Lee Choo Neo
First local woman to practise as a medical doctor
Lee Choo Neo was born in 1895 to Straits Chinese businessman Lee Hoon Leong and his second wife Mak Hup Sin. Lee Kuan Yew would later be born to her half-brother Lee Chin Koon, making her the aunt of Singapore’s first Prime Minister.
At that time, Straits Chinese ladies were raised to be wives, daughters-in-law and mothers. Sewing and cooking were the only skills a woman was thought to need. Choo Neo thought otherwise. With the support of her family, she pursued an education and, in 1911, became the first Straits Chinese girl to earn the Senior Cambridge Certificate. She then enrolled in medical school. Around this time, she wrote, produced and co-starred in a comedy at Victoria Theatre.
While at the King Edward the VII Medical College, Choo Neo, aged 18, wrote an article for a London publication in which she described the life of a Straits Chinese girl in Singapore as ‘quiet and uneventful one, devoid of all amusements and recreations’. But she ended her article by saying that in the last few years there had been a perceptible change and increasingly parents were seeing the need to educate their daughters.
That this article was written was remarkable for it was almost unheard of then for a Straits Chinese woman to express her views publicly, and in such an eloquent way. Choo Neo continued to break the mould – in 1915 she was a co-founder of the Chinese Ladies Association (later renamed the Chinese Women’s Association), and served for many years as its honorary secretary. The Association taught domestic skills, introduced outdoor sports, sponsored a rescue home for women at risk, and raised war funds.
Choo Neo graduated from medical school in 1919, becoming Singapore's first practising woman doctor. She worked initially as an assistant surgeon overseeing two women's wards at the General Hospital. In 1930, Choo Neo opened her own clinic at Bras Basah Road, specialising in maternity care.
In 1925 she was one of three women appointed to a committee investigating the need for laws to govern Chinese marriage and divorce in the Straits Settlements. The Chinese Marriage Committee collated divergent views: men were not keen to register marriages, and thought secondary marriages should be allowed. The women wanted an end to polygamy. The findings of CMC were a prelude to the passing in 1961 of the Women's Charter that outlawed polygamy.
Choo Neo died, after a short illness, on her 53rd birthday, 7 September 1947, and was buried at Bukit Brown cemetery.
"A perceptible change has taken place during the last three or four years, and is still steadily increasing. Education is now considered necessary. Girls now obtain as equal an education with the boys as their parents’ purses can afford. Let us hope that this beneficial change will continue as the years advance, so that greater scope may be given to the girls for the development of their minds."