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Telling It As It Is: The Lives of Women in Early Singapore

In conjunction with the Lives of Women Exhibition, the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame organised two talks, She Works Hard for the Money and I am Woman, Hear Me Roar on 25 May 2018 and 8 June 2018 respectively.

She Works Hard for The Money saw a diverse group of women from all walks of life, with a handful of men amongst them. They listened attentively, their gaze almost never leaving the archaic black-and-white photographs telling of a bygone era. Sociologist Dr Lai Ah Eng was the mouthpiece of women in pre-independence Singapore and Malaya, sharing her own anecdotes with her research on the various job categories that women were in, such as farming, prostitution, construction and domestic service. During the Q&A section, a question posed by a male audience earned the laughter and bemusement of his female counterparts. He asked, “Why were women paid less than men? Did the employers give any reason?” To conclude the talk, Dr Lai reiterated what she had promised at the start, that women have always worked and she was acknowledging some women who might have been forgotten. Though not all of them have made it to the Hall of Fame, they should be committed to the hall of our memory and respected for their contributions.

Educationist Dr Phyllis Chew was the speaker for I am Woman Hear Me Roar. “I could never have come up with such a creative title for the talk! If not, I think nobody would come!” Dr Chew self-deprecatingly joked. It was completely unwarranted, for her talk was well-delivered and even received a stamp of approval from Jamshed Fozdar, the son of Shirin Fozdar, Singapore’s prominent pioneer activist. Dr Chew passionately recounted the struggles and progress of the Singapore Council of Women, especially about their determined campaign for the laws that would protect the rights of women and elevate their status in society. The audience was considerably knowledgeable about the topic and supplemented more details for everybody’s benefit as the talk proceeded. Dr Chew thought there was no better way but for Jamshed to end the talk. Despite being 92 years old, his conviction was unmistakable when he wittily rallied the women in the audience to be more courageous in advancing women’s rights and build on the good work of the women who had gone before.

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