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3 female pioneers who paved the way for S’pore women

In the first of a three-part series celebrating SG women, we salute the gutsy trailblazers who shaped our nation’s history through their stories and carved out a world of possibilities and opportunities for generations to come.

(From left) Women’s advocate Khatijun Nissa Siraj, medical social worker Daisy Vaithilingam and Singapore’s first female commercial pilot Anastasia Gan. PHOTOS: ST FILE
(From left) Women’s advocate Khatijun Nissa Siraj, medical social worker Daisy Vaithilingam and Singapore’s first female commercial pilot Anastasia Gan. PHOTOS: ST FILE

Declaring 2021 the Year of Celebrating SG Women on Saturday, Minister for Social And Family Development Masagos Zulkifli highlighted the integral role that women — from war heroine Elizabeth Choy to medical social worker Daisy Vaithilingam — have played in shaping our nation’s progress.

“Since our independence, the progress and contributions of our women have shaped our homes, schools, workplaces and communities — making us a better society.”

The announcement follows an ongoing series of dialogues called “Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development”, which began last September. Feedback gathered from these sessions will form the basis of a White Paper on recommendations for further progress of women in Singapore.

In the first of a three-part series celebrating SG women, we salute the gutsy trailblazers who shaped our nation’s history through their stories.

Passionate about the poor

Disturbed by widespread poverty, unemployment and disease in the wake of the Second World War, the late Ms Daisy Vaithilingam made it her life’s mission to help the less fortunate.

Born in Penang in 1925, the youngest of four children, raised by her mother and stepfather, a nurse and a doctor, was inspired by their passion to heal.

Although she read English literature, economics and geography at the National University of Singapore, then known as the University of Malaya, she chose to go into social work after attending a talk at the university by Ms Kathleen Eastaugh, then a medical social worker at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH).


Ms Daisy Vaithilingam was among the pioneer batch of students at the National University of Singapore, then known as the University of Malaya. PHOTO: ST FILE

In 1952, two years after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree, she joined SGH as a medical social worker at the age of 27.

Throughout her years as a medical social worker, Ms Vaithilingam pioneered many new initiatives. Among her most significant contributions was her role in setting up Singapore’s first fostering scheme for children, which Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli mentioned in his speech on Saturday.

In a 2014 interview with The Straits Times, fellow social worker Ann Wee recounted that Ms Vaithilingam would go about assigning hospital attendants and amahs to children who had been abandoned by their mothers at the hospital.

"It was very unofficial and the director of social welfare saw that and decided to do it properly with a central registry and that's how the whole fostering programme began.”

Deeply concerned about the plight of children with intellectual disabilities, she lobbied for financial aid for their parents. In 1962, she spearheaded the creation of what is now known as the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore to help children with disabilities integrate into society through learning and training programmes.

She also helped to set up the Singapore Association of Social Workers in 1971 and chaired the first Committee of the Care for the Aged. Alongside her team of social workers, she founded a community project in 1976 to house disadvantaged women in a communal residence.

Her passion to help others continued in her later years when, at the age of 42, she returned to her alma mater’s social work department as a university lecturer for 15 years before retiring in 1982.

Ms Vaithilingam died in 2014. She was 88.

Scaling new heights

From a seat behind a desk to the hot seat of an aircraft cockpit, Ms Anastasia Gan went from being among the first few batches of female officers in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to Singapore’s first female commercial pilot.

In 1977, at age 19, the fresh junior college graduate decided to pursue a career in the army and joined the SAF’s Women Officer Cadet Course.

In a collection of reflections written by the pioneer batch of students from Catholic Junior College, titled Our Footprints — Reflections in Truth and Love, she likened the nine-month course to “a long camping adventure”.


Ms Anastasia Gan was promoted to Aircraft Captain five years after becoming a commercial pilot. PHOTO: ST FILE

Ms Gan graduated as the top cadet during that course and was assigned an administrative role in the SAF. But she quickly realised that she preferred a role that would take her beyond the confines of an office.

When the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) began recruiting pilots a year later, she applied for a spot and was accepted.

“Pilots were always associated with excitement and adventure, and portrayed as awesome, tough and cool men in fighting machines,” she wrote.

