Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Singapore Council of Women and the Women's Movement

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Singapore Council of Women and the Women's Movement

Article excerpt

The greater part of the historical literature concerning Southeast Asia says little about women because, following the western tradition, writers have concentrated on those individuals associated with decision making and power, areas where men have featured predominantly. Although women have contributed significantly to social and political movements, they have been neglected in historical accounts and often, their contribution has been excluded altogether. Even studies dealing specifically with legislation involving women's rights in Singapore such as the Women's Charter, have given insufficient attention to the part played by women in laying much of the preliminary groundwork.(1)

To redress the situation, this article focuses on the activities of the Singapore Council of Women (SCW) and the women's movement in Singapore. It tells how from the year of its inception (1952) to the passing of the Women's Charter in 1961, the SCW became the first women's organization which boldly sought to change existing laws affecting women through legislation. The group's single-minded thrust against the practice of polygamy gained its widespread publicity and for the first time in Singapore's history, excited and engaged the loyalty and energy of a broad spectrum of women towards achieving a common goal. The SCW was strikingly successful. Within five years, the Muslim Ordinance was passed which included many of the demands which were first brought to public attention by the SCW. Within eight years, in 1961, the Women's Charter granting most of their demands, became law in Singapore.


Two factors account for the formation of the SCW. First, the social political stirrings brought about by the Second World War and the Japanese occupation; and second, the presence of a group of socially conscious women who were greatly dissatisfied with the existing status quo with regards to women's rights.

Socio-political Stirrings

Women in Singapore emerged from the Japanese occupation with a deeper awareness of the world around them and a greater confidence of their own capabilities to survive social and political changes. They were ready for new changes, having seen the humiliating defeat of British forces in the march of Japanese militarism and with it the shattering of the myth of the supremacy of the white colonialist. The inhibitions of women where public life was concerned were noticeably reduced and they began to take a greater interest in reaching out to the less fortunate of society. Emerging from their homes in significant numbers, they contributed to the war rehabilitation efforts, took up jury service(2) and became Justices of Peace.(3)

Hundreds of women came forward to help rebuild Singapore society. Women volunteers manned the feeding centres set up by the colonial government to cater for the thousands of children who were roaming the streets looking for food.(4) They also banded together to establish the first family planning association in Singapore, convinced that a family should have no more children than they could feed, clothe and educate properly.(5) Women also rallied to the call for decolonialization and for the first time, joined political parties and stood for elections in the Municipal Council.(6)

More began to be interested in forming associations of their own.(7) Old girls' associations were the first to be formed and they were followed by associations related to work, welfare and recreation. By 1952, the year of the formation of the SCW, there were over thirty women's associations in Singapore. There were school alumni associations (e.g. the Raffles Old Girls' Association), recreational clubs (e.g. Girls' Sports Club), community service clubs (e.g. Chinese Ladies Association), religiously inspired organizations (e.g. the Young Women's Christian Association), racial groups (e.g. Malay Women's Welfare), wives' groups (e.g. the Inner Wheel of the Rotary Club), professional groups (e. …

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