Open Letter to David Marshall

[Shirin Fozdar]

P.O. Box 1779

Singapore, 6th July 1955

An Open Letter to Mr. Marshall, the Chief Minister, Singapore

Dear Mr. Marshall,

Before the elections the Labour Front and the P.A.P. promised to work for the uplift of the underdog and see that justice and equality prevailed. The women in this country were praying for the election of courageous and just men, who would remove the inequalities between the sexes in this country. The result of the election was that your party came into power. The Singapore Council of Women waited for an opportune moment to present to you their case, but unfortunately political rivalry and immature statesmanship have plunged this country into turmoil and unrest.

Napoleon said, "If you wish to make your country great, educate your mother." Unfortunately in this country how many mothers are educated? Is it any wonder, therefore, that children in their teens take up a hostile attitude to society and its established law and order? These are the children from homes where their mothers are suffering from injustice because the men have usurped the right to practice polygamy and keep their wives in constant mental anguish. After years of faithful service a wife may find the affections of her husband transferred to some younger candidate. Not even a formal ceremony is required to bring the second and subsequent wives into the home and these secondary wives are expected to share in the man's property and are protected by law.

Dr. Chan Su Lan in his convocation address delivered in 1952 stated that "Malaya cannot build a nation when its intelligentsia tolerated the continued recognition by law of the notorious 'Six Widows Case'". The emergency can be lengthened indefinitely when the majority of our women are illiterate and susceptible to the persuasion which encourages promiscuity under the guise of sexual equality as a substitute for the sanctity of marriage and the permanency and inviolability of the home.

The mistake of an English Chief Justice in giving wrong verdict in the case of the 'Six Widows' gave the concubine and the legal wife an equal status ignoring completely the original Chinese custom of treating the concubine as inferior to the legal wife, Nowhere in the world, except in this country, has such a decision been enforced by a judge on a people, perpetuating the institution of concubinage and giving it the stamp of respectability. Such laxity in marriage laws is proving a shameful burden on society and has established for this country a record of highest divorce rate -- the laws of divorce among the Malays being as elastic as the rubber we produce. You will be shocked to hear of the frivolity with which divorces are granted. It will not be inept to quote one case for your information of a Malay aged 35 years who has married 22 times and divorced each of his wives because she dared ask him where he was going at night. He has driven every wife out without any maintenance. Two of them have children, but he does not contribute towards their upbringing because the amount he earns is insufficient even to maintain himself. This practice of driving the wife out at sweet will of the man is not according to the tenets of any religion. The Muslim leaders in Singapore have themselves recognized the injustice of it and have appealed to the government for establishing a court for hearing these cases and reconciling the couples. Although nearly two years have elapsed yet no concrete step has been taken. According to the statistics more than 50% of the Malay marriages end in divorce. Each day four girls are divorced and turned unto the streets without any means of livelihood. They become . . . a burden on the Social Welfare Department . . . .


Singapore is a British Colony, and Britain is a signatory nation in the U.N.O.-- an organization which has as its basic principle the granting of fundamental rights to both men and women of nations large and small. The commission of Human Rights has pledged itself to raise the status of women and to eliminate all discriminations against women in the provisions of Statutory Law and under the maxim of rules or interpretation of Customary Law.

Those at the helm of affairs in Singapore are talking in terms of independence. Has any country ever attained freedom when half of its population, consisting of women, is too engrossed with worries of maintaining their marital security and home? What does national freedom or independence mean to these harassed women whose greatest worry is to prevent their husbands from straying, so that they and their children could have a more secure future. Mental anguish is a disease which is eating into the vitals of the women of this country. Situated as they are bereft of peace of mind, they cannot do justice to the rearing of the right kind of Malayan citizens. Their only hope lies in a kind of social revolution where men and women will have equal rights. Justice has got to be done quickly if the anticipated social revolution is not to be ushered in by a bloody one, which will expose the hypocrisy of those who in the name of God, religion and custom try to exploit the fairer sex, and deprive them of the rights which scientific knowledge, new economic conditions and modern ideas of justice have bestowed upon them. The Chinese marriage laws in this country seem to be operating for the benefit of the rich and self-indulging men and gold-digging unscrupulous women. The masses in this country are poor, and the men cannot maintain even one wife and her children decently. These poor men are not in favour of laws encouraging polygamy because thereby their own chances of getting a wife become remote. Chinese girls knowing the open avenues for becoming a secondary wife of a rich man often spurn the offer of becoming the only wife of a poor man. For whose benefit are these atrocious marriage laws permitted to continue in a country which hopes to become a socialist state?

It is a tragedy that the rich men in Singapore are not intelligent enough to read the writings on the wall or they would have been in the forefront of those who would have sought by legislation to impose upon themselves austere and less indulgent lives, and won the hearts of their less fortunate men and long suffering fellow women.

How much better it would be 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. Situated as you are each one of you is like a father to the people that elected you. The women of all races in Singapore whether married or unmarried are your responsibility. You must see that they are relieved of anxiety and their future happy marital state is ensured. The struggle in raising the status of women in Malaya or wherever it may be in the world is one which should have the complete support not only of all women but of all men too, irrespective of their racial, religious or cultural background, because this is not only a struggle to raise the status of women to the level enjoyed by men, but is only a part of a greater struggle for human souls to establish human rights.

The attainment of independence will remain an idle dream if men in this country do not rise to generous heights to grant that independence to their own kith and kin -- the women of this country. The men here have not reckoned with an unknown entity called God. He dislikes unjust people, and woe betide a country or a people who act contrary to His Will which demands that "You do unto others as you would have others do to you."

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Last modified: 25 April 2001