International Women's Day: 15 Fantastic Firsts For Singapore Women
This International Women's Day (8 March), we shine the spotlight on historical events and inspiring trailblazers that broke glass ceilings in and for Singapore.
1842: Singapore's first school for girls
The oldest school for girls in Singapore - then known as Chinese Girls' School - was founded by missionary Maria Dyer in an effort to save mui tsai (Cantonese for "little sister"), the term for bonded domestic servants. The students were taught English, the Christian faith and home economics. It was only in 1949 that the institution gained its current name - St Margaret’s School.
Incidentally, the second school for girls (Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus; which is now CHIJMES) was established in 1854, while the third (Raffles Girls' School) was set up in 1879.
1920: Singapore's first woman doctor
The daughter of a Straits Chinese businessman, Lee Choo Neo graduated from medical school in 1919 and became the first woman in Singapore to become a practising medical doctor. She started her own clinic at Bras Basah Road in 1930, and focused on maternity care.
1950: Singapore's first batch of female police officers
The Singapore Police Force (SPF) welcomed its pioneer batch of 10 female officers in January 1950. One of them, Mary Quintal (an alumna of Raffles Girls' School), went on to become the first female Assistant Superintendent of Police in 1961, making her the highest-ranking female officer in the organisation at the time.
1952: Singapore’s first female Olympian
At the age of 19, Tang Pui Wah competed in the 100m sprint and 80m hurdles at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. This sporting legend went on to shine not only as a sprinter and hurdler, but also as a long jumper and high jumper, before retiring from athletics in 1955 at the age of 22.
1992: Singapore’s first woman NMP
Not only was Kanwaljit Soin the first woman in Singapore to become a Nominated Member of Parliament, she was also Singapore's first female orthopaedic surgeon. On top of that, she was a bonafide kick-starter:
- She was the founding member of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), and its president from 1991 to 1993.
- She was the founding chair of the Singapore chapter of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
- She was the founding president of Women’s Initiative for Ageing Successfully (WINGS).
1994: First Asian woman to head UNIFEM
Noeleen Heyzer became the first woman outside of North America to head the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 1994. She was also the first woman to serve as the executive secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (since its establishment in 1947), and went on to hold the post of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations from 2007 to 2015. That means, during her term. she was the highest-ranking Singaporean in the UN system.
2001: Singapore’s first female commercial pilot
Anastasia Gan soared across two worlds - military and civilian. In 1979, she was part of the pioneer batch of female pilots in the Republic of Singapore Air Force, and served in the force till 2000, before joining Silkair in 2001 and becoming Singapore's first female commercial pilot.
2003: Singapore’s first female fighter pilot
Joining the RSAF in 2000 at the age of 19, Khoo Teh Lynn rose through the ranks, starting off as a wingman before achieving her wings and being posted to 143 Squadron, which operates the F-16C/Ds. She was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014 – the same year she became a mum.
2004: Singapore’s first swimmer to take part in the Paralympics
Theresa Goh was the first swimmer to represent Singapore at the Paralympics when she participated in the 2004 Athens Games. Most recently, the advocate for disability sports and Singapore's most bemedalled para-athlete played the role of Chef de Mission for the Bahrain 2021 Asian Youth Para Games. (A chef de mission is a person in charge of a national team at an international sports event.)
2008: Singapore’s first gold at Paralympics
Para-swimmer Yip Pin Xiu touched the wall first at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (she won the the 50m backstroke in the S3 category), making her maiden outing all the more special and unforgettable. She picked up her fourth and fifth Paralympics gold medals at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her most recent achievements: she came in first place twice at the Para Swimming World Series Australia - in the women's 100m backstroke multi-class event as well as the women's 50m backstroke.
2013: Singapore’s first woman SAC of Police
Zuraidah Abdullah was actively involved in the National Cadet Corps during her school days, and, in 1986, answered an SPF career advertisement that read: “Join the police force, every day is different.” She went on to become the first woman to hold the rank of Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police – the third-highest rank in the SPF - and the Airport Police Division's first woman Commander the year after.
2014: Singapore’s first female Red Lion parachutist jumps at NDP
2WO Shirley Ng was supposed to make her debut as the first female Red Lion parachutist to jump at the National Day Parade in 2013. Unfortunately, due to inclement weather, the jump was cancelled. She got a second chance at NDP the following year.
2015: Singapore’s first female brigadier-general in the SAF
Starting out as an Air Traffic Controller, Gan Siow Huang worked her way through the ranks in the Singapore Armed Forces. Along the way, she became the first female commander of Air Surveillance and Control Group, and was the first female military officer to be sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston where she attained an MBA. She received the rank of Brigadier-General on 1 Jul 2015, making her the SAF's first female general.
2017: Singapore’s first female head of state
Halimah Yacob - who was elected as a Speaker of Parliament in 2013, becoming the first woman to hold this post - was inaugurated on 14 Sep 2017 as Singapore's 8th President and its first female head of state. She said in her first address as President from the Istana State Room: "Today, I want to assure all Singaporeans that as your President, I will serve every one of you, regardless of race, language or religion."