Fact File

Jobs kept falling into her lap

The memoir's title A Tiger Remembers refers to Singapore's pioneering social worker Ann Wee being born in the Year of the Fire Tiger.
The memoir's title A Tiger Remembers refers to Singapore's pioneering social worker Ann Wee being born in the Year of the Fire Tiger.PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The title of the new memoir, A Tiger Remembers, refers to Singapore's pioneering social worker Ann Wee being born in 1926 which, to the Chinese, was the Year of the Fire Tiger.

But Wee stresses in her irrepressibly strident voice that the last thing she wanted was to put her personal details in the book.

She says: "I didn't want me to be in it. But my publishers insisted and said people will want to know where you are coming from."

So she relented and, while she refrained from commenting on her husband, the late lawyer Harry Lee Wee, and their two daughters Yolind, 64, and Lynnette, 60, she shared vignettes such as why she and Mr Wee married on June 28, 1950, a day the Chinese considered most inauspicious.

"I think it fitted in with his cases," she says with much mirth.

Born Ann Wilcox to an insurance businessman and a housewife in the Northumberland town of Corbridge, she had a cosy middle-class upbringing. Her parents were open-minded, befriending even gypsies, who would ply her with cups of over-sweet tea.

During World War II, she earned her keep by scrubbing the floors of Howick Hall, the home of Baron Charles Grey, after whom Earl Grey tea is named. She says it was her Downton Abbey moment because just as in that hit TV series, the master of Howick Hall had converted their home into a military hospital.

She has been a Singapore citizen for many years and, asked about her long, illustrious career, she says: "Things just fell into my lap."

To begin with, when three teachers quit Methodist Girls' School in quick succession here in late 1950, her next-door neighbour, Mrs Thio Chan Bee, coaxed Wee's motherin-law to get her to replace them. Mr Thio Chan Bee was the first Asian principal of the Anglo-Chinese School here and a renowned educator and politician.

But Wee had been a relief teacher to "unruly" children in Britain before settling down in Singapore and was reluctant to repeat the experience.

Wee, who speaks pitch-perfect Malay and Cantonese, recalls: "When I said, 'Aiya, I don't want to teach, man,' my mother-in-law said, 'Mrs Thio Chan Bee will be hurt.' That meant my mother- in-law would be hurt."

So she went for the job interview, clinching it easily. "It turned out to be a most happy experience and also made me into a middle-class modern Singaporean Chinese," she says.

Over tea at her home on Nassim Hill, the sharp, diminutive woman with immaculately coiffed hair and an air of being indomitable adds that she was never for the life of a tai-tai, which she could have embraced.

She plunged into social work instead and, from 1952, taught it part-time to a class of eight at the Department of Social Work at the then University of Malaya in Singapore.

While she was there, she got to know Singapore's late former president S R Nathan, whom she says was "brilliant and very nice, so brilliant, in fact, that the university had to amend its constitution so it could award him an unprecedented distinction for his diploma in social studies in 1954".

Then she joined the then government's Social Welfare Department from January 1955 till December 1956.

When another expatriate turned down a teaching post at the university's social work department, she was offered and took the job because of the more flexible working hours. "You could work all weekend for a conference and take your child to the dentist on Monday; it wasn't cheating."

Then, in 1967, another expatriate turned down the varsity's offer to head the department. Wee asked to be considered and the university appointed, but did not confirm her.

In 1968, she was asked to see then deputy prime minister Toh Chin Chye, who had then just become the varsity's vice-chancellor.

She recalls: "I was supposed to see him for 20 minutes and I was there for 11/2 hours. It included me saying, 'If you allowed me to finish a sentence, you would know that's not what I meant.'"

After that, she thought she might lose her job and so went home and told her husband: "I think you may need to keep your wife. He replied, 'Well, go down fighting and I will. But go down a wimp and I won't.'"

Dr Toh confirmed her appointment.

Her late husband encouraged her social work because, among other things, he was deputy chairman of the then Singapore Council of Social Services and was active in the YMCA too.

"You wouldn't hear that from him because he was a very private person," she says of her husband, who died on July 11, 2005.

She retired at age 60 in 1986, as the longest-serving head of the Department of Social Work, now in the National University of Singapore (NUS), but continued contributing as a social worker off and on until 2009.

That same year, she was awarded the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports' inaugural lifetime volunteer achievement award. She is now an associate professorial fellow at NUS.

Asked why she is releasing this memoir, which is also her first book, at the age of 90, she says: "It was floating in my mind for a long time."

She then talked to Mr Arun Mahizhnan, a special research adviser at the Institute of Policy Studies.

"He said... if you publish it when you're 90, that's a selling point," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 11, 2016, with the headline 'Jobs kept falling into her lap'. Print Edition | Subscribe