo Teng Soon said that, in general, parents and husbands disapproved of their daughters and wives having careers because they would rather they focus on bringing up children and managing the household.
Khoo, who grew up under the roof of his tycoon grandfather Chew Boon Lay, said: “Quite a few of my cousins went out to work. At first, of course, there was disappointment in the family especially when my grandmother was still alive; she was rather old-fashioned about it.”
“But again, it depended on whose family these cousins belonged to. My No. 1 uncle’s daughters married well and the idea was that they should look after their in-laws. It was the system in those days.”
Some of his other female cousins, he added, married into humbler families, and so they eventually went out to work.
The education of girls was seen as pointless
Paternalistic thinking extended to denying many girls an education; after all, they reasoned, what use was education to girls whose fate was to marry, have children and keep house?
As Chan realised, even the brightest and most educated women of her time were relegated to careers as teachers.
Gangster-turned-pastor Neivelle Tan recalled that Eurasian women and other women who were educated were the earliest to go out and work, usually as schoolteachers.
According to Tan, who grew up in the 1930s, “at that time, society looked down on working mothers. Only the Eurasian and other educated wives would work. Our Peranakan tradition is that the mother would always be at home to look after the children, to cook and wait for the husband to come back — and pamper him.”
Teacher Mrs Goh Heng Chong née Teo Moh Tet recalled that Eurasians tended to teach needlework, singing and the scriptures.
Prospects for women were limited; even worse for those who were uneducated
Then again, even when the destitution of World War II forced society to rethink seriously its opposition to women in the workforce, there were hardly any job opportunities for women, educated or otherwise.
Hedwig Elizabeth Aroozoo Anuar, who graduated from the University of Malaya with a rare First Class Honours in English Literature, had to be content with a S$850-a-month job in Kuala Lumpur before Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee asked her to head the National Library in early 1960.
Anuar, who was married and had a son by then, recalled Goh writing to her to ask if she might be interested in a job with Singapore’s National Library. That was because the expatriates there were returning home, following the new Malayanisation policy to replace them with locals.
“After all,” Anuar recalled Goh pointing out, “what was the point of self-government if you go and have a British expatriate for the job?”
She had known Goh from her college days. Anuar, at least, had prospects.
Sociologist Ann Elizabeth Wee née Wilcox learnt just how grim circumstances were for women in Singapore with no education or relevant job skills.
That was after then Minister for Labour and Law Kenneth Byrne invited Wee to chair a committee of the Council of Social Services in 1960.
Wee’s task was to review the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance, which the colonial government introduced in 1896.
Uneducated and poor women turned to prostitution, and saw scrubbing of floors as the ideal job
The ordinance followed the establishment in 1888 of the Poh Leung Kuk (or “office to protect virtue”) by Singapore’s First Protector of Chinese, William Pickering – after whom Upper Pickering Street is named.
The Poh Leung Kuk started out as a single room in Lock Hospital, near Kampong Java, and took in young prostitutes, ill-treated girls and the destitute.
Under the watchful eye of the Poh Leung Kuk Committee comprising leaders of Singapore’s Chinese community, these girls were taught discipline and trained for decent, if menial, jobs.
Wee, an Englishwoman who married a Singaporean lawyer, sieved through piles of government records on social life in Singapore. She also interviewed many locals who were down on their luck.
She found that uneducated housewives endured the worst lot of all. Many among them were single mothers, after having divorced or, more usually, after having lost their husbands in World War II or to tuberculosis, which was endemic in Singapore for two-thirds of the 20th century.
Wee said there were few, if any, jobs to be had “beyond washing clothes for others”.
“There was virtually no factory work. Rubber-packing was mostly monopolised by the samsui (female immigrants from Samsui village in Guangdong, China, who worked as construction workers in Singapore) and other single women from China… apart from that, there were only the soft drink factories Framroz and Fraser & Neave. At Henderson estate, there were some glass factories which absorbed local labour.”
These women would have to wait till the late 1960s before the government, through the Economic Development Board, pulled in enough foreign investors to set up factories here.
Before the blossoming of Singapore’s manufacturing industry, the most viable work by far for impecunious, uneducated women was what others called the oldest profession in the world.
“If they worked as prostitutes,” said Wee, “they could give their children education and I remember one of them was paying for music lessons.”
Wee added: “Their dream job was to be a hospital servant, what we called the hospital ayahs (attendants). I think that gives you some idea of how little scope there was for women.”
“They coveted the scrubbing of floors and “doing other dirty work” in hospitals because,” she pointed out, “it was a government job which meant regular hours and relative job stability.”
“I always remember that as such a contrast with what became available for women later on.”
