November 19th, 2010

The Birth of AWARE: Part One

Lena Lim at the launch of AWARE

What were the events that led to the founding of AWARE, 25 years ago? Lenore Lyons details The Birth of AWARE in the first of this two-part excerpt from Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore.

The Association of Women for Action and Research is Singapore’s most active and vibrant feminist organisation. It was formed in 1985 with the goal of promoting equal opportunities for all women in Singapore. Since then it has worked with dedication and tenacity to address many instances of inequality between men and women. It has helped to raise the profile of gender issues in Singapore and brought about significant changes in women’s status.

Why did Singapore need a Women’s Rights organisation?

“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. ..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 a doctor, engineer and run a home and bring up children”. (Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in The Straits Times, 1983.)

In August 1983, in his National Day Rally speech, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew referred to Singapore’s falling fertility rate. Quoting from the 1980 census, Lee said that while less-educated women were producing the average of three children, those with secondary or tertiary education had only 1.65 children. He feared that a decline in birth rate amongst the well-educated would result in the “thinning of the gene-pool” and national economic disaster. Lee referred to this as a “lop-sided procreation pattern”, and the issue was dubbed the “Great Marriage Debate” by the local press.

Prior to Lee’s speech, the government had been emphasizing population control. The Singapore Family Planning and Population Board encouraged young couples to “Stop at Two” and space out their children. Women with two or more children were urged to seek sterilizations to keep their families small. By 1980 the total fertility rate had dropped to 1.82 from 4.62 in 1965. This rapid decline in birth rate was due not only to the government’s anti-natalist policies but also to increasing educational levels, widespread female employment, rising affluence and improvements in housing conditions. An accompanying trend of reduced birth rate was that women with higher education were having a smaller number of children than women with lower education levels.

To increase the birth rate, the government ran a series of mass educational campaigns using slogans such as: ”Are you giving men the wrong idea?” , “Life will be lonely without a family. Don’t leave it too late”, Why not reality? You could wait a lifetime for a dream”. In January 1984 the Social Development Unit was set up within the Ministry of Finance to matchmake male and female university graduates in the public service. Two years later the scheme was extended to graduates employed in the private sector. Two schemes for non-university graduates, the Social Promotion Section and the Social Development Section were also introduced to “O”-levels (secondary school) and “A” levels (college) certificate holders.

In addition to its matchmaking activities, the government introduced financial and social incentives to encourage graduate women to marry and procreate. First, in 1984 the Ministry of Education announced a new priority scheme for registration of Primary One Children called “the Graduate Mothers Priority Scheme”. In the past, priority was given to the children of parents who were sterilized after the first or second child. Under the new scheme, children of university-educated women who had three or more children were to receive priority. In 1984, the government also announced that that it would give S$ 10,000 to less-educated, low-income mothers below the age of 30 years if they were sterilised after their first or second child.

Lee’s comments sparked fierce debate in the forum pages of many newspapers and were a source of constant discussion in the boardrooms and dining rooms of the nation. Young women and men felt enormous pressure to marry early and have more children.

Click here for The Birth of AWARE: Part Two

Reproduced from Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore edited by Mandakini Arora, Chapter VI by Lenore Lyons. Published in Singapore 2007. Copies of the book will be on sale for $15 at Celebrate! AWARE’s 25th Birthday Party

Comments are closed.