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Education

Since independence, the development of education in Singapore has always been intimately linked to two, sometimes colliding, priorities: economic development, and the maintenance of social cohesion. The development of girls’ education should be viewed through this lens.

After Singapore achieved full self-governance in 1959, the government – formed by the People’s Action Party (PAP) – set about finding, as a matter of political and economic survival, the most effective way to move from entrepôt trade towards an industrialised economy. Education was viewed as a key condition for such survival, a means of creating not just a literate and technically trained workforce, but also a strong national identity to promote social cohesion. 1 A key focus became the provision of universal primary education, free for every child from the age of six, regardless of race, language, sex, wealth or status. Girls were offered the same access to education as boys.

Unless they were from privileged families, most women tended not to be educated, and were financially dependent on male family members.

The status of women, at the time, was generally one of disadvantage within a highly patriarchal social system. Unless they were from privileged families, most women tended not to be educated, and were financially dependent on male family members. A woman’s role was firmly situated in the home. Singapore’s different migrant cultures had brought with them deeply held gender biases that manifested in polygamy, a preference for sons, and the belief that schooling for daughters was unnecessary. 2 Literacy rates for women were therefore dismally low – in 1957, out of every 1000 men, about two-thirds were literate, while out of every 1000 women, just one third of women were literate. 3


Early Education Policy:
Pragmatic and Gender-blind

Singapore Council of Women

The Singapore Council of Women was established in 1952 and was set apart from other women’s organisations at the time because of its focus on lobbying for better rights and protections for women in Singapore.

Related themes Civil Society

Throughout the 1950s, a growing women’s movement, led by the Singapore Council of Women, lobbied for legislation to improve the situation of women, especially with regard to polygamy and other rights within marriage, as well as inheritance and employment. 4 Education was singled out as key to women’s empowerment.

Women’s rights did not gain much ground until the end of the 1950s, when the SCW was able to persuade the PAP that women’s support would be crucial during the 1959 elections. Women would also be needed in the labour force in the push towards rapid industrialisation. The PAP thus included support for women’s rights in their party manifesto, promising to enshrine these rights in legislation upon winning the election. 5

Educating Girls

However, though it was acknowledged that the status of women needed to be raised, and great stress was placed on education as a whole, no real connection was made between the two. Education was not seen as a means to empower women, but as a means to preserve social and moral values, promote a national identity and prepare future generations – regardless of gender – for an industrialised workforce. 6

Students of Upper Aljunied Technical School demonstrate a laboratory experiment for Minister of Education Ong Pang Boon at the school’s official opening in 1966.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

In the early 1960s, the Ministry of Education (MOE) adopted a gender-blind policy – girls were not discriminated against, but were also not singled out as needing special attention. The MOE was instead concerned with streamlining education equally between the four main languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil), instituting a bilingual policy, rapidly constructing schools to meet enrolment demand, and emphasising math, science and technical education. 7 Existing social prejudices against girls were not addressed. Although the playing field was extremely uneven for boys and girls, the assumption was that the challenges faced by women and girls would automatically resolve themselves once educational opportunities were made equally available to all. 8

An introduction to the Women’s Charter

The Women’s Charter was a piece of legislation passed to protect the rights of women and girls in Singapore. It deals with issues such as polygamy, divorce and the division of matrimonial assets. It also provides for protection against domestic violence. It applies to all Singaporeans, with the exception of those married under Muslim law when it comes to divorce.

Related themes Civil Society Politics Violence Family

This policy was reflected in the Women’s Charter, which does not mention equal educational opportunities for girls as crucial to improving the situation of women. “As has been pointed out by some, the Women’s Charter should have been more correctly named Family Charter. It was meant to protect the rights of wives in the home - the scope therefore did not cover other aspects of women’s rights and educational rights were not even considered,” said Dr. Kho Ee Moi, a researcher on girls’ education and a senior lecturer at the National Institute of Education. 9

Source: Ronni Pinsler, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

Stop At Two

The Stop At Two campaign was a huge public education campaign that encouraged Singaporeans to stop at two children, regardless of whether they were sons or daughters. The campaign had a knock-on effect for girls’ access to education, as parents could better afford to educate their daughters.