In fact, she added, the plight of poor women who had to turn to prostitution was her “outstanding memory” of the research she did for the committee she chaired from 1960.
First major change for women: the 1961 Women’s Charter Bill
Around that time, winds of change were coming for the lot of women, also through Byrne the minister.
In 1961, he tabled the Women’s Charter Bill in Parliament. The charter was meant to give wives certain rights against their husbands if their marriages soured, and also sought to address the gaps in the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance.
Wee recalled the lead-up to the bill’s introduction thus: “The People’s Action Party’s Chinese-educated Women’s Wing was active then… against yellow culture or all unclean matters, mainly polygamy and prostitution. The Women’s Charter was the response to this.”
She added: “The people who were agitating the most politically for the Women’s Charter at that stage, for monogamous marriage, were the Chinese-educated women and schoolteachers, factory workers and even high school girls.”
Among other things, Wee recalled, the Women’s Charter enabled action to be taken against prostitutes who were aged 21 years or younger, compared with the age limit of 18 years under the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance.
Seow Peck Leng, who was a member of the Select Committee working on the Women’s Charter before it went before Parliament, revealed that when the committee asked Singapore’s women to comment on the draft bill, only two women obliged.
Advocates for the criminalisation of polygamy
They were Mrs George Lee and Shirin Fozdar. Both advocated monogamy, and that the Charter should provide for polygamous men to be jailed.
Fozdar, incidentally, founded the Singapore Council for Women in 1952 – with Mrs George Lee its president at one time – and was an indefatigable champion of women’s rights after World War II.
She was commended by Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam for her efforts to better the lot of Singaporean women. Fozdar died in 1996, aged 86.
But many women in Singapore were apathetic to the issue
Seow, who was the only female opposition member in Singapore’s Legislative Assembly from 1959 till 1963, lamented: “But because of a lack of support from the then government, and a lack of support from other women, they failed to be of much use.”
“I think the women didn’t support them because they felt that it was a personal affair. But if you don’t support, polygamy could happen to you… Everybody was thinking of herself.”
She noted that this was the prevailing sentiment, even though the membership of the Council of Women comprised mostly female factory workers.
That was perhaps somewhat harsh. After all, as Seow herself recalled, a female doctor remonstrated against the charter criminalising polygamy.
“The doctor said that for uneducated housewives, if their husbands were put in jail, who was going to look after the household? But I think if she made that remark today, she would be booed.”
Seow knew the lot of women in Singapore only too well.
A champion of women’s causes, in 1954, she set up the Siglap Girls’ Club. The club, which taught underprivileged girls life skills, was a throwback to Pickering’s Poh Leung Kuk in the 1880s.
Then in 1957, Seow founded the Singapore Women’s Association and was its president till 1991.
Despite what Seow called the “lackadaisical” attitude of women in Singapore towards punishing polygamous non-Muslim husbands, the charter did eventually outlaw polygamy.
Paving the way for the Maintenance of Parents Bill
Besides the successful endeavour to make only monogamous marriages legal in Singapore, Seow said a young man protested the draft charter as being too myopic.
She recalled: “I very distinctly remember a Chinese-educated chap in his early 20s say, ‘Why are we talking about women, women, women? What about old people? You are talking about husband and wife relations. What about parents and children?’”
In response, Byrne the minister replied that the care of the elderly was the responsibility of the state.
Nevertheless, Seow thought that the young man had “foresight to say that young people should be made to look after their old people if justice is to done in this country”.
On 23 May 1994, law don and then Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Walter Woon tabled the Maintenance of Parents Bill, triggering heated debates within and outside Parliament as to whether it was necessary for the law to intrude into family affairs to that extent.
More than a year later, on November 2, 1995, Parliament passed the bill.
Women’s Charter, a powerful legal tool against domestic abuse
Eventually, the Women’s Charter became law later in 1961 and legalised only monogamous marriages by non-Muslim Singaporeans.
It was, by the reckoning of Singapore’s feminists, a great leap forward for gender parity in the nation.
Seow recalled: “Yes, even at the time, it was the talk of all countries. Every country that I went for conferences, they asked about the Women’s Charter.”
One of the charter’s most impactful provisions, she added, was the personal protection order, which a wife could take out against her abusive spouse for her safety.
“That was a great step,” she said. “Before the charter, the police would say to such wives, ‘That’s a family matter. We have nothing to do with it’.”
Since 2011, noted lawyer and former NMP Ellen Lee Geck Hoon, there has been a flurry of amendments to the Women’s Charter.
The notable changes have been the boosting of the court’s powers to ensure that a spouse pays maintenance money while also making counselling and dispute resolution processes more effective.
