Tan Chew Neo
Pioneering community worker
Tan Chew Neo, known as Mrs Tay Lian Teck after her marriage in 1922, was a pioneer community and social worker. Before the Second World War, she served for some 15 years on the committee of the Poh Leung Kuk, or Society for the Protection of Women and Children. She was a key mover in the late 1930s of the revival of the Chinese Ladies Association, rallying its members to help in the war relief work.
After the war, she restarted the Association and became its president. She was made a Justice of the Peace in 1947 and regularly visited women serving jail sentences. She was also active in the St Johns Ambulance Brigade, Young Women’s Christian Association, the Girl Guides Association and St. Andrew’s Mission Hospital, and served on many committees.
Born in 1898, Chew Neo was the eldest of 11 children. She spent a year at Methodist Girls School (MGS) and then transferred to Raffles Girls School where she was an exceptional student and topped all of Singapore in the 1915 Senior Cambridge examination. A voracious reader, Chew Neo was keen to study medicine, and her excellent results meant she would have won a government scholarship had she continued her studies.
But her father, who was the well-known dentist Tan Yew Ee, thought a woman’s place was in the home and that sending her to university would have been a waste of money. He decided that it would be the eldest son who would go to medical school. So Chew Neo instead went to teacher training classes and, for a short time, taught at MGS.
In 1922, she married Tay Lian Teck, a teacher who became a businessman and, when he was just 33, was appointed a Municipal Commissioner. He later became a member of the Legislative Council. After getting married, Chew Neo gave up teaching and turned her considerable energies to welfare work.
The Poh Leung Kuk was initially set up as a home for women who had fled from brothels. In time it also served as a refuge for ill-treated or destitute girls. Chew Neo used to have a few of the Poh Leung Kuk girls stay at her home where she taught them sewing and other skills. As the eldest of 11 children, Chew Neo had grown up always having to look after her younger siblings. Her daughter Gracia Tay-Chee once said of her: “She’s so used to looking after the young ones, that even in her public life it came naturally to her to want to help anyone who was in trouble or who needed her help.
World War II disrupted Chew Neo’s welfare work as she and her two daughters were evacuated to Australia. Her husband died during the war. Returning to Singapore after the war, Chew Neo resumed her community and social work, only slowing down in the 1960s. She died in 1986 aged 88.