Related themes Family Reproductive Rights

In the 1970s, the government introduced the two-child per family Stop At Two policy. The aim was to curb population growth through measures such as promoting marriages later in life and encouraging longer gaps between births.

The first batch of female plumbing and pipefitting trade students at the Punggol Vocational Institute (1977).

The policy affected girls’ education. Campaign messaging – such as ‘Girl or Boy, Two is Enough’ - suggested that boys and girls should be of equal value to families; several campaign posters depicted two daughters in a family instead of sons. Smaller families also meant that parents no longer needed to prioritise education for sons over daughters since they could better afford education for all children. 10 This led to a jump in girls’ enrolment in secondary and tertiary institutions. For example, in 1960, just 39 per cent of total enrolment in secondary and pre-university schools was made up of girls, but this number had increased to 51 per cent by 1980. 11

Girls were urged to be like boys and take up technical studies to help mitigate the labour shortage.

At the same time, MOE began to promote the participation of both girls and boys in extra-curricular activities (ECA) to build a ‘rugged’ society. Girls were encouraged to take part in ECAs and to be as physically active as boys, by participating, for instance, in the Outward Bound School. 12

In 1969, 53 girls and women attend a three week course at Outward Bound School in Pulau Ubin. The course participants comprised of students, clerks, social workers, mothers and members of the Singapore Armed Forces.

Technical education was also emphasised as a way to provide the skilled labour needed to support rapid industrialisation. A new curriculum introduced in 1968 made technical studies compulsory at the lower secondary level for all boys, and 50 per cent of girls. An MOE publicity campaign targeted at parents and girls touted the merits of technical careers, and how girls were suited to technical education. 13


Education for Women, But Not at the Expense of the Family

In the 1970s, the labour-intensive industrialisation programme saw greater numbers of women than ever joining the workforce. Combined with their greater access to education, this increased independence served to make women feel like men’s equals. 14 The reality, however, was that society still held traditional, patriarchal attitudes towards women, and the government was reluctant to challenge this.

A 1975 speech by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at a National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) event to celebrate International Women’s Year, was illustrative of this. While noting that the role of women in industrial societies had radically changed, his underlying message was that this should not be at the expense of preserving the traditional family framework:

On the whole, we have been fortunate in educating our women, opening up jobs for them, and having them more independent, without too great an upset in traditional family relationships. … However, what has not yet taken place in traditional male-dominant Asian societies is the helping in household work by husbands – the marketing, cooking, cleaning up. This change in social attitudes cannot come by legislation. … Our primary concern is to ensure that, whilst all our women become equal to men in education, getting employment and promotions, the family framework in bringing up the next generation does not suffer as a result of high divorce rates, or, equally damaging, neglect of the children, with both parents working. 15

The contradiction between wanting women to work and wanting them to bear the responsibility for taking care of the family at home began to show up in policy, including around girls’ education. While urging more girls to pick up technical skills to meet the needs of the economy, domestic science or home economics – including cooking, sewing and cleaning – was made a compulsory subject for all girls, although it was not required of boys. It seemed as if women were simultaneously left primarily responsible for household chores and urged to join the workforce.

The Singapore economy was growing steadily by the late 1970s, and the government begun to turn more towards social concerns, including an emphasis on women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, and their responsibility for the family unit. The latter, coupled with the notion of the man as the head of the household, was considered the bedrock of “family values” that defined the social fabric of the nation.

In 1977, educational policy changed again. Technical studies was no longer compulsory for girls, but remained so for boys. Girls could now choose between home economics or technical studies, and the latter was no longer emphasised as important for girls.

In 1979, in a complete turnaround from its past policy of equal education for all, the government imposed a one-third quota on women entering the medical faculty of the National University of Singapore. The government considered medical education for women a poor return on investment, since they were expected to leave the profession to have babies upon marriage. Toh Chin Chye, then Health Minister, said that it was difficult for a woman to be a good doctor since “she had to be a wife and a mother besides performing night duty in government hospitals.” 16 The quota system generated outrage and vocal protests by women’s organisations, but remained in place for more than two decades despite repeated resistance over the years, including from Nominated Member of Parliament Dr Kanwaljit Soin, who raised the subject in parliament in 1994 and was soundly rebuffed.

