PM Lee launches new book that celebrates 50th anniversary of women's grassroots committees

The book was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Fairmont hotel on Saturday at a gala lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of women's committees.
The book was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Fairmont hotel on Saturday at a gala lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of women's committees.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Grassroots volunteer Adalene Loh's work with her constituency's Women's Executive Committee (WEC) ended up saving a friend's life.

In 2006, she and her committee members at Woodlands Galaxy CC helped start subsidised mammogram screenings for residents in the area.

So when a friend told Ms Loh that she had been putting off getting a screening despite having a lump in her breast, Ms Loh decided to take matters into her own hands. She signed her friend up for a screening herself.

"I told her that 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 the history and work of the WECs launched on Saturday (May 6).

At the screening, it turned out that her friend had stage three breast cancer. The discovery allowed her to get treatment early: she went for two operations immediately after.

Ms Loh and other passionate WEC volunteers like Ms Tina Khoo, who delivered food to those quarantined in their homes during the 2003 outbreak of SARS, are featured in the book titled "50 Years Of Sugar, Spice & Selfless Sacrifice."

The book was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Fairmont hotel on Saturday at a gala lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of women's committees.

Dr Amy Khor, adviser to the Women's Integration Network (WIN) Council, said in a speech to about 1,000 WEC volunteers: "You have added 'sugar' and 'spice' to community life in the form of personal kindness to make life a little sweeter for the less-privileged residents, and through the vibrancy and richness from the varied programmes and experiences WECs bring to the table."

The WIN Council, which comprises representatives from the WECs, was set up in 1995 to set directions for the committees.

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 also senior minister of state for health as well as environment and water resources.

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

In his speech, PM Lee noted how women are no longer just homemakers and caregivers. They are now pursuing their own careers, and female participation in the labour force is 60 per cent.

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

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

Dr Khor told reporters: "Many women are educated. In fact, there are more women in our tertiary institutions than men now."

"Many of them hold leadership positions and are also entrepreneurs, for instance, and therefore the activities that we organise need to change."

Recent initiatives include 13 Young Ladies' Clubs, the first of which was set up in 2009. These clubs are run by young women to meet the needs of their peers.

The WEC has also been organising sharing sessions by women leaders in a wide range of sectors that help "assure women that it is possible to manage and juggle their multiple roles", said Dr Khor.

WECs are also hoping to groom future community leaders. A new $1,000 WIN-WEC Scholarship was awarded to 10 female ITE students yesterday. Recipients will help organise community projects under the guidance of WEC volunteers.

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

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

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

Asked about the pace of political progression for women - Singapore only had its first female minister in 2009 - Dr Khor said women's progress in the years since independence has been significant.

"But 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 - even in the corporate sector which used to be the purview of men," she said.

"Women have also broken ground even in the manufacturing sector and so on... and I have no doubt they will continue to do well and break boundaries."