A look at 5 Singapore Women (in our Women’s Hall of Fame)

by | Mar 14, 2023

This post was originally published on murderiseverywhere.blogspot.com.

Always a bit behind the times, I came down with Covid just as the rest of the world is moving on! I’m glad to say that after two unpleasant weeks it’s over now and I have a new and huge appreciation for breathing normally, healthcare providers, caring neighbours and food delivery agents! 

Also, I’m immensely grateful to all who waived charges, gave discounts and extended deadlines ‘because Covid’.

A few days ago, after multiple tests proved me no longer infectious, I was allowed into the Istana (English: ‘Palace’, the official residence of our Head of State) to meet President Halimah and be inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. 

Believe me, it was a Big thrill! If I hadn’t still been so physically drained / exhausted by the dratted virus I would have been jumping up and down and shrieking with glee and asking a hundred questions about the security and catering arrangements in the Istana. As it was, I think I behaved fairly decently–which is something to thank Covid for!

But it was an awesome experience and honour, and I’m going to mention five women from the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame whose impact on my life contributed to me being where I am today.

1. Sophia Blackmore (1857-1945)

2. Ellice Handy (1902-1989)

3. Dr Ruth Wong (1918- 1982)  

4. Kwa Geok Choo (1920-2010)

5. Pat Chan (1945-)

1. Sophia Blackmore (1857-1945)

Sophia Blackmore

Sophia Blackmore was a missionary who talked local families (not known for educating girls!) into sending their daughters to school. Originally known as the Tamil Girls School, the first school she founded was later renamed the Methodist Girls School–my alma mater.

This was the inspiration for the Mission Girls’ School in my history mystery books, the attempt to educate girls into life options beyond matrimony and prostitution.

Unlike some other missionaries who believed civilisation = speaking English, Sophia Blackmore became proficient in Malay and published a Baba Malay paper, Sahabat.

My takeaways: 1. First learn the language 2. Turn your burden (sorry, but that’s how many saw female offspring then) into a bonus.

2. Ellice Handy (1902-1989)

Ellice Handy

Born Ellice Zuberbuhler, Ellice Handy was a student boarder in the Methodist Girls School. 

Later she returned to MGS to teach (and married Dr James Handy after whom Handy Road is named) and became the first Asian principal of MGS.

My mother and aunts studied and later taught under her, but for me, her most lasting impact came when she published My Favourite Recipes In 1952 to raise funds for the school.

Until then, local recipes weren’t written down. You learned from watching your mother or mother in law sniff/ taste/ test in the kitchen and the only printed cookbooks were imported tomes talking about baking with French and British ingredients. 

I learned to love cooking–and reading and writing about food–out of her cook book. Pounding familiar spices; steaming, straining and stir frying…

One of my most treasured possessions was a copy of her book inscribed ‘your mother tells me you like to cook’!

My takeaway: Having to write it down makes you aware of what you’re doing/ thinking.

3. Dr Ruth Wong (1918- 1982)

Dr Ruth Wong

“A teacher who is not an inquirer nor a problem-solver is hardly likely to provide the right intellectual climate for his pupils to ask constructive questions or develop critical ability.”

Dr Ruth Wong was my late mother’s hero and role model: she believed in educating educators and that as responsible educators (whether parents, teachers or caregivers) continuing their own education was a lifelong responsibility.

Ruth Wong was the first female principal of the Teachers’ Training College (TTC) and the founding director of the Institute of Education. She’d dreamed of becoming a doctor while in school, but as the eldest of 10 children, she gave up the opportunity for further studies in order to work and support her family.

My takeaway: Lifelong learning is a duty and responsibility.

4. Kwa Geok Choo

Kwa Geok Choo

The mother of Singapore!

More than the wife of our first Prime Minister (who always said she was smarter than he!) Kwa Geok Choo was one of the first female lawyers in Singapore and the top conveyancing lawyer and partner in Lee & Lee.

She was a pioneering advocate of women’s rights in Singapore and drafted the Women’s Charter (supporting legal protection for women) passed in 1961.
That was the year I was born; the safety and security that I grew up with and take for granted today I owe to her and those who worked with her.

In researching Kwa Geok Choo after being commissioned to write a play on her life, I learned about her love of music, poetry, art, nature and ecology. And about the life long romance and commitment that made it possible for her and her partner to achieve all they did.

My takeaway: Yes–you can have it all.

5. Pat Chan

Pat Chan

Singapore’s Golden Girl with 39 SEAP (Southeast Asian Peninsula Games) gold medals between 1965 and 1973. No silvers, no bronzes, just pure gold.

I remember being one of the crowd of little girls on the school driveway to cheer Pat Chan’s arrival in school after one of her competitions. We knew, even in those days before electronic updates, because when she was away swimming for Singapore, there were school announcements celebrating her wins.

Her performance at the 1965 SEAP Games in Kuala Lumpur was particularly striking because Singapore had been kicked out of Malaysia just months earlier and wasn’t expected to survive five years.

But now, replacing the image of our Prime Minister crying on television, there was suddenly 11 year old Patricia Chan decimating older and larger rivals–repeatedly. Hearing Singapore’s new national anthem played eight times for her gave all Singaporeans in this newly independent nation new hope.

Pat, who is both friend and role model, was my boss when I was an editor on the Bride and Home magazine (my first job!) She’s always encouraged my writing… even though I’d discovered decisively I didn’t want to write about bridal gowns and pretty teapots all my life!

My takeaway: Ordinary people can do extraordinary things; or maybe they’re just extraordinary people doing ordinary things.