A tribute to the Founding Mothers of Singapore this National Day
How much do we know about the founding mothers of Singapore? This National Day, we pay tribute to our sheroes, who challenged injustices and fought for change...
We often talk about the founding fathers of our nation, whose hard work, sweat and determination lead us to where we are today.
But perhaps, less is known of our ‘sheroes’, the women who helped shape our nation’s destiny.
These women challenged injustices and social norms, and believed that change was possible. These women dared to be different, and dared to dream – of a better Singapore.
This National Day, we pay tribute to the founding mothers of Singapore.
Founding Mothers of Singapore: Women who shaped our nation’s destiny
Hajjah Fatimah (1754–1852)
Tradeswoman and philanthropist
Hajjah Fatimah was a Singaporean merchant and philanthropist. She gave back to society by building houses for the poor and donated the site of her house to have a mosque built in its place.
Hajjah Fatimah Mosque in Kampong Glam, named after her, was the first mosque in Singapore named after a woman.
Sophia Blackmore (1857-1945)
First female missionary who founded two girls’ schools
Sophia Blackmore was an Australian missionary who worked for the welfare and education of women and girls in Singapore.
Within two years of her arrival, Blackmore founded the Tamil Girls’ School, presently known as Methodist Girls’ School.
Girls’ education was not a priority amongst the Chinese back then. Blackmore had to go door to door to persuade Peranakan Chinese families that their daughters needed education too. Eventually, her perseverance paid off and and Telok Ayer Chinese Girls’ School (now known as Fairfield Methodist Secondary School) opened in 1888, with its first batch of eight girls.
Apart from her work in education, Blackmore also opened a boarding home for girls.
Checha Davies (1898-1979)
Social worker and women’s activist
Checha Davies was a teacher, social worker, and community volunteer. She was an extremely generous soul who once sold her house so she could use the money to build a hostel for low-income women.
As a key member of the Singapore Council of Women in the mid-20th century, she championed women’s economic, educational, social and legal rights. She was a staunch supporter of the anti-polygamy campaign.
It was due to her efforts that the Women’s Charter was established in the early 1960s. The charter laid foundations for women’s rights, and changed the way women lived in Singapore.
Constance Goh (1906-1996)
Pioneering activist in family planning
Constance Goh was an activist for family planning.
After World War II, she opened a government-funded centre that provided meals for impoverished children. It was there she noticed that the children came from large families who could not afford to feed them.
Society was very different back then. Men were mostly reluctant to use condoms and many women had to seek contraceptive advice without their husbands’ knowledge.
In 1949, Constance Goh founded the Singapore Family Planning Association, which dramatically reduced the national birth rate. From individuals to religious groups, many were against Goh’s ideas on birth control and planned parenthood, but she persisted, and eventually found success.
Che Zahara (1907–1962)
Women’s rights activist
Che Zahara binte Noor Mohamed was a Malay activist who worked towards women’s and children’s rights in Singapore.
After World War II, she and her husband housed orphans and women in need in their own home, which was located on Desker Road in the middle of the red-light district.
She is the founder of the first Muslim women’s welfare organization in Singapore, the Malay Women’s Welfare Association (MWWA). The main focus of the group was on issues surrounding marriage reforms, like raising the legal age of marriage to 16, and for husbands to pay alimony to divorced wives, until they remarried.
Over the course of thirteen years, she looked after over 300 women and orphans, regardless of race or religion. She also empowered them with skills, so they could earn a living.
In 1961, Che Zahara helped establish the Women’s Charter of Singapore.
Elizabeth Choy (1910 – 2006)
Elizabeth Choy was a war heroine, known for her courage, determination and compassion. Together with her husband, she supplied medicine, money and messages to prisoners-of-war in Changi Prison when the Japanese occupied Singapore during World War II.
In the 1950s, she returned to teaching, became a female politician, and campaigned for the development of social services and family planning. She was the first principal of the Singapore School for the Blind.
Maggie Lim (1913-1995)
Doctor specialising in Maternity & Child Health
Dr Maggie Lim née Tan, was a well-known doctor who fought for better medical care for women and children in Singapore. Her father was the great grandson of Tan Tock Seng.
Moved by the plight of mothers drained by childbirth or poverty, Maggie developed a network of maternal and child care clinics in Prinsep Street, Tiong Bahru, Joo Chiat and Outram Road in the 1940’s and 50’s. Prior to that, there was nowhere mothers with sick children could turn to, or receive prenatal check ups and advice.
She was also a strong advocate for family planning and birth control, despite facing fierce opposition from conservative and religious groups. The idea that a woman could control their own fertility was considered outrageous and rebellious back then.
In 1963, Maggie Lim was appointed as the head of the Ministry of Health’s Maternity and Child Welfare Department, and President of the Family Planning Association of Singapore.
These are just a few stories of exemplary women, who did not let their circumstances define them. Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.