Oct 7, 2010
The Singapore 'Herstory'
THE term 'herstory' originated in the late 1960s, gathering momentum through the 1970s and 1980s as a feminist critique of male-dominated historical narratives. While the term is not derived from the Greco-Latin root word historia (meaning knowledge by inquiry), it is nonetheless a deliberate play on words - 'her' rather than 'his' story - to emphasise historical analysis of the roles of women or accounts told from women's perspectives, thus reflecting a growing interest in more inclusive gender studies.
In that respect, the title of Noel Barber's The Singapore Story: From Raffles To Lee Kuan Yew (1978) is open to two main charges that render it 'exclusive' rather than 'inclusive'. Firstly, it could be accused of adopting an elitist approach to history, underscoring the role of leading public figures while downplaying or ignoring the study of historically voiceless groups. Secondly, it could also assume a patriarchal - possibly chauvinistic - bias towards the masculine gender, when women then constituted 48 per cent (and today constitute 51 per cent) of Singapore's resident population, comprising citizens and permanent residents. It should be argued that women have played vital, complementary roles alongside their male counterparts, making the tapestry of Singapore's story all the richer for their contribution.
The wives of the 'founding fathers' furnish a more prominent example. Sir Stamford Raffles had died in debt and disfavour as far as Britain's East India Company was concerned, but Lady Sophia did much to cement his historical reputation by writing an authoritative, influential biography of her late husband. She commissioned a commemorative statue in Westminster Abbey; its inscription credited him with founding 'an emporium at Singapore' and regenerating indigenous society through the application of liberal-utilitarian principles.
In more recent times, Madam Kwa Geok Choo has earned the epitaph 'mother of the nation' for the part she played in enabling her husband to govern independent Singapore. A brilliant scholar and successful lawyer in her own right, she was described by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as his equal and 'a wife who could be a sole breadwinner and bring the children up'. The spouses of other founding fathers also played important roles and we should remember as well some public servants. Mrs Elizabeth Choy was a wartime heroine during the Japanese Occupation, but later served as an educator and nominated legislative councillor (1951-55). Madam Chan Choy Siong, one of the first female elected representatives (City Council, 1957-59; Legislative Assembly, 1959-65; then Parliament, 1965-70), and Ms Chua Seng Kim (Mrs Seow Peck Leng), the first female opposition member (1959-63), were pioneer women's rights activists who campaigned successfully for the 1961 Women's Charter.
Among the second-generation women MPs were Dr Aline Wong, Dr Dixie Tan and Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon. Dr Seet Ai Mee, as Acting Minister for Community Development (1991), was the highest-ranked female politician in Singapore's history until the appointment of Mrs Lim Hwee Hua as a full Cabinet minister last year. Dr Kanwaljit Soin, the first female nominated MP (1992-96), has played a key role in promoting social concern for issues such as violence against women. Representing the national interest abroad, Singapore's top diplomats have included women ambassadors like Professor Chan Heng Chee, Mrs Jaya Mohideen and Mrs Mary Seet-Cheng.
Avoiding the charge of elitist history, recognition is due also to the many women whose hard work has helped to build Singapore, both as a colony and an independent nation-state. The samsui women are a case in point. Arriving as Chinese immigrants between the 1920s and 1940s, some worked as domestic servants but most supplied cheap labour for the construction industry and other jobs requiring heavy lifting. They acquired a high moral reputation for refusing jobs involving drug (especially opium) trafficking, prostitution or other vices - even if it meant living in poverty and cramped conditions. Most never married, though they kept in contact with family back in China.
Singaporean women today increasingly face the dual pressures of professional careers and homemaking. Notable in helping to address these challenges of modernity are the endeavours of the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO), whose members past and present represent a wide spectrum of professional interests, encompassing the worlds of business, faith, social welfare, law, education, science, medicine, sports, culture and the media. Thus it is particularly poignant that in its message of sympathy to MM Lee, the SCWO described Madam Kwa as someone who will always be remembered as an inspirational and extraordinary woman - a woman of grace, intelligence and strength - whose contribution to the nation is unmatched and immeasurable.
In this message, we hear a chorus of Singaporean women whose voices convey a sense of shared appreciation and collective identification - a grief observed, a life remembered - in their Singapore story.
The writer is Assistant Professor of History at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and a member of the History Curriculum Development Committee, Ministry of Education.