Ong Pang Boon Remembers Chan Choy Siong

Philip Holden, Area Coordinator (Literature and the Arts), University Scholars Programme

The following comments are taken from an interview with Ong Pang Boon in Melanie Chew's Leaders of Singapore. Ong here remembers the activities of his wife, Chan Choy Siong, in making women's rights part of the agenda of the People's Action Party. What do you think Chan shares with the activists of the Singapore Council of Women, and in what ways do her experiences and strategies differ?

She started the Women's League in early 1956. The Women's League had sub-committees attached to all the party branches. For a long time, the Women's League was confined mainly to the Chinese educated, working class women. She was one of the very few Senior Middle School educated. The others were primary educated. It was difficult to get people to come out to work in the Women's League. The English-educated would not come in. For that matter, the men also...(177)

Was it difficult for a woman to be in politics?

The feudal social setting prevailing in the fifties was loaded against the women. Then, the status of women in the family and the society at large was inferior to men. Polygamy was common. Education for girls took a backseat vis-�-vis the boys. Most girls were not educated, or at best primary school educated. Very few had secondary education. Jobs were not east to come by and pay was never equal for the same job.

To take part in politics was frowned upon if not ridiculed. One needed courage and determination to brace oneself against prejudices of society, and opposition from family elders, to take part in active political campaigning. Especially for a party which could lead one into conflict with the colonial authority ... (177)

I would not like to give the impression that the Woman's Charter was easily passed. Actually it was a very tough fight. She was lucky that Kenny Byrne was the Minister for Law. He was sympathetic. . . . But some in the party, well, they kicked up a row.

Especially when it came to the registration of marriages. At that time, it was quite common for a man to have more than one wife. Even within the party, some members, well, their fathers had more than one wife. So how were they going to register? There was a ruckus.

How did she get the Women's Charter passed? It became law on September 15th, 1961.

Women had won the vote on 1955. After that time, the women's vote was very important. Especially after the party had split in 1961. The PAP needed the support of women! By 1961, the women's vote was crucial in Referendum and subsequent electoral fights with the Barisan Sosialist [sic]. So women became powerful, and they could demand their rights. (178)

Work Cited

Chew, Melanie. Leaders of Singapore. Singapore: Resource Press, 1996.

Main Web Page Singapore Gender Matters

Last modified: 25 April 2001