Dr. Anne Tan, a radiologist, and founding member and past president of the Association of Women Doctors Singapore (AWDS), said that the quota was ‘ridiculous’. “Anecdotally, women doctors were highly dedicated, passionate about their work and few gave up, but we had no hard data to go on. They also served out their five-year bond with the government like the men. Several promising aspiring female students were turned away and had to train abroad at their own expense if they could, or find entry into another university course locally.” 

She remembers how “several prominent women doctors were quite upset about this state of affairs and recognized the need to rally others to call for the quota to be relooked at and hopefully abolished. In the meantime, female students selected for interviews were advised by their seniors to answer 'I'm not getting married' when asked if they would stop practicing when they got married!” 17


The Great Marriage Debate

The success of Stop At Two, accompanied by the tendency of highly-educated women to have fewer children, led to a rapid decline in the birthrate. 18 This represented a serious problem for the government, who felt that if the country’s only resource was its people, and if the well-educated were not reproducing, then a loss of talent and shrinking of the labour pool could mean the loss of Singapore’s competitive edge. A famous speech given by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1983 called attention to this trend, kicking off the Great Marriage Debate:

Our most valuable asset is in the ability of our people. Yet, we are frittering away this asset through the unintended consequences of changes in our education policy and equal career opportunities for women. This has affected their traditional role as mothers. It is too late for us to reverse our policies and have our women go back to their primary role as mothers, the creators and protectors of the next generation. Our women will not stand for it. And anyway, they have already become too important a factor in the economy. … Therefore, we must further amend our policies, and try to reshape our demographic configuration so that our better-educated women will have more children to be adequately represented in the next generation. 19

While noting that forcing women to go backwards - foregoing employment for their traditional function as childbearers - was not a legitimate option, Lee nevertheless suggested that if there was any conflict between women’s equal employment opportunities and their primary role as mothers, then policies would favour the latter, including pushing women into jobs that would be more suitable.

“...Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers. You just can’t be doing a full-time heavy job like that of doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children.” 20

Graduate Mothers’ Priority Scheme

Under this scheme, the offspring of university-educated women with three or more children would get priority in primary school registration. In the same year, the government announced that $10,000 would be given to low-income, less-educated women below the age of 30 who sterilised themselves after the first or second child.

Related themes Civil Society Family Reproductive Rights

The Great Marriage Debate was characterised by the government's push to promote marriage and procreation by higher-educated, and more career-minded women. Campaign slogans run in the media included “Are you giving men the wrong idea?” and “Life will be lonely without a family. Don’t leave it too late.” The Social Development Unit (SDU) was set up to matchmake male and female university graduates, and a slew of financial and social incentives were extended to better-educated women.

The mixed messages – that women were needed in the workforce, but also at home to play the roles of homemaker and mother – continued to play out on the education front. In 1985, the Home Economics/Technical Studies issue came up yet again. It became compulsory for all lower secondary school girls to take Home Economics, with the option of Technical Studies removed. Gone too was the 1970s policy of creating a more “rugged” society which would include girls. This was now deemed unsuitable, and girls were steered towards more “feminine” interests like music, ballet, art and literature. 21

It’s going to take us all back many steps.

In a provocative speech delivered at the National University of Singapore in 1986, Prime Minister Lee openly expressed regret at his government giving women equal opportunities. He praised the Japanese, who had kept their women in lowly capacities – such as translators, or to serve tea – while still achieving economic success. He also spoke admiringly of the Japanese toleration of polygamy as a way of propagating superior genes. 22 He reiterated this view in 1994 when he said that “the government [was] ‘young, ignorant and idealistic’ when it gave women equal education rights” because graduate women in Singapore were finding it harder to get husbands due to the traditional reluctance of Asian men to marry women with higher qualifications than they had. 23

“Mr Lee actually did go on to say, in the question-and-answer session following his speech, that it was too late to go back to what was, and that what was needed was a shift in male values of unquestioned superiority,” recalled Margaret Thomas, a former journalist and founding member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).

