It is fifty years since the Women’s Charter became Law. Fifty years since Singapore women were catapulted from a feudal society into the twentieth century. Women in independent countries were then fighting for equality and for equal opportunity. In the USA the Second Wave of the feminist movement was about to become a mighty force for change.
It is hard to imagine just how different the world was for Singapore women before the 1960s.
Mrs. Ann Wee gives us a glimpse of that world at that time and during that process of advocating for a ban on the practice of Polygamy in her essay in the recently launched book, by the Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore Women’s Charter: Roles, Responsibilities and Rights in Marriage. The Charter’s major contribution to legislation was the outlawing of polygamy. The practice of polygamy had resulted in poverty among the many abandoned and abused women and children. Among a whole slew of other changes to protect women and children in marriage the Charter also raised the minimum age of marriage to 18.
The Singapore Free Press of March 1960 (pg. 6) reported that the Charter will see ‘an end to marriage of children, no more than halfway through their teens. Last year there were 170 child wives under 14 years old and 13,000 between the ages of 15 and 19. … One girl had been married thrice before she was 16. Another, aged 15, was wife to a man four times her age.” Fifty years ago Singapore was still a feudal society in its treatment of women.
In the history of every nation there comes a moment which can be called a defining moment. A defining moment is the point at which, a situation is clearly seen to undergo a change and in this instance, the passing into of the Women’s Charter in 1961 changed the lives of many – men, women and children – changed the way men and women viewed relationships within marriage, changed our perception about male/female relationship and advanced the status of women in our society.
The passing into law of the women’s charter in 1961 was our nation’s, our society’s, our women’s defining moment.
Dr. Goh Keng Swee described the Bill during the debate in the legislative assembly as a “ major advance in social legislation not only in the country but in South East Asia” (The Straits Times 7th April 1960).
The Women’s Charter was a remarkable achievement.
However I would like us to move away from the focus on the Women’s Charter and bring the spotlight on the women of those times: the women who formed the Singapore Council of Women in 1952 under the leadership of Mrs Shrin Fozdar and Mrs.George Lee to lobby against polygamy; the women such as Madam Chan Choy Siong within the PAP; women such as Mrs Seow Peck Leng in the Legislative Assembly – the likes of whom we have not seen in independent Singapore.
They were several very significant developments and outcomes during the process towards the passing of the Women’s Charter that needs to be recorded.
- Firstly, it took the Singapore Council of Women (SCW), almost a decade of lobbying the politicians for the PAP to take on board the status of women and the issue of polygamy to be included in their party manifesto.
- The women were functioning in an environment which was far more conservative, far more traditional, far more male dominated than one we ever had to confront;
- The various groups of women (there were 30 then) functioned along racial/clan lines. They were mostly welfare and social organizations. There was no such thing as a united Singapore community. These women, who came together to form the Council managed to mobilize women of the different communities – they suspended cultural, sectional and religious differences – to join together to fight for a cause. Their’s was a remarkable achievemen. It was, to quote a current jargon ‘awesome’.
- That mobilization of women was and is the most successful moblisation of women in our history. With that moblisation those women set in motion the idea of a Singapore community – a Singapore nation. This achievement should not be under-estimated nor glossed over.
- The next important point, I want to make is that women were empowered in the process – and not just the women who were leading the process. This sense – a new sense of themselves as women, treated with dignity and respect – a sense of empowerment and celebration was palpable.
The Straits Times, in 3rd June 1962, observing these changes reported, a year later, that more women were participating in community activities e.g. annual International Bazaar in aid of the Blind – the women made it the most colourful and biggest bazaar and raised $101,000 in 1960 and $120,000 in 1961. Whereas in previous years the Bazaar had collected much less – the most recorded was about $70,000.
The same ST story reported that Singapore women were ‘taking more than a lively interest in various conferences relating to women’s interests” by attending international conference.
The Singapore Council of Women was also functioning in a very different political environment. Political parties especially the PAP were fighting to establish their dominance. That helped too. Then there were women within the PAP who were also campaigning for a women’s rights charter.
- My third point is that a confluence of forces came together to enable success.
Three forces, no four forces came together – The democratic political situation, an active civil society- the SCW, the PAP’s women members, and the socially progressive spirit of the times- and the outcome was a very revolutionary document. As Dr Goh said ‘a major advance in social legislation…”
1960s may have been chaotic and ridden with racial problems as our ‘National history’ tells us. It was also the time when the PAP government was just beginning to establish its hegemony and could still be challenged. But, ironically, it was also a time when the government was idealistic, energetic and possessed the political will to go against powerful forces of conservatism and tradition. However “conservative values” is often used now as an excuse for the lack of political will.
Where is that idealism? Where is that energy? Where is that political will that challenged powerful forces of tradition and culture as it did when the Women’s Charter was passed? Where is the social conscience which compelled the legislators of the 1961 Legislative Assembly to pass the Women’s Charter in to law? Where are those men and women?
But at this time in our history we can rejoice that, there were once in Singapore, men and women who were idealistic and brave enough to give Singaporeans the most progressive charter anywhere in the world at that time.
Ms Constance Singham is a longtime advocate of women's right and a former president of AWARE.