Economic Pragmatism and the ‘Schooling’ of Girls in Singapore, pp. 10 of 21

The contradiction in these messages to girls is obvious. On the one hand, girls were exhorted to be more like boys, to be rugged and robust, prepared to learn technical skills and take up blue-collar jobs. On the other hand, the policy reinforced the message that women’s role in the home was to be maintained.  In this regard, Lee Kuan Yew’s comments on women and social attitudes in 1975 are illuminating (Lee, 1975):

It has been government policy to encourage the education of women to their fullest ability and their employment commensurate with their abilities. Parents have also changed their attitudes and now send their daughters for secondary and tertiary education as they would their sons… However, what has not yet taken place in traditional male-dominant Asian societies is the helping in household work by husbands––the marketing, cooking, cleaning up. This change in social attitudes cannot come by legislation. Such adjustments should be allowed to develop naturally. Our primary concern is to ensure that, whilst all our women become equal to men in education, getting employment and promotions, the family framework does not suffer as a result of high divorce rates, or equally damaging, neglect of the children with both parents working. [Emphasis added.]

This excerpt clearly reflects the reluctance of the authorities to bring about changes in gender ideology. The primary concern of the PAP government was on preserving social stability based on the traditional patriarchal male-dominated social structure.

The year 1979 marked a turning point in the state’s policy towards education for girls when a one-third quota was imposed on female students admitted into the medical faculty of the National University of Singapore. This was a clear departure from the past policy of equal opportunities for all. The official explanation for this was that “women doctors, particularly after marriage, cannot be assigned duties as freely as male doctors” (Straits Times, 1979, March 10). Toh Chin Chye, the Health Minister, clarified in Parliament that it was very difficult for a woman to be a good doctor because “she had to be a wife and a mother besides performing night duty in government hospitals” (Straits Times, 1979, March 17). Other reasons given were that women doctors preferred to work office hours in outpatient clinics and were selective about their area of specialisation. Many had refused to go into obstetrics and gynaecology where the need for women doctors was greater. A number of female doctors also withdrew from the workforce when they married and had families. As a result, the investment in the education of these women did not yield sufficient returns.

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!