But many took the speech at face value, and this provoked much anxiety among women. In the February 1987 ‘Working Woman’ column that she wrote for monthly magazine Singapore Business (then produced by the Business Times), Thomas quoted a woman she had interviewed: “What worries me most is that our over-zealous civil servants, over-interpreting the PM’s words, will take it upon themselves to hire fewer women, or not push the careers of their female staff because the assumption is that a woman’s first duty is to husband and children. It’s going to take us all back many steps.” 24


Greater Sharing of Responsibility by Both Men and Women in the Home

The socio-economic climate had already shifted, however, regardless of Lee’s comments. Greater numbers of women than ever before were entering, and staying, in the labour force. In the 1960s, women in the 25 to 34 age group tended to leave the workforce to have children; by 1991 a majority of this group (75.6 per cent) remained active in the workforce.

Women had also begun to grow in numbers in tertiary institutions such as the Singapore Polytechnic (SP) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) – in 1960 female enrolment was about six per cent at SP and 31 per cent at NUS; this increased in 1991 to about 36 per cent and 54 per cent respectively. 25

A student of Baharuddin Vocational Institute at the drafting table.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

There was an acute shortage of engineers as Singapore restructured its economy yet again in the 1980s towards more high-tech industries. A 1988 editorial in The Straits Times, pointed out that female students could have filled the vacancies in university engineering courses.

“The result of Singapore’s female students shying away from the engineering faculty is to deny it half the country’s talent, which must mean fewer or poorer quality engineers. If Singapore were to succeed in the world of high-tech industries, this cannot be allowed to continue,” the editorial read. 26

Attempts were made to woo women to become engineers, and women’s roles as wage-earners once again crept into the public discourse, colliding head-on with education policies that stressed femininity and women’s roles as mothers and homemakers. This forced greater public and policy-level discussion of male superiority and the role of men at home.

In 1991, the MOE announced that by 1994, both Home Economics and Design and Technology would be compulsory for all secondary school students (it was fully implemented for all streams by 1998). This was finally a formal recognition of the changing socio-economic climate in Singapore, and how this required shared responsibility between both men and women in the home. 27

Photo courtesy of SCWO

Parental attitudes towards girls’ education had changed significantly by the 2000s. The result was that girls were becoming more confident, outspoken and assertive. This was perhaps “the biggest fundamental change in the development of girls’ education in the last 50 years,” wrote Dr Kho in an email, adding that because “there is no longer any curriculum differentiation between girls and boys, everyone has equal opportunity in education.” She also pointed to the removal of the medical quota for women, and how this has led to females now making up 50 per cent of the medical cohort. 28

The quota was rescinded in 2002, after the Ministry of Health determined that the gap in dropout rates between male and female medical undergraduates had narrowed, and that Singapore was facing a shortage of doctors due to an expanding population.

According to Dr Anne Tan, the Association of Women Doctors (Singapore) played an important role in this decision. Members of the AWDS, soon after it was set up in 1998, decided to carry out a survey of all doctors registered with the Singapore Medical Council about their type of practice, level of fulfillment, marriage status, children etc. “We found that only a small single digit minority actually stopped practicing and this included both men and women!” said Dr Tan. “Most were highly fulfilled, found the quota unfair and did not regret going into medicine.” Using the data they gained, the AWDS approached female Members of Parliament and male Members of Parliament in the medical field to lobby for change, receiving valuable support along the way from civil society groups. 29

Equal education policies coupled with employment opportunities, including in the traditionally male-dominated science and technology fields, had opened up many potential education pathways for women. They began to outnumber men at the universities – there were more female than male graduates from 2002 to 2008 (except in 2007). 30

“I think education is pretty much a level playing field now. Has been for some time,” said Ms. Thomas. “Girls no longer face overt obstacles in education, and this is not just good but essential for the continued progress of Singapore and its women. What we now have to work on are the less obvious hindrances - the subtle messaging that may still be going on about the roles of women and men in a family, in the home, at the workplace, in the corridors of power. The doors to education are wide open; we must now make sure that our mindsets are just as open.” 

