Report on the Singapore Council of Women

Given by Shirin Fozdar at the Annual General Meeting on 1st December 1959

Now that the effort of the Singapore Council of Women is being crowned with success since new marriage laws are coming into existence from next year it would not be inept to relate in short the history of the birth of this Council and its method of work.

On the 30th November 1951, a group of leading women were invited by Mrs. Shirin Fozdar to meet at her home and discuss ways and means of removing the handicaps under which women suffered in different communities in Singapore.

The following aims and objects which had previously been drafted was approved:

The Council was to be a Women's Movement for the promotion of the economic, educational, cultural and social status of women in general in the city.

To facilitate and encourage mutual friendship, understanding and co-operation among the various races and communities of Singapore.

To ensure through legislation, justice to all women, seek their welfare as embodied in the Declaration of Human Rights and Freedom.

The Council shall adopt any or all of the following means for the achievement of its aims and objects.

Organise meetings, lectures, debates and symposiums.

Publish a periodical moulding public opinion towards a more just dealing for the women.

Incorporate other women organizations to promote the activities of this Council.

Undertake other activities which may be necessary or conducive to the objects of this Council.

Appoint specialized committees to collect information regarding the handicaps under which the women are suffering and guide the executive as to the effective methods by which these handicaps may be removed.

After approving the above aims for the Singapore Council of Women, an Interim Committee was formed consisting of the following women:

Mrs. Elizabeth Choy President
Che Zaharah and Mrs. Goh Kok Kee as Vice Presidents
Mrs. V. Menon Treasurer
Mrs. Shirin Fozdar Secretary
Mrs. E. V. Davies Members
" J. Alcock
" A. Alsagoff
" Helen Tan

These women in turn appointed a committee consisting of Mrs. Compton, Mrs. Davies and Mrs. Fozdar to draft out a constitution which could be placed before a general meeting.

Within a short time the constitution was ready and a drive for membership was made.

The General meeting of all the enrolled women was called in April 1952, and an Executive Committee of 15 was elected and the constitution was approved.

The Council then set about the task of enrolling more members. Within a few months 800 women from all walks of life from the rubber packer in the factory to the millionaire became enrolled.

The membership fee was kept very low at $1 for three years which came to a little more than 30 cents per year. This was done with view to attract the masses to join so that the larger the number the more impressive the organization. There was no need for money as our officers were all voluntary workers and no one was paid for any work done, not even the secretary. The office rent also was not being paid as the secretary allowed the use of her office.

The Council of Women soon thereafter thought of ways and means of doing some good to the women, and found that so far there was not a single Girls club although the Social Welfare Department had established boys clubs. We therefore approached the Social Welfare Dept and asked for the use of the Joo Chiat Welfare Centre to start a Girls Club. On the 19th February 1953 the first Club for girls came into existence. On the first day there were 70 girls enrolled but in two months the number increased to 300. Through the generosity of Mr. Lee Kong Chian and Mr. George Lee we were given five sewing machines. [1/2]

Mrs. R. Pohan regularly came to teach the girls dress making, Mrs. George Lee taught arithmetic and Mrs. Fozdar taught English and Miss Lai Ping taught Mandarin. All these teachers came regularly and taught freely.

Within a few months all these underprivileged women and girls learnt to be proficient in reading and writing.

In order to create an awakening among the women, public lectures were given at various places and the press co-operated by reporting the lectures although very often the reporting was such as would create controversy, but that also gave us further scope to elaborate our point of view.

A magazine called the Woman's Voices was started, but finding it an expensive proposition had to be abandoned after two issues. The work entailed was also intense and could not be coped with on voluntary assistance of workers.

Within a short time the male population of Singapore got awakened to our intentions and set themselves against us. The Council's activities were criticized and male supremacy upheld, but all such criticism was replied to in the strongest term possible, and all all arguments against our move was logically rebutted.

