A tribute to 50 years of women volunteering

When some residents had to be quarantined at home during the 2003 Sars outbreak, grassroots volunteer Tina Khoo delivered food to them.

And when Ms Adalene Loh's friend told her she had been putting off getting a screening despite having a lump in her breast, Ms Loh insisted she go for a subsidised mammogram screening that the community club's Women's Executive Committee (WEC) had helped organise.

The intervention saved her friend's life: she had stage three cancer and went for two operations.

"I told her she had to come down. I would not leave the event until she came to get checked," recalled Ms Loh, 54, in a new book on WECs launched yesterday.

Titled 50 Years Of Sugar, Spice & Selfless Sacrifice, it features stories of women volunteers and was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Fairmont Singapore at a gala lunch marking the 50th anniversary of women's committees.

Dr Amy Khor, adviser to the People's Association's Women's Integration Network (WIN) Council, told 1,000 WEC volunteers they added "sugar and spice to community life".

The WIN Council is the coordinating body for the WECs.

The first WEC was started in 1967 at Bukit Ho Swee Community Centre and spearheaded by pioneer woman MP Chan Choy Siong. Today, there are 104 WECs with close to 2,500 members.

"We have come very, very far since then," said Dr Khor, who is Senior Minister of State for Health and Environment and Water Resources.

In Singapore's formative years, the WECs taught women skills such as sewing and cooking. Today, as they juggle multiple roles, programmes have expanded to include talks by women leaders and outreach efforts to women caregivers.

PM Lee noted that women are no longer just homemakers and caregivers, and female participation in the labour force is 60 per cent.

"In this environment, the WECs need to... reinvent themselves to meet the changing needs and aspirations of women today," he said.

He urged them to come up with activities to attract younger women and build support networks, even as they continue meeting the interests of older members through popular activities like qigong and zumba.

Dr Khor told reporters there have been recent initiatives like Young Ladies Clubs where younger women run activities for their peers.

WECs have also organised sharing sessions by women leaders to "assure women it is possible to manage and juggle their multiple roles".

They now hope to groom more future women community leaders, and a new $1,000 WIN-WEC Scholarship was awarded to 10 female ITE students yesterday.

Dr Khor noted that there are now 21 elected women MPs and, for the first time in Singapore's history, two full women ministers: Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu and newly promoted Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Manpower and Foreign Affairs Josephine Teo.

"This should inspire and encourage women to know that opportunities are there. They should develop their potential to the fullest and aim to pursue their interests, their aspirations," Dr Khor said. "I have no doubt over time we will increasingly see even more women in Cabinet."

She noted that more women are taking on leadership positions in various sectors, including the private and social sectors.

Asked about the pace of political progression for women, Dr Khor said women's progress since independence has been significant.

"The reality is that it will still take some time," she said, adding that some women still have to juggle motherhood with their careers.

"Increasingly you can see there are opportunities available, and women have succeeded in many areas," she added. "I have no doubt they will continue to do well and break boundaries."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline 'A tribute to 50 years of women volunteering'. Print Edition | Subscribe