Phyllis Eu Cheng Li
First woman elected to public office in Singapore
In an era when women, like their children, were seen but not heard, Phyllis Eu Cheng Li claimed a voice for the fairer sex. Phyllis was the first woman elected to public office in Singapore, to the Municipal Commission in 1949. She was re-elected three times to the body, which became the City Council in 1951. In a life dedicated to education and public service, she worked to involve women in politics and also fought for consumers’ rights.
Phyllis was the oldest child of an auto parts magnate. She became a teacher, but World War II erupted and the family fled to Australia. In Australia, Phyllis developed a taste for politics when, as a British subject, she had to vote in a referendum. On her return to Singapore and teaching in 1946, she joined the Singapore Progressive Party.
In the 1949 Municipal Commission election, she represented the Progressives in the west ward and won. The time when women left the thinking and planning to men was over, she declared, arguing that the council’s oversight of health, housing and markets meant women’s wider experiences -- as mothers, wives and homemakers -- enabled them to contribute more than men.
Phyllis chaired the health committee responsible for markets and clinics. Being a founding member of the Singapore Family Planning Association, she pushed for the clinics to offer family planning advice and succeeded despite strong opposition.
In a campaign for re-election, she reminded voters she was a “persistent agitator” for their interests. When she found out market stallholders set huge profit margins, she helped lead a consumers’ resistance campaign, admittedly without much success. Phyllis received the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 for her public service.
In 1956, Phyllis went to New York to observe women’s participation in the political process, and secured funding to start the Singapore League of Women Voters. Women formed half the electorate, yet they shunned politics. The league, of which Phyllis was secretary then president, set out to change this.
“One of the first responsibilities for the women of Singapore is to make themselves better informed politically so that they will know what is going on,” she once said. “Our aim is to go out and educate other women in choosing the best government.”
Phyllis stood down at the December 1957 election. After leaving politics, she was named to the Public Utilities Board and was active in the Chinese Women’s Association. From 1958-65, she was principal of Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School.
Phyllis Eu passed away, aged 90, in Singapore in 2004.
"For the intelligent, capable and energetic woman, even the field of turbulent politics could find her a place. Not as petty as men, because of her wider and more varied contacts, she is consequently more qualified to govern the destinies of many."