by Er. Dr. Lee Bee Wah
“The key is education. Old-fashioned attitudes of teaching women enough to be literate and useful wives have undergone profound changes in the last 20 years. Societies which do not educate and use half their potential because they are women are those which will be worse off.” – Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1975
The quote above means a lot to me. Without Mr Lee Kuan Yew thinking this way, I would not be who I am today.
I was born in Malaysia to a family of rubber tappers, the oldest of seven children. The prevailing attitude at that time was exactly what Mr Lee describes here – that girls will be married off anyway, so just educate them enough to be a useful wife.
True enough, when I was in Primary Five, my parents wanted me to drop out of school. I managed to persuade them otherwise. Many girls in Singapore were saved from a similar fate through Mr Lee’s pragmatic policies of quality education for all.
When it was time to go to university, my late father encouraged me to come to Singapore. He said Singapore had a great leader in Mr Lee. I would have a better future here. Singapore’s prosperity was, of course, one reason. But more important, opportunities were equal in Singapore, no matter what race, religion or gender you belong to.
As I built my life in Singapore, I never felt disadvantaged because of my gender. Mr Lee encouraged more women to work. So career women like me became accepted both at home and in the workplace. He instituted quality childcare. So women did not need to break their careers to bring up children. He passed the Women’s Charter way back in 1961, before many countries, even developed ones, even thought about women’s rights to property and protection from family violence.
But his influence was apparent even in the smallest of things. I could work late because it was safe to go home even late at night. I saw women becoming ministers, MPs, community leaders, senior corporate executives, which made me believe I could give back to society too.
I am grateful for Mr Lee’s leadership, which gave me the opportunities I have enjoyed. And I am not just grateful, but determined to carry on his values of integrity, pragmatism and gender equality through my community work.