Though her journey has been full of trepidation, Constance Singam has never allowed fear to stop her from correcting what she believes is wrong in her country. She is a true epitome of patriotism, freedom and bravery in today’s fast-paced and tangled world.
She is known regionally and globally as a brilliant author and a highly respected advocate for Singapore’s civil society. She has spent the last twenty-five years leading a variety of women’s organizations, co-founding various civil society groups, penning columns in national publications and co-editing several books. Through these acts, she has sought to bridge the widening gap between intellectual and ethical spheres as a way of solving the problems she continues to see in her country.
She was born in Singapore as Constance D’Cruz in 1936. Her father worked as a senior architectural draughtsman while her mother tended to their home as a homemaker. When she was just five years old, she left Singapore with her mother for Kerala, India, in order to get to know her grandparents. While the trip was intended to be a short one, it extended up to 1948 due to the occupation of Singapore and the Japanese invasion.
Singham’s foray into the world of activism began in 1978 when her journalist husband N.T.R. Singam died because of heart attack complications, stemming from a cardiologist’s bad judgment. She was 24 years old when she had married Singam, and was 42 at the time of his death. A single act on her part, which was to write a letter, A Rest in Hospital Became a Nightmare to The Straits Times regarding patient care standard in private hospitals, got the ball rolling in terms of changes in the treatment of the marginalized. From then on, she would write more than a hundred letters to the press about the issues that concerned her and civil society.
The death of Constance’s husband also prompted her to engage in more liberating experiences, brought about by deeper questions of her personal identity, the future and the notion of loneliness. Her first step in attempting to answer such questions was to get a driver’s license, which was already a big deal for her given that it was something her husband did not approve of when he was still alive. Singam notes that the first day she drove alone was the most liberating experience of her life.
Encouraged and emboldened, with dreams of becoming a writer, her next decision was to go to Melbourne for her honors degree in Literature at the Monash University. Being 46 years old at that time did not prove to be a barrier to completing her first ever degree, which she did with flying colors. Her education also did not stop there, as she was able to complete her Master’s degree from Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, at the age of 60. She also dabbled in the educational field by working as a part-time lecturer at the National Institute of Education, until she was 67.
Her educational pursuits also lead her to the Singapore women’s gender equality group, AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) and tackled issues like domestic violence against women and Indian students’ underperformance in schools. With her newfound passion for intellectual work, Singam worked actively for solutions to problems that dehumanize the marginalized sector of society.
Her personal experiences with being marginalized were also a reason why this kind of work was important to her. Upon her return to Singapore, she was advised to announce that she was Indian so she would not be attacked under the assumption that she was Eurasian. This was during the 50s, and the time of the Maria Hertogh riots. In her later years, the experience of being marginalized stemmed from her being a widow, an Indian and a woman.
Her work as a civil society activist brought about notable changes in the lives of many through political lobbying. The government responded by forming the SIDA (Singapore Indian Development Association) to address the community’s socio-economic and educational issues. Ten years of hard lobbying on domestic violence against women finally resulted in legal protection being given to victims.
Her provocative journal published in 2013, Where I Was: A Memoir from the Margins has been read by thousands and shows the other side of Singapore’s glowing and thriving face. She recounts her life and the accompanying experiences of being marginalized in many ways. It paints a glaring picture of societal challenges people like her face, due to political and cultural obstacles. Despite being autobiographical, it also successfully tells the tale of others through her personal accounts of important historical events.
She discovered that through her writing she was able to make society take notice of issues that are of concern to her, such as the marginalized place of women; being a “poor cousin” to Singaporeans because she was Indian; and the struggles and challenges that come with being poor in a first world country. She continued to wield this weapon many times, as well as to speak in public and private discourses in Singapore and abroad.
Now in her late seventies, Constance Singam is busier than ever, performing multiple roles she probably did not dream of doing when she was in her twenties. She continues her work as a social activist, a teacher and a writer, and has become a restaurateur and an active blogger as well. Her presence on the Internet is a commendable effort to engage the global community and make them aware of the issues that civil society faces today.
Despite growing up in a patriarchal, South Indian household and society, she found in herself a stronger voice that spoke and achieved results for many. Yes, Constance Singam might have lost a husband and would have settled in a traditional married life. But with passion and with her radical ideals, she has become a role model and inspiration for thousands of individuals – most especially those who share in her experience of being marginalized in different ways.
To read more about Constance Singam, check her blog Living Life @ 70.
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