  1. Goh, C.B. & Gopinathan, S. 2006. The Development of Education in Singapore since 1965, Background paper prepared for the Asia Education Study Tour for African Policy Makers, June 2006.
  2. Kho, E.M., 2004. Construction of Femininity: Girls’ Education in Singapore, 1959-2000, Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, National University of Singapore.p.36
  3. Low Guat Tin, ‘Singapore’ in Women, Education and Development in Asia: Cross-national Perspectives, ed. Grace C.L. Mak, 1996, USA, p.147.
  4. Chew, Phyllis. 1999. The Singapore Council of Women and the Women’s Movement, Singapore University Press.
  5. The Tasks Ahead, PAP’s 5-Year Plan, 1959-1964, Part 1 and 2, Singapore: Petir: May 1959.
  6. Kho, E.M., 2004. Construction of Femininity: Girls’ Education in Singapore, 1959-2000, Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, National University of Singapore. pp.47-51
  7. Goh, C.B. & Gopinathan, S. 2006. The Development of Education in Singapore since 1965, Background paper prepared for the Asia Education Study Tour for African Policy Makers, June 2006.
  8. Kho, E.M., 2004. Construction of Femininity: Girls’ Education in Singapore, 1959-2000, Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, National University of Singapore.p.57
  9. Email interview with Dr. Kho Ee Moi, senior lecturer, National Institute of Education, February 2015.
  10. Ibid.pp.68-69.
  11. Low Guat Tin, ‘Singapore’ in Women, Education and Development in Asia: Cross-national Perspectives, ed. Grace C.L. Mak, 1996, USA, p.146.
  12. See ‘Citizens Fit in Mind, Body is Aim of New Education Policy: Ong’, Straits Times, 2 Jan 1968; ‘‘The Way to Build a Rugged Generation’, Straits Times, 13 Apr 1967 ; « Taste of Life in the Rough for Girls at the Outward Bound School, Straits Times, 5 August, 1969.
  13. Kho, E.M., 2004. Construction of Femininity: Girls’ Education in Singapore, 1959-2000, Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, National University of Singapore, p.73.
  14. Lyons, Lenore. 2004. A State of Ambivalence: The Feminist Movement in Singapore, Brill, The Netherlands, p.28.
  15. Excerpted from Speech by the Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew , at the NTUC’s International Women’s Year Seminar-cum-Exhibition, at the DBS Auditorium, 1 Sept 1975.
  16. ‘Why Intake of Women into Medical Faculty Cut: Toh’, Straits Times, 17 Mar 1979.
  17. Email interview with Dr. Anne Tan Kendrick, March 2015.
  18. Lyons-Lee, Lenore, 1998. The ‘Graduate Woman’ Phenomenon: Changing Constructions of the Family in Singapore , Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts, University of Wollongong, Australia, p.5.
  19. Excerpted from Speech by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, at the National Day Cultural Show and Rally, reproduced in RIHED Bulletin, 10, 3 (Jul-Sept 1983), cited in Kho, E.M., 2004. Construction of Femininity: Girls’ Education in Singapore, 1959-2000, Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, National University of Singapore, p.83.
  20. PM’s National Day Rally Speech, Straits Times, 15 August 1983.
  21. Kho, E.M., 2004. Construction of Femininity: Girls’ Education in Singapore, 1959-2000, Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of History, National University of Singapore, p.85. See also “Speech by Dr Tay Eng Soon, Minister of State for Education, 3 Sep 1983”, Singapore Government Press Release, 06/Sep 06-3/83/09/03.
  22. Wee, Vivienne, 1987. `The ups and down of women's status in Singapore: a chronology of some landmark events (1950-1987)', Commentary 7(2 and 3): 5-12.
  23. See Straits Times 26 Apr 94 and 30 July 94, cited in Chan, Jasmine. ‘The Status of Women in a Patriarchal State: The Case of Singapore’ , in Women in Asia: Tradition, Modernity, and Globalisation, University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  24. Thomas, Margaret, ‘A Forward Hop, I Hope’, Working Woman column, Singapore Business, February 1987.
  25. Low Guat Tin, ‘Singapore’ in Women, Education and Development in Asia: Cross-national Perspectives, ed. Grace C.L. Mak, 1996, USA, p.148-149.
  26. “Also for Women”, Straits Times, 13 Apr 1988, cited in Kho E.M. p.90
  27. “Home Economics a Must for Sec 1 Pupils from 1994”, Straits Times, 11 Jul 1991.)
  28. Email interview with Dr. Kho Ee Moi, senior lecturer, National Institute of Education, February 2015.
  29. Email interview with Dr. Anne Tan Kendrick, March 2015
  30. Women and Education & Training: Graduates from Universities by Gender, 2002-2008, Education Statistics Digest, 2003-2009.