Chan Choy Siong
Political activist and campaigner for women’s rights
Chan Choy Siong was a pioneering politician and campaigner for women’s rights. A hawker’s daughter, she grew up helping her father at his chee cheong fun stall in Chinatown when she was not attending classes at Nanyang Girls’ High School. Later in life, her political opponents derided her humble background but it hardly affected her. It had given her a determination to try to improve people’s lives.
Choy Siong joined the People's Action Party (PAP) when she was 23, only five months after the party was inaugurated in October 1954. In the 1957 City Council election, at the age of 26, she successfully stood for election as the PAP candidate for Kreta Ayer.
Two years later, when Singapore had been granted full self-government and voting was compulsory, Choy Siong won the Delta seat for the PAP. She was one of five women, four of whom were from the PAP, elected to the Assembly.
In the 1950s, women were still in effect second-class citizens. While they had, by 1955, full voting rights, in many other areas they lagged far behind men. Many were denied education. Husbands could have multiple wives. Jobs were harder to get and, when employed, women were paid less than men. This was unacceptable to Choy Siong and she lobbied hard for the equality of women.
She formed women’s subcommittees in the PAP branches and led the PAP Women’s League, the predecessor of the PAP Women’s Wing. The PAP leaders, keen to secure the support of women voters in the increasingly turbulent politics, saw the value of having women’s rights in their manifesto.
Outside of the Legislative Assembly, women activists had in 1952 formed the Singapore Council of Women and were lobbying for a ban on polygamy and for other action to better protect women and hasten their emancipation.
Within the Assembly, Choy Siong added her voice to these calls, campaigning for the drafting and passing of the Women’s Charter. Apart from prohibiting polygamy (other than on religious grounds), the proposed Charter essentially put husband and wife on an equal footing before the law.
Choy Siong faced opposition from the largely male-dominated assembly. However she had a key ally in Kenny Byrne, Minister of Law, who was sympathetic to the cause of women. After three readings, the Women’s Charter was enacted in 1961.
Choy Siong retired as Member of Parliament for Delta in 1970. Her life was tragically cut short when she was killed in a car crash in 1981, at the age of 49. She left behind her husband, Minister for the Environment Ong Pang Boon, and three children.
Speech on the First Reading of the Bill for the Women`s Charter, 6 April 1960.
"On this side of the House, I wish to point out that the fundamental principle of this Women’s Charter is twofold. The problems of women are the result of an unreasonable society. Men take women as pieces of merchandise. The inhuman feudalistic system has deprived women of their rights. In a semi-colonial and semi-feudalistic society, the tragedy of women was very common. Men could have three or four spouses. Men are considered honourable, but women are considered mean. It was common in those days to regard having one more female in a Chinese family as being very despicable. Women in our society are like pieces of meat put on the table for men to slice."