Was Elizabeth Choy postcolonial Singapore’s first intellectual?
By Noorman Abdullah and Vineeta Sinha
Elizabeth Choy (1910–2006) is often popularly remembered as Singapore’s war heroine. We see, read and hear of Choy in popular documentaries, drama serials, museum exhibitions, graphic novels and children’s books, and theatrical productions. As an individual, Choy was possibly seen as a non-threatening subject by the British and later Singapore’s political elites. She certainly did not come across as someone who wanted to disrupt the status quo, and in many ways in fact reinforced the establishment position of the day.
However, she was most likely influenced by the promise and potential of the ‘Malayan Spring,’ a period marked by hope and renewal, post-war in the midst of Emergency. While Choy expressed strong nationalist fervour, she did not criticise the British as colonisers nor Singaporean politicians. These sentiments that she and her contemporaries held need to be contextualised historically to avoid a presentist bias.
From her vantage point and given her deeply traumatic personal experiences during the Second World War, Choy viewed Japan as the evil empire and the British as a relatively benevolent one in contrast. It is possible she saw the PAP’s subsequent electoral victory and peaceful transition to self-government as a relief in the belief that the move from the British Empire to Singapore was a logical transition. Choy in this sense had an appeal to be appropriated by different groups in Singapore, including its political elites as part of the wider Singapore Story: a middle-class, English educated Anglophile, possessing moderate political views, yet also possessing the model attributes contributing to Singapore’s postcolonial miracle narrative.
While she did not present herself as an intellectual, Choy’s work and reflections certainly contributed to an emergent intellectual discourse. Choy can therefore perhaps be seen as a pioneer and an early pioneer and inspiration for the PAP although she has not been claimed as such or recognised in this mode.
Choy was born Yong Su Moi on 29 November 1910 in North Borneo (present-day Sabah). Her great-grandparents arrived from Hong Kong to assist German missionaries in their work. Choy was a very devout Christian, and this shaped her identity and responses to her life experiences. Her parents and grandparents also had a strong conviction that girls and boys should be English educated. She was enrolled at St Monica’s Boarding School in Sandakan, where she took on the name ‘Elizabeth’, and went on to pursue higher education in Raffles College in Singapore (now National University of Singapore). Given her family’s financial limits to be able to afford the tuition fees, Choy started to teach. After the war, Choy and her husband were invited to England to recuperate in 1946. She studied domestic science at the Northern Polytechnic and taught at a London council school. Given her interest in studying art but without the means to do so, Choy was an artist’s model, posing for the Estonian sculptress Dora Gordine.
On her return to Singapore in 1949, she resumed teaching and became involved in Singapore’s political developments. This period was also marked by increasing political consciousness amongst the people of Singapore and Malaya who had divergent views pertaining to colonial rule. While politics did not “magnetise” her (Zhou, 1995: 99), Choy stood for elections as an independent candidate (but lost) in 1950. In 1951, she was nominated as a legislative councillor, as the only woman member too, where she often spoke on behalf of the poor and women to campaign for the development of social services and family planning. Curiously, we hear less of Choy’s husband, who was also imprisoned and tortured longer than her for his participation in subversive activities during World War II, or even Elizabeth Choy’s other facets as teacher, model, politician and gunner. Yet less is also articulated about Choy’s post-war 1954 lectures tour to the United States and Canada as a representative of Singapore and Malaya.
The 1954 Lectures Tour
This lecture opportunity arose when Choy was approached by the British Foreign Office while she was in London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. As the only nominated legislative councillor who was a woman, she was considered “the perfect choice” (Zhou, 1995: 107) by the British Foreign Office to share the aspirations of the people of Malaya and Singapore to the North American audience. Before undertaking this tour, she visited Malaya to get a better understanding of the country.
In her five lectures, Americans would have certainly welcomed this engagement given that in this post-colonial moment, the United States and former European colonies were positioning themselves as global leaders. The Americans, in particular, expressed a knowledge deficit about Asia, unlike the Europeans who could claim a greater understanding of Asia having colonized it for several centuries.
These lectures embody an uncanny semblance for Singapore and even more for social historians. Choy’s pronouncement that “[f]or it is in this generation, as I have said, that the future of Singapore is irretrievably being made or unmade” (Choy, 1954c: 30) is discerning and prophetic. The 1950s can be marked as a decisive moment — a transitional moment — in the history of Singapore. Choy’s tone in these lectures is certainly aspirational — she draws on anecdotes, personal experiences and her work as a public figure — to narrate the “story of a million people in search of political unity of a democratic kind” (Choy, 1954c: 55).
