Mother of Singapore’s civil society

Constance Singam is considered to be the mother of Singapore's civil society. (Photo provided by PN Balji)

By P N Balji

It is a rare combination in a society which worships materialism and connections.

Seen from that perspective, civil society activist Constance Singam is a poor cousin to many of her fellow citizens.

But seen from another -- and more satisfying and enduring -- angle, she is a rich citizen, having combined the intellectual and the ethical centres to launch her many fights to correct the wrongs she saw and still sees in her country.

The mother of Singapore's civil society -- as she is described by Alvin Tan, founder and artistic director of The Necessary Stage -- has a disarming charm about her.

Behind that charm is a fighter who couldn't close one eye to being "alienated as an Indian, a woman and activist."

Her baby steps into the world of activitism started when her husband of 18 years, journalist N.T.R Singam, died of a heart attack in a private hospital because of a cardiologist's bad judgment.

A letter she wrote to The Straits Times, A Rest In Hospital Became A Nightmare, triggered a debate about the standard of patient care in private hospitals with the government moving in to act.

"I had no idea that the letter... was going to be the first of hundreds of letters I would write to the press. But life has been like that for me, thrusting me into situations that I would never have thought of entering," she writes.

The big steps were to come soon after. Her husband's death in 1978 when she was 42 led to searching questions about her identity, loneliness and future.

She decided to get a driving licence, something her husband was not in favour of. "The day I drove on my own remains the most liberating experience of my life," she writes.

The next decision -- to go to Melbourne to do an honours degree in literature -- opened up a new world of intellectual curiosity and discovery that finally lead her to Aware, the Singapore women's group.

"Its agenda demanded intellectual work, which appealed to me... equally important were its broader goals, which went beyond the movement against sexism to embrace the liberation of our society from racism and other behaviour that demumanise certain segments of society," she says in her book.

One year after she joined Aware as a member came the numbing ISA arrests of 1987 when a number of her friends were detained.

Would she be the next target, she feared. "For the first time, I experienced what it was like to live in fear...."

"I am not fearless and am actually a coward,'' she writes with candour.

Fear continued to haunt her as she went on to head Aware for a total of six years and to confront issues frowned upon by the state.

One of them was domestic violence against women. The official line was that it was a domestic issue. It took 10 years of lobbying for that mindset to change to one where the victims were given legal protection.

It was not just female-oriented issues that Aware concentrated on. In 1989 Constance and an Aware colleague wrote about the under performance of Indian students and called for government intervention.

Two years later, the government formed the Singapore Indian Development Association to tackle the educational and socio-economic issues facing the community.

"I was appalled that yet another race-based organisation was being set up, reinforcing the attitude that underachievement was race-related and not an outcome of disempowerment, as I suspected,'' she writes.

Don't politicise issues, she and her team were told.

The fear was made worse by friends and relatives who kept asking about it.

Did you ever get over this, I ask.

"I don't think I ever did. But then I am single, not rich, have no status. And I am from Kerala," she says matter-of-factly.

Peter Lim, former editor-in-chief of the English-Malay newspaper division of Singapore Press Holdings, who has known Constance for more than 40 years, said: "Her blossoming was totally unexpected by me. It is a testimony to the way Singapore society was transitioning that it took the death of a doting husband to liberate her and give her the freedom to eventually respond to her conscience and take the path towards socio-political activism."

Constance is passionate about her roots. Whether it is Kerala, that narrow-strip of land in south India where everybody has an opinion on everything and where she lived for seven years as a child, or Singapore, where she spent almost all of her 77 years, she is a patriot.
She could have decided to make Australia her home, disappointed with the events back home.

But she is a concerned citizen, she tells me when I bring up the two interlocking personalities in her book and ask: Which comes first -- the veteran activist or the concerned citizen?

"The concerned citizen first because of the treatment of the minority in Singapore, the arrogance of the people at the top that they know best," she replied.

That is the Constance Singam Singaporeans have learnt to admire.

A fiercely-independet soul who does not mince her words and is true to her cause.

In a Singapore where the official voice has always prevailed, that is a big thing.

P N Balji has more than 35 years experience as a journalist. He is now a media consultant.