Our efforts were mostly concentrated on abolishing polygamy amongst the Chinese and easy divorces among the Malays. We therefore decided to print handbills for distribution among the Malays and Chinese explaining to the former, from their own religious scripture the Koran, the real injunctions of their own prophet. The police Commissioner Mr. Morris on hearing of our intentions sent us a notice warning us not to do so as he feared there may be an outbreak of riot. Although this fear was unfounded, yet it showed what tricks the men played to bar our way to awakening the people.

Finding the local men opposing us we appealed to Mr. Stan Awbery, a Labour member of the House of Commons in London to raise the question of easy divorces among the Malays and query as to why it was allowed. He obliged us by asking the question, and this subject was given wide publicity in Singapore and other papers. This angered the Muslims and our secretary was threatened with murder. The Muslim Advisory Board had been repeatedly appealed to by our Council to change the divorce laws, but a deaf ear was turned, yet after the querying in the House of Commons they realized the notoriety the Malays were getting for not moving in the matter. They therefore decided to wake up and assured the Muslims that they were going to do something in this connection, but at the same time appealed to the Malays not to be carried away by what the secretary of the Singapore Council of Women said.

The Muslim advisory board therefore drafted the Muslim Ordinance of 1955 wherein they provided that a Shariah Court may be set up to try all disputed divorces. Our Council had also demanded that the Kathies should be put on the civil list so that they would not benefit by charging fees for divorcing couples. We hoped thereby to remove the impetus which encourages the Kathies to give divorces so readily, and force them to bring about reconciliation between contending couples.

Not content with its efforts for the women of Singapore, our Council tried to help the women of the Federation also. Many lectures were arranged in different parts of Malaya and the antiquated custom of polygamy and the un-Islamic manner of easy divorces was attacked severely. The newspapers were ready to come to our aid and reported all that was said by the Secretary of the Council.

Letter were addressed to all the Sultans in the Federation and to the Muslim Religious Boards there appealing to them to deal justly with women and ensure stability in marriage. Some Sultans replied saying that the matter would be considered, but so far nothing has as yet been done in the Federation although the realization for the need of change is there.

The Secretary of the Council met Dato Tan Cheng Lock, the former president of the M.C.A. and requested him to ameliorate the condition of Chinese women in the Federation by demanding for monogamous marriages, but he felt that the time was not ripe yet. His son Mr. Tan Siew Sin was quite in accord with our views and seemed eager to help. We were promised later by Mr. Lim Chong Eu that he would move in this matter and introduce monogamous marriage laws for the Chinese in the Federation. We are waiting and hoping that the Federation would also awaken and extend proper social and marital security to the women.

In Singapore, the Chinese Advisory Board, some of whose [2/3] members were polygamous were reluctant to make any progressive move in the direction of changing the marriage laws. To our repeated appeals we were given evasive replies.

The Governor in Council and government was approached time and time again to introduce a monogamous marriage law, no one was prepared. Although individually the various ministers of the past government were in favour of a change, but they lacked courage for action. The Singapore Council of Women finding itself helpless decided to attack this indifference on the part of the government, at various conferences outside Singapore, in order to shake up the lethargy of all concerned. We succeeded in doing it at the Afro-Asian Conference in Colombo, and again at the Pan-Pacific and South East Asian Women's Conference in Tokyo. Our attacks rudely shook up the Legislative assembly, and the different political parties promised to take up the cause of women if they came into power.

During the last election the various parties promised all kinds of things, but all forgot to mention their position about the rights of women. Only the P.A.P. gave an uncompromising assurance to give women complete equality with men including one man one wife law. The result of this promise was evident, men and women both voted for them. It showed that the fight put up by the Singapore Council of Women had created enough awakening among the people to bring it to a triumphant conclusion. The women of Singapore except the Muslims, will now be protected by a new monogamous marriage act from next year.

Our attention will now have to be diverted exclusively to gaining similar rights for Muslim women, and I am sure the Singapore Council of Women will succeed in its further drive, even though the direction of the struggle may have to be across the border of Singapore.

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Last modified: 25 April 2001