Pioneering advocate for sex & public health education
Nalla Tan was a pioneering advocate for sex and public health education. A multi-talented and outspoken doctor and academic, she was also an advocate for women’s rights and family life, a poet and writer of short stories, a newspaper columnist, and a painter.
The fourth of six children, Nalla was born Nallammah Navarendam in 1923 in Ipoh, Malaysia, to parents who were both teachers. She attended Methodist Girls’ School in Ipoh before coming to Singapore to study at the University of Malaya. In 1952, she graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine degree and worked as a government health officer. She married fellow doctor Tan Joo Liang and had two sons and a daughter.
In the mid-1960s, Nalla became a lecturer at the Department of Social Medicine and Public Health at the then University of Singapore’s Medicine Faculty. She received her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1975, and was promoted to associate professor the following year. In 1984, she was the first woman in Southeast Asia to be elected a fellow of the Faculty of Community Medicine of the Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom.
At a time when it was considered by many to be a taboo topic, Nalla called for the introduction of sex education in schools. She felt that teachers, who were trained and held in regard by their pupils, were best qualified to instruct children about sex. In 1967, she held a month-long course for 60 teachers on the topic. In 1970, Nalla headed a Singapore Medical Association committee that organised the country’s first public health education programme.
Nalla wrote two non-fiction books, You Need to Know (1976) and Beyond Your Navel (1977), that tackled issues such as puberty, sex and reproduction, family planning and relationships for teenagers. You Need to Know was on the Education Ministry’s reading list for older students.
In 1984, Nalla received the Friend of Labour award from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for her contributions over more than a decade of involvement with the labour movement and her advocacy of female employment. She served as advisor to the NTUC Women’s Committee, and was a vice-president of CASE, the consumer protection body.
A devout Methodist, Nalla was the first Singaporean elected to the World Methodist Council (WMC) Presidium, where she served from 1976 to 1981. She was also chairwoman of the WMC’s World Family Life Committee from 1976 to 1991. In 1999 she was awarded the Honourable Order of Jerusalem for her services to the Council and the Methodist community.
Between 1978 and 1982, she wrote a weekly column titled ‘You’ in The Sunday Times, covering societal and familial issues, politics and community development. Having dabbled in poetry as a teenager, she again picked up her creative pen in 1962 while on maternity leave after her third child. One of her short stories was broadcast by the BBC in 1975, and another story won second prize in the Asiaweek Short Story competition in 1990.
After retiring from the university, Nalla ran a counselling and therapy clinic from her home for some years. In the late 1990s, she showed signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. In March 2012, she passed away aged 88 after suffering a chest infection that developed into pneumonia.
After the death of her husband, Nalla published the Emerald Autumn collection of poems including “I Still Have a Dream”. The poem ends with:
“I still have a dream
It is enough
To have only the straw
That built the pyramids
Leave me my dream.”
“Men have to help their wives with the chores for a more balanced partnership, but most important of all, men have to appreciate women’s hopes and dreams.”
“I’ve enjoyed what I’m doing very much. I think you make the job. You find the challenges and live up to them.”