Choy was well received wherever she went, in light of “her effervescent personality [that] left a deeper impression on the people she met at close quarters” (Zhou, 1995: 116). In New York, a weekly magazine saluted her as Woman of the Week. After three months away, Choy returned to Singapore as an enormous success (NHB, 1997).
Political Aspirations and Nationhood
The issues she addressed in her lectures varied but often included the people’s political aspirations and the progressive development of Singapore, as well as its multi-racial character in a context of self-governing nationhood. Choy touched on the topic of democratic institutions and communism in her talks. Her conception of the former is people-centred and collective, focused on “the needs of the ordinary man and woman and their children” (Choy, 1954d: 16). She holds that policy makers and legislators “are the servants of the people and that what position of privilege we have is for that purpose and not for personal satisfaction” (ibid). Choy notes favourably “the absence of racial or communal feeling in our institutions. The qualification of voting is irrespective of race and our political parties appeal to the interests of Singapore, not of one group” (ibid).
For Choy, politics is not about philosophy or ideology, but above all for her politics is practical, uncannily resonant of the pragmatism that subsequently marked the PAP. Choy speaks of what seems to her to be the newness of democracy for Singapore and which “we must learn”, in contrast to the ‘West’ where “democratic ideas have been inherited” (Choy, 1954d: 20). The true test of the ‘goodness’ of democratic ideas for Choy lies ultimately “in the improvement in the spirit of the community and its material endowment and advance,” (Choy, 1954d: 21) adding that “[b]y us is the democratic method being judged, and democratic as we are, we ask to be judged by no other standard” (ibid). This is a strong refrain in several of her lectures on the subject of self-governance and nation-building in Singapore.
Choy’s language and nation-building narratives have a familiar, contemporary ring to them and seem relevant today. In her lecture ‘Singapore’s progress towards self-governance’, Choy notes uneven representation in politics along racial lines and flags political consciousness and building a political loyalty as key elements for nation-building. It is interesting, however, that the kinds of questions she posed about democracy and democratic institutions are no longer being asked. At the same time, the tenor of her thinking on various matters appears to have had a resounding effect on Singapore’s policies.
Choy speaks often of the ‘miracle’ that Singapore was in 1954. In this there are strong continuities how Singapore continues to imagine herself and indeed how others view this nation. Singapore’s small size, its importance as a strategic centre for trade and a locus for overseas Chinese are key in this imagination of Singapore. Choy places a great deal of emphasis on the attitude of the Chinese in Singapore to democracy, and whom she argues have been more attuned to communism. At the same time, their political aspirations further splintered between those who were Chinese-educated and English-educated. In an effort to capture political power in Singapore, the communists appealed to communalistic interests pertaining to Chinese culture, education and language to mobilise support amongst the Chinese-speaking and Chinese-educated against the authorities. This diverged from the latter who by and large did not wish for too much change, and instead cast ideological aspersions against communism. In that regard, Choy was decisively and unapologetically against communism, describing “communist selfishness as inflated as its ideological pretensions” (Choy, 1954c: 54).
Further, Choy repeatedly alludes to Asia’s dependence on the United States. She argues that American policies have a direct economic, political and social impact on Asia, imploring greater American attentiveness to Malaya. This too remains true to date as Singapore balances its interests and foreign policy in an increasingly polarised world.
At the same time, she argues that religious and racial homogeneity are not required for building a united polity: “political loyalty does not require religious conformity and racial similarity to buttress it and that a state is richer for the wider variety of mansions compatible with its essential political unity, i.e., its will to agree on matters where agreement is essential if the state is not to flounder” (Choy, 1954c: 8). Choy spends time in making the argument that a ‘political self’ is not a given but has to be crafted and evolves over time. Choy was pioneering in asking as a public figure what it means to be Singaporean in 1954, well before the formal end of colonial rule.
