Straits Times, 19 Oct 1947
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited.
Reprinted with permission.

Wooing Women Voters

The 1955 Legislative Assembly election saw automatic voter registration, raising the proportion of women voters from a paltry 8% to 50%. To woo women voters, political parties started women’s sections. Voting became compulsory with the General Election, and the People’s Action Party went all out to secure women’s votes. It included women’s rights in the party manifesto, fielded five women candidates, and adopted ‘One Man One Wife’ as one of its election slogans.

A Charter for Women

When the Women’s Charter became law in 1961, it put Singapore ahead of many countries with regard to women’s rights. Polygamy, which was rife in all communities, became illegal (except for Muslims). The Charter made it clear that in a marriage, husband and wife were equals in the management of the home and the children. Other provisions covered the solemnisation of marriages, maintenance of wives and children, protection of the family, and the penalties for offences against women and children.

I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar

Women in Singapore did not have to fight for the right to vote. Universal suffrage came in stages as Singapore moved during the 1950s towards self-government and then independence. But in all other areas, women faced many obstacles and inequities. After World War II and the Japanese Occupation, women started to stir. They began to organise themselves, and to work for the changes they wanted to see.

Women formed the majority of the early voters in the 1959 General Election. Here, a queue at one of the Hong Lim Green polling stations
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reprinted with permission.

The First Fight For Women’s Rights

Among the several dozen organisations formed by women after World War II, one stood out. The Singapore Council of Women, formed in 1952, had a clear agenda of fighting for women’s rights. They wanted laws to protect women and children and, in particular, an end to polygamy. They also started a girls’ club, and launched a campaign to get factories that had large numbers of women workers to set up creches. The SCW organised public talks about women’s rights, cultivated the media, and lobbied policymakers. The Women’s Charter, which was passed in 1961, addressed most of the SCW’s concerns.

Women Are Like Pieces Of Meat

“The problems of women are the result of an unreasonable society. Men take women as pieces of merchandise. The inhuman feudalistic system has deprived women of their rights…. Women in our society are like pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice.”

Chan Choy Siong (Delta) (in Mandarin).
Speech on the First Reading of the Bill for the Women’s Charter, 6 April 1960

Remove Injustices Done To Women

“How much better it would if instead of making the Legislative Assembly an arena for politicians to indulge in verbal bouts, the elected representatives would unite together on this one important issue of removing the injustices done to women. This would be repaying to some extent the debt of gratitude that you each owe to your mother, who happened to be a woman.”

Shirin Fozdar in an open letter to Chief Minister David Marshall, 6 July 1955

Pioneering women’s rights activist
(1905 – 1992)

Shirin and her husband came to Singapore from India in 1950 to spread their Ba’hai faith. She was appalled to find polygamy rampant here, and little protection for women and girls. She got together some 20 ‘progressive and enlightened’ women and set up the Singapore Council of Women in 1952. It campaigned fiercely for a ban on polygamy and laws to protect women. The SCW’s efforts helped to put women’s rights on the political agenda.

Pioneering champion of the rights of
women and children

(1907 – 1962)

Che Zahara founded the Malay Women’s Welfare Association in 1947. It was the first such organisation for Muslim women in Singapore. She devoted her life to looking after the needs of the poor and needy. Angered by the inequitable treatment of Muslim women by their husbands, she campaigned for reforms to ensure greater marriage stability. She also called for the minimum age of marriage for girls to be raised from 9 to 16.

Political activist and campaigner
for women’s rights

(1931 -1981)

Choy Siong joined the People’s Action Party 5 months after it was formed. She was just 23. In 1959, when Singapore had gained full self-government, she won a seat in the Legislative Assembly. Though women had the vote, they were still in effect second-class citizens. Choy Siong, as leader of the PAP Women’s League, lobbied hard for equality and for the PAP to include women’s rights in their manifesto. In the Assembly, she pressed for the Women’s Charter to be passed.