Economic Pragmatism and the ‘Schooling’ of Girls in Singapore, pp. 12 of 21

As a result of the concern over the declining population, stress began to be placed on getting women back into the homes and preserving traditional notions of femininity in girls. Tay Eng Soon, Minister of State for Education expressed puzzlement that girls would want to join NCC and asserted that “girls should be girls” and schools should encourage and cater more for their feminine interest such as music, ballet, or literature (Tay, 1983). He also lamented that girls’ schools seemed no different from boys’ schools, adding that girls’ schools should focus on more “feminine” activities so as to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood which he regarded as their future “natural and proper role in life” (Tay, 1983). There was evidently a reversal of the earlier policy of building a rugged society. In the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of stress was placed on girls being as strong and rugged as boys and NCC and NPCC units for girls were set up for this purpose. Suddenly in the 1980s, these were deemed unsuitable for girls. The notions of a rugged and disciplined society, strength of character and physical robustness that were catch phrases of the 1960s became irrelevant. Instead, there began a policy to “feminise[N1] ” girls and schools were exhorted to mount enrichment programmes to achieve this.

The reversal of policy was made in 1984 when the MOE announced that the study of home economics (previously called domestic science) would be compulsory for lower secondary girls from 1985 (Straits Times, 1984, September 9). With this decision, lower secondary girls no longer had the option to take technical studies. Lower secondary boys did not have to take home economics but instead continued with technical studies. This differentiation in curriculum reflects the state’s concern that girls should be ‘feminine’. In spite of public opposition and a petition against this change, the MOE pushed ahead with its policy, showing the uncompromising stance of the ruling elite on its perception of desirable feminine characteristics and what girls’ education should consist of. Ho Kah Leong, the Parliamentary Secretary for Education, explained that the policy of not allowing boys to do home economics was because of a lack of facilities and teachers and not because the MOE was sexist (Straits Times, 1984, November 27). However, it took the Ministry more than a decade to finally build enough facilities and train enough teachers to implement home economics for all lower secondary students (Straits Times, 1993, August 31). This delay is unusual for a country noted for its efficiency and reflects more clearly the low priority placed on this by the government. In fact, when pressed for the reason why the home economics option would be given to boys, Ho’s reply was that the best cooks and hairdressers in the world were males (Straits Times, 1993, August 31). The economic underpinning in such a reply is all too evident. The provision of such an option to boys would have been the result of a pragmatic economic consideration rather than a genuine acceptance of changes in gender roles in Singapore.

In the 1980s and 1990s government leaders vacillated between emphasising the importance of women’s role in the home and exhorting women to take on more technical vocations – the result of the state trying to balance the two conflicting goals of economic development and maintaining the traditional patriarchal framework. One outcome of the MOE policy of curriculum differentiation was a dearth of applicants for engineering courses at the university. Tony Tan, the Minister for Education, lamented in Parliament in 1988 that there had been a shortfall of students for admission into engineering courses in 1986 and 1987. Commenting on this shortfall, a Straits Times editorial pointed out that female students could have filled these vacancies and that “if Singapore were to succeed in the world of high technology,” the traditional stereotype of the engineering profession being a male preserve should be eradicated (Straits Times, 1988, April 13).

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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