SINGAPORE: When we talk about the opposition in Singapore, we hardly talk about the women who have shaped it.

There are, of course, fewer women than men in the opposition camp – just like how there are fewer women in the ruling party. One prominent female politician, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Josephine Teo recently spoke about the cost of being in politics – that she doesn’t get to spend as much time with her children and that she sometimes wonders if she made the right choice stepping into the political fray.

For women in the opposition, the hurdles are notably higher, demanding a heftier price in the face of financial insecurity and fears of job loss. Unlike their counterparts in the ruling party who receive substantial compensation, women in the opposition often find themselves shouldering personal expenses to champion Singaporeans.

From election deposits to campaign costs, these women navigate an uneven political playing field, investing not just their time but also their personal funds in connecting with the electorate.

It is, really, no surprise that so few women step forward to join the opposition given these circumstances. The women who do decide to do so, despite the high cost, have emerged as trailblazers, leaving an enduring legacy that paves the way for a more inclusive and equitable future.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we shine a spotlight on three remarkable women who have left an indelible mark on Singapore’s political landscape: Lina Chiam, Sylvia Lim, and Hazel Poa.

Having all served as Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) at different points in their careers, these women have not only championed the cause of gender equality but have also made the courageous choice to dedicate their lives to Singapore and its people, despite the considerable personal costs involved.

1. Lina Chiam, the matriarch of the opposition 

Lina Chiam FB

Lina Chiam, a formidable figure in Singaporean politics, has played a huge role in the opposition for decades starting with her unwavering support for her husband, opposition giant Chiam See Tong, during his 27 years as a Member of Parliament (MP).

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A trained nurse, Mrs Chiam was a new bride when Mr Chiam was elected in 1976. She quit her job soon after the marriage in 1975 to help with administrative work at Mr Chiam’s law firm, as well as support his political work.

Mrs Chiam played a crucial role behind the scenes, with her steadfast dedication to his political career. Despite the challenges and political adversities Mr Chiam faced, especially at one point when he was the sole elected opposition MP against the PAP sea, Mrs Chiam remained a pillar of strength, providing crucial support and encouragement.

Mrs Chiam stepped into the political arena herself in 2011, standing in her husband’s Potong Pasir single member ward while he contested the larger Bishan-Toa Payoh group constituency.

She lost the election by an extremely narrow margin of 114 votes (0.72%), garnering 49.64% of the vote against the PAP’s 50.36%.

Despite the defeat, as the best performing defeated candidate, Mrs Chiam qualified for a seat in the 12th Parliament as an NCMP by virtue of being one of the “best losers” in an election in which fewer than nine opposition Members of Parliament had been elected.

She accepted the NCMP and served in the 12th Parliament from 12 May 2011 to 23 August 2015.

In her time in the House, Mrs Chiam actively engaged in advocating for social justice and women’s rights. Her presence in the political arena brought attention to issues that often went overlooked, making her a voice for those seeking fairness and equality.

Mrs Chiam demonstrated that women could play substantive roles in shaping legislative decisions, challenging traditional norms within the political landscape.

Mrs Chiam stepped down from electoral politics ahead of the 2020 general election due to Mr Chiam’s declining health, although she remains a member of the Singapore People’s Party’s highest decision-making body.

Today, her legacy extends beyond her husband’s political career; Her resilience in the face of electoral challenges and personal sacrifices set a precedent for future generations of women in Singaporean politics.

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2. Sylvia Lim, one of the first female elected MP from the opposition 

Aljunied GRC FB

The Workers’ Party’s (WP) Sylvia Lim paved the way for women in the opposition by becoming one of Singapore’s first female opposition MPs, post-independence.

Ms Lim followed in her father’s footsteps, first joining the police force as an inspector before carving out a career in law.

The 2001 General Election was a turning point for her. Barely two months after the devastating 9/11 tragedy shook the world, Ms Lim said that she was distressed that two-thirds of the seats were left uncontested by the opposition due to the suddenness of the “snap election,” allowing the ruling party to claim these wards by walkover.

Ms Lim called up then-WP chief Low Thia Khiang and expressed her interest to join the party right after the election. She signed papers to join the party just 10 days after the 2001 General Election and quickly rose up the ranks to become the party’s Chairman 18 months later, in 2003.

Ms Lim made her first foray into electoral politics in 2006 when she was fielded as an opposition candidate for the first time in that year’s general election. The star candidate was chosen to lead the WP team contesting Aljunied GRC.

Although the WP team lost to the incumbents with 43.9 per cent of the vote, Ms Lim was appointed a non-constituency member of parliament (NCMP) since her team received the highest score among the losing opposition candidates in the election. Ms Lim served as NCMP from 2006 to 2011.

Ms Lim was finally elected to Parliament with her Aljunied GRC team in the 2011 general election and was re-elected during the 2015 general election. The WP held on to Aljunied GRC in the most recent 2020 general election and received a resounding mandate of nearly 60 per cent – its best result since it first won the ward in 2011.

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The WP chair has played a big role in advocating for women in politics. Over the decades, she has provided a steady and principled voice within the opposition, consistently working towards ensuring checks and balances within Singapore’s political system.

Known for her articulate communication and substantive contributions during parliamentary debates, Ms Lim has played a vital role in shaping policy discussions.

Her longstanding presence in the political arena has been a source of inspiration for women seeking active roles in politics. As one of the prominent women in the opposition, she has demonstrated that women can hold influential positions and contribute meaningfully to policy discussions.

3. Hazel Poa, Singapore’s very first female political party chief

Hazel Poa FB

NCMP Hazel Poa made history last month as she was made Singapore’s very first female secretary-general when she succeeded Leong Mun Wai as Progress Singapore Party (PSP) chief.

Ms Poa has had an extensive career in politics, having entered the opposition a decade and a half ago, in 2009.

Over the years, Ms Poa’s political journey has been marked by her advocacy for economic equality and social justice. Her emphasis on addressing the concerns of the people, particularly those related to economic disparities and social issues, reflects a commitment to creating a fair and inclusive society.

The road to the PSP’s highest seat took time and Ms Poa stayed the course, showcasing her unfailing resilience and never-give-up spirit. She was elected into the party’s Central Executive Committee in 2019, five years before she earned the sec-gen title.

Calling her new post an honour, Ms Poa said last month that she hopes that her example will encourage more women to take an interest in politics and step forward to make a difference.

Indeed, the new PSP leader serves as an inspiration for aspiring female leaders and individuals seeking to contribute to the political landscape. By breaking the gender barrier as the first female political party chief in Singapore, Ms Poa sets a precedent for women to actively participate and lead in the political sphere.