leekuanyew

Women's Education: When doors to equality opened

Madam Er Teck Gin, 67, was a woman born at the right time.

Her older sister stayed at home in the 1950s while her brothers went to school, as was the norm at the time.

But when Madam Er reached school-going age, a man named Lee Kuan Yew emerged as the leader of the fledgling nation, then still seeking its independence from the British. He called on families to send their children - both boys and girls - to school, to forge the foundation of an educated and effective workforce.

Madam Er's parents heeded the call. So, unlike her older sister, she and her younger sisters went to school with their brothers. It changed the course of their lives.

"My older sister was a housewife. But I've always worked, my whole adult life," said Madam Er, who is now a grandmother of four.

"I was always financially independent. With my extra money, I could give my four children a more comfortable life."

More than that, Madam Er, introduced to learning in those early years, never stopped going to class.

She started working after secondary school, helping out with her friends' businesses.

In the evenings, she went for English lessons.

Soon, she was able to get better and better jobs, like being a cold chef preparing non-cooked food in Raffles Hotel. From there, she joined the Singapore Food Industries as an executive chef.

Her husband worked in a pawn shop, then later, for a transport company, so the family of six thrived as a double-income household.

Today, Madam Er teaches cooking classes part-time at community clubs under the People's Association.

"I followed Mr Lee's advice," she said. "Education is everything."

Women of Madam Er's age gained from Mr Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) government aggressively promoting gender equality in education and the workforce.

The impetus was largely economic, as the new and vulnerable nation needed to raise its national output and boost its economy quickly.

So, Mr Lee and his colleagues urged women to leave the kitchen for office desks or factory assembly lines - or at least bring up daughters to fulfil that goal.

But the PAP also believed in gender equality as a principle. Mr Lee's party fielded women candidates for elections, such as Women's League founders Chan Choy Siong and Ho Puay Choo.

Madam Er remembers well the late Madam Chan, who was married to former education minister Ong Pang Boon, now 85. "It was quite wonderful to see her in the papers, in charge," she said. "She always said women should come out and support themselves."

Gender equality also quickly became enshrined in law. In 1961, the Women's Charter Bill - then a monumental, ahead-of-its-time piece of civil rights legislation - was passed.

Crafted by then Labour and Law Minister K. M. Byrne and ushered through a Legislative Assembly controlled by the PAP, the Charter guaranteed basic rights and protection, which women today take for granted as the natural order of things.

These protections included a married woman's right to use her maiden name, her right to own property and her right to be a man's sole legal wife.

"It was very hard for Chinese-educated people like us to find jobs at the time. But because we had some education, we could survive," said Madam Er of herself and her sisters. "And we had the same opportunities as the men."

rchang@sph.com.sg