Choy’s loyalty to the Crown to the Queen is also reiterated in this lecture, for her colonial rulers are “no alien power, but part of our way of government” (Choy, 1954c: 48). She expresses allegiance to the colonial state and the emerging Singapore State, neither of which is surprising. But she is resolute in the desire for and felt need for self-government. Her lectures interrogate what ‘self-government’ means. Choy states that “inner essence and stability of a community is key to self-government” (Choy, 1954c: 3). In an unintended nod to Weberian Sociology, Choy writes insightfully “that important as is the machinery of government, it is as soul-less as any machine if there is no self, and self-destructive and dangerous if the self has neither will-power nor self-confidence” (Choy, 1954c: 49).
Singapore’s Exceptionalism and Cosmopolitanism
In her other lectures, her efforts in valorising Singapore’s exceptionalism and cosmopolitan identity precedes the frequent articulations made and reproduced by the PAP ruling elites. In fact, much of what Choy had referenced in her lecture on ‘Keeping a City Healthy One Degree from the Equator’ bears some longevity to the powerful but problematic narratives present in Singapore’s management of the ongoing global health pandemic, and more pertinently, how these obstacles were surmounted. Choy notes the “mass influx of people from neighbouring states” (Choy, 1954a: 4) which are marked with “very dangerous infectious and communicable diseases…prevalent in an epidemic or endemic form” (ibid). Much akin to the political narratives articulated today in Singapore, Choy articulates the colonial discourse that “cholera, small-pox and plague diseases which can enter Singapore and cause a great deal of suffering and economic and social disorganisation should those responsible for our frontier defences have ever to relax their vigilance” (Choy, 1954a: 4–5).
Choy further describes Singapore’s demographic profile, highlighting patterns in terms of birth, mortality and morbidity rates, as well as post-war developments in its healthcare system and medical plan. In this regard, the healthcare system and “first class” (Choy, 1954a: 15) hospitals in Singapore, she says, “compare favourably with some of the best anywhere” (ibid) and as “one of its kind in the East” (Choy, 1954a: 17). This extends to maternity, infectious-diseases and mental facilities which Choy describe as “far and away better that most of its kind in the East and compares more than favourably with many in the West” (Choy, 1954a: 19). Throughout this lecture, she draws reference on Singapore’s modern orientation and approach to medical science. Cumulatively, this narrative of Singapore’s exceptionalism, of having “reached a most happy position … [and] created something of a miracle” (Choy, 1954a: 29), remains overwhelmingly recurrent in contemporary Singapore.
This discussion extends to how Singapore’s cosmopolitanism and multiculturalist sensibilities have been foregrounded. Choy describes Singapore as “perhaps, the most cosmopolitan of all cities in that representatives of almost every race and creed in the world can be found in substantial numbers” (Choy, 1954a: 6–7) and a heterogeneous meeting place of different peoples, cultures, and living religions, where “side by side you would see an Indian Hindu temple, a Chinese Buddhist temple and a Methodist chapel” (Choy, 1954b: 1).
She sees social division along racial lines on the island, stating without ambiguity that these communities are marked by different cultures, not to mention varying attitudes towards politics, democracy, technology and hygiene. Her lecture ‘Singapore: the Great Meeting Place of Peoples and Cultures’ speaks of the interaction between different ethnic groups which “accepts and influences the other without anyone feeling restricted or diluted” (Choy, 1954b: 3) and asserts that “this blending of peoples and cultures in Malaya can prove to be an example of peaceful co-operation on democratic lines” (Choy, 1954b: 23).
These various assumptions have continued to linger and were constitutive of the PAP’s multiculturalist model and what Choy called a “plural community” (Choy, 1954b: 12). Choy invokes the trope of racial diversity, which has continued to reverberate over the last seven decades.
The Position of Women
Of significant interest in these lectures is her articulation of women’s issues, partly also because she had speaking engagements with women’s organisations there. The conditions advancing gender equality were not especially entrenched in Singapore but given Choy’s own biographical and political past, the position and interests of women and children in Singapore and Malayan society feature as pertinent and meaningful issues for her. Choy asserted that she did not want to be regarded as a tokenistic woman representative in a male-dominated assembly (Zhou, 1995:99). She was the only female legislator of her time and references this in her lecture ‘Women’s Part in Public Life’ while arguing that there should be more women in parliament and in public life.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, she uses androcentric language in her lecture, perhaps a sign of her times but certainly not unfamiliar today either. Choy did subscribe to the idea that women played a significant role as homemakers, but at the same time, she acknowledged that “they are working energetically, and in a variety of ways, to make their country a better place” (Choy, 1954e: 3) and strongly “urged women to take a greater interest in the goings-on outside of the home” (Zhou, 1995:101). There may be questions and debates about whether she can be considered a feminist, but she certainly speaks of women’s emancipation and independence, and argues that while education has opened doors to women, “tradition and prejudice stillhold a pretty tight rein on any real gallop toward complete emancipation” (Choy, 1954e: 4, underlined in original).