Ms Gan became one of a handful of women to earn the coveted RSAF pilot wings in 1979. She later became the air force’s first female qualified flying instructor. Disciplined yet nurturing, Ms Gan was given the affectionate call sign, Mama, by her fellow pilots.

After 23 years in the RSAF, the high-flyer joined SilkAir in 2001 where she rewrote Singapore’s aviation record books once again by becoming the nation’s first female commercial pilot at the age of 43.

The mother of three daughters was also appointed an authorised flight examiner by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore in 2012.

Defending her sisters

Life for women in pre-independence Singapore was marked by limited rights, especially in the areas of marriage and divorce. Within the Muslim community, one woman chose to stand up and speak out.

Between 1950 and 1958, close to half of all Muslim marriages in Singapore ended in a divorce. Muslim men could divorce their wives without their consent, leaving the women with no recourse or protection.

“If I didn't help my own people, who would have?” says Mrs Khatijun Nissa Siraj, 95. “It was my foremost duty to ensure their well-being. It was upsetting to see women treated with little dignity and respect.”


The daughter of a wealthy businessman who migrated from India in the 1890s, Mrs Khatijun Nissa Siraj led a privileged life and did not need to work. Still, she felt it was her duty to advocate for the rights of Muslim women. PHOTO: ST FILE

Mrs Siraj rallied a team of 21 Muslim women who went on to set up the Young Women’s Muslim Association in 1952. The association, known today as Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura, aimed to give Muslim women an avenue to seek legal and medical advice.

Their efforts paid off when in 1958 the Government set up the Syariah Court to reform legislation on marriage and family matters, including divorce procedures that previously allowed Muslim men to divorce their wives without their consent or knowledge.

Two years later, Mrs Siraj, whose pre-university studies were interrupted by the Japanese Occupation in 1942, became the Court’s first woman counsellor. She dealt with hundreds of mostly financial cases where husbands would marry other women, leaving their wives penniless.

Her tireless work fighting for Muslim women’s rights paved the way for the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) in 1966, which provides a centralised system of administration covering all aspects of Muslim life in Singapore. Under the AMLA, married Muslim women were able to gain more protection and representation in the Syariah Court.

Mrs Siraj’s exposure to women’s problems also led her to in 1964 start the Muslim Women’s Welfare Council, which provided charity, welfare, legal and medical advice to Muslim women.

Between 1960 and 1971, divorce rates in the Muslim community dropped significantly to an annual average of 18.5 per cent. Mrs Siraj left the Syariah Court in 1970 and joined the Social Welfare Department and then the Singapore Council of Social Services.

 

They made headway their way

From daring pursuits to groundbreaking advances, we trace the key achievements of Singapore’s pioneering women from the early 20th century

1920: LEE CHOO NEO BECOMES FIRST LOCAL WOMAN TO PRACTISE AS A DOCTOR

1925: TEO SOON KIM BECOMES SINGAPORE’S FIRST FEMALE BARRISTER

1949: PHYLLIS EU-CHIA CHENG LI BECOMES FIRST WOMAN ELECTED TO PUBLIC OFFICE IN SINGAPORE

1952: TANG PUI WAH IS SINGAPORE'S FIRST FEMALE OLYMPIAN, TAKING PART IN 100M SPRINT AND 80M HURDLE EVENTS IN HELSINKI

1961: WOMEN’S CHARTER IS PASSED, PROTECTING THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN SINGAPORE AND PROVIDING LEGAL BASIS FOR EQUALITY BETWEEN HUSBAND AND WIFE

1980: THE SINGAPORE COUNCIL OF WOMEN’S ORGANISATIONS (SCWO) IS FORMED AS THE NATIONAL COORDINATING BODY OF WOMEN’S ORGANISATIONS IN SINGAPORE. TODAY, SCWO HAS MORE THAN 50 MEMBER ORGANISATIONS THAT REPRESENT OVER 500,000 WOMEN

1992: ORTHOPAEDIC SURGEON KANWALJIT SOIN BECOMES FIRST FEMALE NOMINATED MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT

2008: YIP PIN XIU WINS SINGAPORE'S FIRST GOLD MEDAL AT PARALYMPICS

2016: JUDITH PRAKASH BECOMES FIRST FEMALE PERMANENT JUDGE OF THE COURT OF APPEAL

2017: HALIMAH YACOB MAKES HISTORY AS SINGAPORE’S FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT

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