60 years since Chan Choy Siong, PAP Women’s Wing continues its fight for women’s development

Chan Choy Siong

In the 1950s, women were second-class citizens. While they had full voting rights by 1955, in many other areas they lagged far behind men. Many were denied education. Husbands could have multiple wives. Jobs were harder to get and, when employed, women were paid less than men. This was unacceptable to Chan Choy Siong and she lobbied hard for the equality of women.

Chan Choy Siong was a pioneering politician and campaigner for women’s rights.  A hawker’s daughter, she grew up helping her father at his chee cheong fun stall in Chinatown when she was not attending classes at Nanyang Girls’ High School.

Five months after the PAP was inaugurated in October 1954, Choy Siong joined the party. She was 23. In the 1957 City Council election, she successfully stood for election as the PAP candidate for Kreta Ayer. She was 26 then.

Two years later, when Singapore had been granted full self-government and voting was compulsory, Choy Siong won the Delta seat for the PAP.

A campaigner for women’s rights, Choy Siong formed women’s subcommittees in the PAP branches and led the PAP Women’s League, the predecessor of the PAP Women’s Wing.

PAP’s election manifesto for 1959 “The Tasks Ahead” promised to legislate monogamous marriage, provide jobs for women, ensure equal pay for equal work, care for widows and orphans, and encourage women to be active in politics.

“Women in our society are like pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice.” : Chan Choy Siong in a fiery speech in the Legislative Assembly in April 1960

After winning the General Elections in June 1959, the PAP Government set out to deliver on its promise to the women of Singapore.

Speaking in support of the Women’s Charter Bill, Madam Chan said, “This Bill will make (women) fully realise their political, educational, cultural, and economic equality in society. We of the PAP introduce this Bill in order to uphold the rights of women.”

Apart from prohibiting polygamy (other than on religious grounds), the proposed Charter essentially put husband and wife on an equal footing before the law.

Enacted on 24 May 1961, the Women’s Charter was considered a landmark legislation in the women’s movement in Singapore. Since its enactment, the Women’s Charter has been updated many times.

In 2016, it was amended to better protect the interest of children affected by their parents’ divorce, better support for vulnerable persons in family violence and crisis situations, and professionals engaged in protection work, and to strengthen law enforcement against online vice.

In 2019, it was amended to strengthen the laws against online vice and to enhance the police’s levers against vice syndicates that run their businesses remotely, often from overseas.

Empowering women in the Future Economy

Here are some of the past efforts of the PAP WW championing women’s issues and advocating for progress on various fronts:

  • 2016:  WW published a Position Paper entitled “SGfuture: Women’s Perspectives and Aspirations” that proposed recommendations on leadership and social impact, employment and entrepreneurship, family and caregiving, and financial well-being.
  • 2017: WW, together with BoardAgender – an initiative of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, advocated for more formal mechanisms to ensure the acceleration of the number of women on boards in Singapore.
  •  2017:  MP Tin Pei Ling, Joan Pereira, Cheryl Chan, Jessica Tan and Lee Bee Wah moved a private member’s motion to call for more to be done to help women juggle their family commitments and career goals. A total of 10 women MPs and Nominated MPs spoke during the private members motion.
  • 2019: WW put up a position paper to the Government with recommendations to enable and encourage young Singaporean parents to raise their children successfully while concurrently pursuing their careers and other life goals.

The PAP Women’s Wing (WW) is not done speaking up!

Early in January this year (2021), the WW and YP (Young PAP) organised four dialogue sessions with activists and members of the public joining in the conversations, to discuss the challenges faced by women and explore possible solutions to overcome these issues. The sessions were led by Minister of State for Education, and Social and Family Development Sun Xueling and Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam who were also tasked to lead the Government’s efforts to conduct a holistic review of the issues relating to women.

The culmination of the dialogue sessions and conversations are 12 recommendations to tackle issues affecting Singaporean women today. According to the PAP WW, this set of recommendations has been developed from the diverse views and suggestions from some 1,500 members of the public, party activists, and community partners.

What the PAP WW and YP proposed: the 12 recommendations

The recommendations are organised along three key areas to protect and uplift our women. They include:
• Enabling more choices for women at home, at work and in the community;
• Promoting more equal sharing of the caregiving responsibilities between men and women; and
• Rallying a whole-of-society approach to change mindsets and advance women’s development, recognising that men can help to remove barriers.

Specifically, the 12 recommendations are:

  1. Scaling up a nationwide movement to help women enter and progress in growth sectors;
  2. Introducing legislation to regulate merit-based employment and penalise discriminatory conduct to achieve more diverse and inclusive workplaces;
  3. Partnering organisations and employers to develop holistic support packages and support networks for women to re-enter the workforce and rebuild their careers;
  4. Giving parents full flexibility to decide how to share maternity and paternity leave;
  5. Increasing financial support to caregivers of seniors to help relieve their financial strain and out-of-pocket expenses;
  6. Organising voluntary respite services for caregivers and raising the awareness of support programmes;
  7. Enhancing options for long-term home-based care for the elderly;
  8. Updating the sexual education curriculum regularly to keep up with evolving norms, with a specific focus on the curriculum for secondary school students;
  9. Promoting open reporting of workplace harassment;
  10. Allowing the freezing of women’s eggs;
  11. Creating a national reproductive health screening programme for married couples;
  12. Creating a support network for single mothers.

Mrs Josephine Teo, Chairwoman of the PAP Women’s Wing said, “We have listened and distilled these down to the pressing concerns of women today. What we have are achievable and impactful steps forward that will set new foundations for the future of Singapore women, and empower them to live out their fullest potential at home, work and in society.”

Dr Janil Puthucheary, Chairman of the Young PAP, said, “Young PAP has a diverse membership with diverse views. This is representative of young Singaporeans. This paper adds substance to the national review of issues relating to women’s development. We must and will continue to do more to empower, protect and uplift women, to set the stage for the next generation.”

The joint position paper will be submitted to the Government for its consideration. You can read the full paper here.

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