The pioneering Singapore women who dared to make history Her Story set the stage for the modern Singapore woman. No longer silent nor subservient, the women in our country today are prepared to roll the dice and make the sacrifice, moving up and up, and having a greater say in society.
Meet three Singaporeans — one an advocate for the marginalised, the other a guardian of the deep blue sea, and the third a dauntless fighter in the ring — who are challenging traditional notions of success and shaping a new era for the modern Singapore woman.
Champion of the downtrodden
When Ms Kim Underhill fled an abusive marriage 26 years ago, she was left homeless with her two young children in tow and a Secondary 3 leaving certificate.
It was the lowest point in her life.
Instead of wallowing in self-doubt and pity, Ms Underhill, now 57, found work as a secretary and managed to move her family into a small one-room flat in Yishun.
Determined to succeed, she attended night school for six years and earned a degree in business administration and marketing. It meant having to juggle raising two primary school kids, work and studying at night.
Armed with a degree and private sector experience, she clinched a series of senior management roles in multinational companies. She also earned a master’s degree in industrial and organisational psychology.
But success never got to her head.
In a serendipitous stroke, her side project as a motivational speaker and advocate for underprivileged women led her to cross paths with Nee Soon group representation constituency Member of Parliament (MP) Carrie Tan in 2015.
Ms Tan convinced Ms Underhill to join her charity group Daughters of Tomorrow (DOT), which the MP founded in 2014.
The charity organisation helps women from low-income families find jobs. It has supported more than 800 women through skills training, job placements and other initiatives such as life coaching.
Ms Underhill, who became President of DOT in 2016, says that she wanted to offer these women the same helping hand that she received when she was in a similar, desperate position.
“My biggest hope is always to use my story to encourage them to work hard and find financial independence.”
Now retired from her full-time job in the private sector, she focuses on working with DOT to introduce more programmes. They aim to help women who are often overlooked, like single mothers, secure higher-paying and value-added jobs.
“In my earlier years, I always made sure I had a job. I didn’t have paper qualifications, but I clutched onto a job for dear life because I knew that was one way I could build my family a better future,” she recounts.
She shares that her elder daughter, an early childhood educator and home baker, is now married with two kids. Her son, whom she put through university in the United Kingdom, is doing well in the headhunting industry.
“I worked hard to give my children a better life, to give them two parents’ worth of love and opportunities as a single mum. Now, I’ve delivered,” she smiles, a pleasing twinkle in her eye.
The journey doesn’t end here. The grandmother-of-two, who is also president of the Singapore Business and Professional Women’s Association, an author, consultant and motivational speaker, says she wants to continue helping women from all walks of life.
“I want to help women, from disadvantaged women to those in mid-level corporate positions who want to move up the ladder and take charge.
“I always tell women ‘You have to fight for what you want’. It’s okay to take baby steps because each step you take to improving your life will eventually make a world of difference.”
Champion of our seas
For over a decade, Dr Neo Mei Lin, 34, has immersed herself in the research of giant clams, the world’s largest living shellfish and an endangered native species, and parlayed it into a broader clarion call for marine conservation.
“My big dream is to build up marine conservation awareness in Singapore and elsewhere,” she says.
A senior research fellow at the Tropical Marine Science Institute, Dr Neo’s study of the giant molluscs dates back to 2006 when she majored in life sciences at the National University of Singapore.
Since then, her efforts to make a positive impact on the environment include spearheading Singapore’s giant clam breeding and restocking programme in 2011 to save the endangered species.
Giant clams play a crucial ecological role as food and shelter for organisms in coral reef ecosystems. They also help to increase the richness of species in these habitats.
She explains that giant clams, which can grow to a metre long and weigh up to a whopping 300kg, are being threatened by overfishing, reef degradation and the loss of habitats.
Dr Neo, who continues to study the growth and survival of the animal in local waters and overseas, has earned a long list of international accolades for her work, including being selected as a TED fellow in 2017.
The prestigious programme gathers and provides support to the world’s brightest young innovators passionate about solving the world’s problems.
Beyond being a voice for the conservation of giant clams, she is also a firm advocate of female representation in the research field. She mentors younger peers and, in 2019, became a founding member of Mothers in Science, an international non-profit organisation that supports mothers who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).
The mother of a two-year-old daughter shares that having a child made her realise the challenges that women face in balancing their careers and family.
“I didn't start out knowing what was the best way to balance work and family life. I knew I loved my work. At the same time, I had this new baby whose life and needs depended on her mummy.”
Dr Neo credits her husband and colleagues for the support she received as a working mother. Her colleagues, whom she calls her “tribe”, welcomed her newborn to meetings and conferences and stepped in to look after her daughter whenever she needed to attend to urgent matters.
Her experiences with motherhood have strengthened her resolve to study and address barriers that mothers working in research face through her non-profit.
“Women remain underrepresented at the higher levels of academia [in Stem fields] and I want to do what I can to help change that. Ultimately, it’s about building up their confidence so they feel empowered to lead.”
Champion of the ring
A fighter in and out of the ring, Ms Nurshahidah Roslie, 33, embodies a tenacity that rivals, if not exceeds, that of her male peers.
Not only did she face and overcome doubt and ridicule from detractors who told her that pursuing a sporting career in Singapore was a joke, she also had to grapple with the challenges of being the first woman local professional boxer.
“There’s a stereotype that female boxers are not as exciting as male ones. We also find it harder to get paid on par with male boxers because the small pool of professional female boxers makes it more difficult for promoters to match up fighters for their shows,” she says.
Since her debut in 2016, she has garnered 14 wins and six championship titles and clinched the 2018 World Boxing Council Super Bantamweight title.
The world No. 16 is also the highest-ranked Asian female super bantamweight boxer. “Most people think that women who take up boxing must be tomboys or built like men, but I’m feminine.
“When women come up to me and say that they want to box, but don’t want to become too muscular… I’m proof that that doesn’t have to be the case.”
Ms Nurshahidah, who is single, said that her parents were initially apprehensive about her career choice but are now supportive of her decision.
“My mother is still worried for my future and safety, but she has been in my corner every step of my journey. My father and sister are also proud to have a boxer in the family.”
Outside the ring, the boxer, nicknamed “The Sniper” for her precise and forceful strikes, gives talks about her professional journey.
“I want to inspire people, including other women, to pursue their passions even if these may be unconventional. It is okay to do something different with your life.”
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