TAN CHENG HIONG
Pioneer champion of women’s rights
Tan Cheng Hiong, better known after her marriage in 1931 as Mrs George Lee, was the first president of the Singapore Council of Women (SCW), the pioneering women’s group in the 1950s credited with getting polygamy banned in Singapore.
Reserved and soft-spoken, Cheng Hiong was initially content to be wife and homemaker. Though child-bearing was painful for her because of a rare condition that debilitated her during pregnancy, she had nine surviving children with her husband George, brother of business tycoon and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian.
But when she discovered that George had been unfaithful, and influenced by the teachings of her Baha’i faith about the rights of women, she became an advocate for women’s rights.
She once said: “After 15 years of marriage and nine children, my world came apart when my husband took a concubine. At one point, I even contemplated suicide.”
Shaking off her self-pity, Cheng Hiong turned him away from their home in Pasir Panjang and found new purpose for herself: “I realized it was important to feel positive and forgive. To overcome my grief, I immersed myself in social work to help women worse off than myself.”
In 1952 she met Shirin Fozdar. When Shirin got together some of the leading women of Singapore to form the SCW, Cheng Hiong was elected as its first president while Shirin was the secretary.
The two women were a formidable team. While the outgoing Shirin was the spokeswoman and dealt with the media, publicity-shy Cheng Hiong worked in the background. She was once described as the ‘quiet crusader of the women’s movement in Singapore’.
In 1954, she wrote a letter to the Chinese Advisory Board, which was part of the Chinese Secretariat and the Governor’s chief advisor on all important matters, to point out that “according to the Chinese customs the treatment given to concubines and mistresses is very unjust. The practice prevalent in the Colony to-day…leads inevitably to the breaking-up of homes and to cruelty towards the legal wives and children.”
She gave talks to groups and rallied support among law makers and civil society. Monogamy was finally legislated when the Women’s Charter became law in 1961.
Her interest in helping women began at an early age. Both her grandmother and mother observed the custom of feet binding, which she always thought to be barbaric and silly. Resisting the custom in her own way, Cheng Hiong removed the bindings from her mother’s feet.
Later, when she got married, she and George lived near the family’s Lee Rubber Factory. She noticed the agony of the women with bound feet who had to carry heavy sheets of rubber up and down stairs. She convinced her husband to lighten their load by installing pulleys in the factory.
In 1952, Cheng Hiong and her SCW colleagues appealed to factories to set up childcare facilities on their premises. In 1953, the SCW set up the first girls’ club at the Joo Chiat Welfare Centre and Cheng Hiong provided funds and also gave classes on sewing and Mandarin.
Cheng Hiong was president of SCW until 1959 and then its vice president until 1971 when SCW was deregistered. She died 1999 aged 95.