She is however optimistic and notes that “things are better now” (Choy, 1954e: 1), quoting a Malay woman legislative councillor, Datin Puteh Maria that “[i]t is only a matter of time before women in Malaya come out of their shell completely” (Choy, 1954e: 9). But for change to come, there would be a need to “cut through a frightening tangle of submissiveness, lethargy and superstition” (Choy, 1954: 4). As a legislator, she noted that it would be “up to the women themselves to prove that they were anything but inferior” (Zhou, 1995:101). In this respect, Choy has called for an increase in the age women can marry, as well as pushed women to participate in political and professional life (ibid).
Her narrative is thus instructive in repositioning the analytical lens on the history of women’s movements in Malays. Further, she mentions her own experience in Malaya before she embarked on her lecture tour with Women’s Institutes or the National Association of Women’s Institutes of Malaya. These institutes were founded on the principle of women’s guilds and offered opportunities for ordinary women’s participation and activism in areas that were important to them, such as health, education, welfare, childcare and employment. Helmed by Lady Templer, wife of then British High Commissioner of Malaysia, General Gerald Templer, Choy paints a resolutely glowing image of her and how she “inspired leadership” (Choy, 1954e: 3). She further posits that the institutes are “proving to be the mainspring of the movement toward the emancipation and independence of the three million women of the Federation of Malaya” (Choy, 1954e: 9)
Oftentimes, who, how and when a person is remembered provides us insights on the optics and politics of representation. Throughout Singapore’s history, the contributions made by women, with some exceptions, have not been dominantly foregrounded as part of the early pioneering efforts in carving out its postcolonial intellectual past. In the process of rethinking and carving out this past, as we have tried to do in our other efforts in our own disciplinary research and teaching, we have attempted to make a case to discuss the contributions of Elizabeth Choy as one of the forerunners in Singapore’s intellectual history through her 1954 lectures.
Choy was living in what can be billed as a transitional moment in the history of Singapore towards nationhood. It is refreshing to read her perspective on Singapore, which was at the point of writing these lectures, literally being built and coming into her own. Her reflections on the geopolitics of the region, including the growing importance of the United States in Asian affairs is also striking from the perspective of a society that is arguing for self-government and end of British colonial rule. Her ideas and thoughts pertaining to public health, population and demographic issues, the position of women, as well as broader race relations also reveal that she was able to appreciate and recognise the salience of these social conditions as building blocks of a nascent society. One wonders what Choy would have achieved if she had become a policymaker or town planner, and how we can communicate these in the ways we teach and present Singapore’s intellectual history in our syllabi.
Choy set out to communicate to her audiences what the problem, experiment and promise of Singapore is, arguing that its small size is not an impediment to the regional influence it could exert. It is therefore perhaps fitting to end with Choy’s own words on this (1954c: 55):
“We may be small, but in our democratic way, rights are not only to the mighty, and each community must first solve its own problems in its own situation. I hope you will see our problem more clearly and will follow our experiment with interest. For we feel that if with our blend of Asian and European people we can succeed, it will play its part in influencing the shape of Asian things to come.”
Noorman Abdullah is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Malay Studies and Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore and Vineeta Sinha is Professor at the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.
Choy, Elizabeth (1954a). Keeping a City Healthy One Degree from the Equator, Singapore: E. Choy.
— — (1954b). Singapore: The Great Meeting Place of Peoples and Culture, Singapore: E. Choy.
— — (1954c). Singapore’s Progress towards Self-Government, Singapore: E. Choy.
— — (1954d). My Work as a Legislator, Singapore: E. Choy.
— — (1954e). Women’s Part in Public Life, Singapore: E. Choy.
— — (1985). Oral History Interview, Singapore: Oral History Dept.
National Heritage Board (NHB) (1997). Elizabeth Choy: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, Singapore: Singapore History Museum.
Zhou, Mei (1995). Elizabeth Choy: More than a War Heroine — A Biography, Singapore: Landmark Books.