As a backhanded compliment to how far women have come in Singapore, husbands can now claim maintenance from their wives.
Lee, added that one issue still being hotly debated among lawmakers is whether or not to criminalise marital rape.
As it is, she pointed out, the Penal Code was amended in 2009 to broaden the range of sexual crimes, showing that society abhors violence against women.
But life is a series of a few steps forward – and a few steps back. At the time of writing in 2018, there was a spike in domestic abuse cases in Singapore, serious enough for public buses to carry anti-domestic abuse messages and a hotline for victims to call.
The lot of Singaporean women for the 21st century has greatly improved
Hedwig Anuar perhaps summed up best the relatively speedy emancipation of women in Singapore in 1998:
“You young women of today are so fortunate because you have so many choices. In my time, the choices we had were very restricted… we became teachers.
After my time, a lot of women went into academia… social work was also a new profession like librarianship. And then later we women got into the Civil Service but mostly on the lower rungs, of course.”
Many more women have clambered up the career ladder since Anuar’s oral history interview in 1998.
There are now women cabinet ministers and female permanent secretaries. That is a sea change from the 1960s, when Anuar could count on one hand the number of women who joined the Administrative Service after her.
Better yet, she could name all of them: Mabel Puthucheary, economists Lim Leong Bee and Heng Eu Moh, and Lee Seok Tin.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, women in the government had to endure male chauvinism on many levels
Having secured a foot in the door of the Public Service, these pioneering Singaporean women had to endure occasional chauvinism.
Anuar recalled: “P.S. Raman, who was then the Director of Broadcasting, once said, ‘Oh, I thought when Hedwig got into the Civil Service, she would change but she’s still a woman. She wants to argue about this thing.’”
“He made me think if I had been a man, it wouldn’t have been remarked on,” she mused.
“But because I was a women sticking to my guns, he felt this was a woman’s nature.” There was, she added, “this feeling that the men were always in charge.”
Such jibes stung women especially when most of them used to be paid much less than their male counterparts – just for being women.
Alice Cheang Wye Lan, the schoolteacher who retired as an inspector of schools, lamented: “We were all inspectors with the same qualifications and the same work but the senior men were Class I and another lady and I were Class II. We were always feeling very bad about this.”
“And if you were in Class II, the man would get a S$300 allowance, and we would get only S$150. And when we retired, we all got pensions – but they all had quite a lot more than we had.”
Up till August 1998, Anuar was still saying: “Women are not at the top of the Civil Service very easily… we still have very few women judges and so on. The decision-making is still left largely in the hands of men.”
For Muslim women, change came in the form of the Syariah Court
In that light, Khatijun Nissa Siraj, who is, incidentally, the mother of the aforementioned Zaibun Siraj, made history when she became the first Muslim woman to work in Singapore’s Syariah Court in 1960.
She was one among the court’s counsellors, and was interviewed by the Public Service Commission before the government appointed her to the court.
The Syariah Court adjudicates matters under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), which applies to all Muslim Singaporeans.
Khatijun did much to persuade her male colleagues to hire more women to counsel troubled married couples because, as she put it to them, “women have got a touch to them; they can understand and reason with the husband and wife.”
In fact, spouses intent on divorcing often did not see why they should go to the court at all.
That was because, before the AMLA took effect in 1966, they could obtain a divorce easily by just going before a kadi, or a religious affairs official.
Khatijun mused: “We had to work hard to convince them to come to court… And then they would wait until both could not take it anymore before coming to us. That was the most difficult part because you cannot mend their ties when they have made up their minds. Then the children were very pitiful.”
Ever practical, she also reasoned with her male colleagues in this way:
“Islam says the woman cannot ask for a divorce. You must follow whatever your husband says. But if the wife has been beaten up, has no money or food for herself and her children, if you tell her, ‘Islam says this and that’ do you think she’s going to bother? She will tell you, ‘Listen, I must save my stomach and my kids’ stomachs.’”
“So I always tell the Syariah Court president and heads whenever we talk, these are human beings we are dealing with, you must always see things from their point of view. You must always tackle that. It is not about religion; it is about two people fighting.”
Women now have more choices
All working women struggle to juggle career and family but, as Anuar noted, birth control was available worldwide only from the 1960s.
Anuar, a single mother of two, marvelled that women today not only have their pick of careers, but also “can decide for themselves whether to marry or not to marry or combine marriage with a career; to have children or not to have children.
“In our time,” she pointed out, “there was no birth control. It was not that easy to avoid having a baby if you didn’t want to have a baby. You could plan all these things now, make all these choices.”
Top image from World Scientific