Monday, October 5, 2009

Book preview: The education of Singapore girls

This is the second book preview of Singapore: A Biography, which will be launched in mid-Oct 2009. Last week's preview was 'Farquhar and Raffles fall out'. A new preview will be published on this website every Monday in October.

The education of Singapore girls
Modern female education in Singapore had begun in 1887, when an Australian Methodist missionary by the name of Sophia Blackmore opened the Methodist Girls’ School in a shop-house on Short Street. Two and a half years later, Blackmore joined forces with the American Methodist Mission to target the Nonya daughters of the Straits Chinese. She herself went door-to-door in Straits Chinese neighbourhoods to recruit new students. As she later recalled:
One mother would say, ‘We do not want our girls to ‘makan gaji’ (earn their livelihood). Another woman told me that if her daughter studied from the same book as her son, the girl would get all the learning out of it; there would be none for the boy, and he would be ‘bodoh’ (stupid). The girl might be stupid—that did not matter, but the boy must be clever.
Certain Nonya were even suspicious that Blackmore might be a government spy sent to investigate household gambling (still, at that time, illegal). Others, once her identity as a missionary had been established, were more concerned that she was unmarried when she was already a woman in her 30s. Such attitudes were typical of the cloistered, tradition-governed world that Blackmore and other educationalists sought to enter and overturn.

Impressed by their efforts, Straits Chinese progressives led a campaign for female education themselves. In 1899, Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang established the Straits Chinese Girls’ School (later called the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School), to ‘encourage and provide every facility for a suitable education for the Chinese girls … under the direction and control of their own people.’ ‘Direction’ and ‘control’ were the operative words here since such ‘suitable’ education had little to do with female empowerment – the objective was to make Straits Chinese girls into better wives and mothers. As an article in the Straits Chinese Magazine made clear:
[The mother’s] duty is to see that the children do not play the truant; to help them with their lessons so that they may not lag behind in the class; to instill into them the truths of morality and religion; and to inculcate the duty due to the family, to the State and to mankind. … As a wife, if she is well educated, the husband will always find in her a delightful companion who is ever ready to give him her advice, persuasion or warning with intelligence and reason …
Partly, the Straits Chinese Girls’ School was founded because of the embarrassment felt by progressive young Baba at the public impression made by their womenfolk. While letters to the Straits Times characterised as ‘reprehensible’ the penchant many Nonya had for popular forms of gambling such as chap-ji-ki and che-ki, articles in the Straits Chinese Magazine castigated them for their general ignorance (even though the latter was largely a result of their domestic confinement). The clearly exasperated outpouring of the colonial Director of Public Instruction in 1906 was typical of such criticism:
There is no more absolutely ignorant, prejudiced and superstitious class of people in the world than the Straits-born Chinese women. It is about hopeless to expect to be able really satisfactorily to educate the boys while their mothers remain stumbling blocks to real enlightenment.
Lim and Song’s remedy for such ignorance and superstition was a curriculum that included basic mathematics, reading and writing (in both English and Mandarin), as well as what we would today call ‘domestic science’: sewing, cooking, hygiene and childcare skills. Lim hoped that the educated Nonya would emerge from school having ‘learnt the importance of cleanliness and the proper way to conduct herself in the different spheres of life she will eventually enter—as daughter-in-law, wife and mother.’ Echoing the concern of the Director of Public Instruction, he also wanted students at the Straits Chinese Girls’ School to raise enlightened Chinese sons who would ultimately (as we saw him exhort earlier) reap their rewards as both ‘sons of Han’ and British imperial subjects.

Not everyone in the Straits Chinese community was supportive of this new direction. Lim noted that ‘with a few honourable exceptions’ elder Baba refused to give their patronage to the Straits Chinese Girls’ School, and that even the fathers and grandfathers of those girls already enrolled at the school adhered to the same ‘conservative and unreasonably prejudiced policy’. Yet a generation later, the efforts of Lim, Song and other female educators had largely vanquished such conservatism. The Methodist Girls’ School, the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and a host of other English and Chinese-language girls’ schools were all flourishing. In 1935, Sophia Blackmore could affirm that the days when women ‘were kept behind closed doors and only saw what was going on outside through a “peep hole”’ had well and truly passed.

© Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow 2009. Singapore: A Biography will be published in mid-October 2009 by National Museum of Singapore, Editions Didier Millet & Hong Kong University Press.

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