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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Chin

Writers I read: A Singaporean Identity – Constance Singam, the epitome of true grit

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

For me, Constance Singam the Singapore feminist and civil society activist, is the epitome of true grit

Brought up in a patriarchal South Indian Catholic household, almost promised off to a Kerala Indian boy in the next village when she was twelve, married for love soon after her first job to an older man and then a housewife who didn’t even have a driving license for eighteen  years, Connie blossomed in widowhood.  Now, we know her as the mother of Civil Society.

Cover Where I was

When Constance and I sat down to talk about her writing, her grit was abundantly evident.

Where I Was, A Memoir from the Margins is an unabashedly independent look at Singaporean history from 1948, when Constance returned to Singapore from India, to the present day.

Constance had not intended to write a memoir linked so closely to Singapore’s history.  The decision was triggered by events in 2009, when the hijacking of AWARE, a secular feminist organization Constance had been involved in for over twenty years, by a group of religious women  triggered intense debate about the role of religion in a secular state.

Constance’s realized then that it was important to write down her experiences.  At a public level, too little was know about the history of civic organizations and how they’d featured in Singapore society. And then too, there was a personal need to understand how the particular take-over of AWARE had happened, how the membership of this leading feminist organization became so apathetic that it allowed itself to be taken over this way.

She wrote to understand and to show how Singapore history had evolved, she told me. And to understand the extent to which power had been appropriated in society and what those in power did.  As Singapore had changed, she’d begun to feel more and more marginalized in the country of her birth, Constance said. By writing a subjective account of Singapore’s history as a woman, an Indian and hence member of a minority race, a feminist, she wanted to show that there was space for other histories in Singapore besides the official narratives. Constance also wanted to examine the impact of history on herself, personally. How had it influenced her doing and being? How had it made her who she was?

Constance did not declaim these objectives in a heroic away.  As always she was reflective and self questioning. An intellectual steeped in the Liberal tradition, she always concedes that she might not have all the facts, always considers the other side of the argument.  In typical Constance fashion though, after having mulled over everything, she would be very clear about her conclusions. Whether it was her anger that two casinos were allowed in Singapore despite public opinion to the contrary or her despair over the falling numbers of students taking literature in our secondary schools, her arguments would be passionate,  her opinions strongly and truly voiced.

Constance has earned the right to write her opinions

She had always wanted to be a writer, Constance said to me. She has no idea why. But it was the impetus for her applying to study literature in university, a course she did not get into; and later, when she flunked out of law school, to becoming a journalist.

Still it was only after she’d lived, lived bravely even when she was confused and sad and just fearful, that the substance of what she would give voice to came to her. She had enjoyed being a journalist, reporting objectively about events. But she didn’t make an impact. This happened when she began to write about her society and her place in it as a woman on the margins, first in letters to the newspapers and then as a contributor of essays and finally the memoir. Then society sat up and took notice.

It is a long road for the child whose first memory of stories are the salutary tales told at catechism classes; the young girl whose first memory of reading is in her native Malayalam to her stern grandfather in Kerala; the teenager who escaped into Regency romances.

This now is the woman who writes fearlessly in the prologue of Where I Was:

“In 1965, Singapore became an independent republic. It has since transformed itself from a democratic socialist state into a capitalist success story where materialism is the measure of power and success. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister … and his political party have delivered on their promise of economic affluence, stability and peace. But for these “goods” the people of Singapore have had to submit to political hegemony and social control. The price has been the loss of individual freedom and the democratic right to make choices affecting one’s private and public lives. The gain has been material, the los intangible and difficult to articulate.”

This is also the patriot who gives credit where credit is due:

“My distaste for aspects of our government’s public policies and their arrogance need not prevent me from marvelling at what has been achieved for Singapore and from appreciating the PAP government’s accomplishments … The space has been part of the sea for most of my adult life. Once reclaimed, it was covered with instant trees. Now, on this piece of ground that had never existed, stands  a mini-city. Who could have imagined it? I have a new appreciation for the power of capital, the marvels of engineering and the labour, mostly foreign, which went into building this city.”

A woman who finally notes with self-understanding:

“… to be a Singaporean is to move on, trying and sometimes failing to keep up with changes. As Kathleen Norris observed in her book The Cloister Walk, ‘ To attaché oneself to place is to surrender to it and suffer with it.’ I smile in recognition.”

My fellow Tribe-Writer Kathleen Caron asked yesterday, “Do you have true grit?”

Upon consideration, I have to admit I do not. But I am glad to count myself a tribe-follower of one who does — Constance Singam, Singapore feminist and civil society activist, my friend!

Whom do you consider has true grit? Write about him or her and linkback to our comments here.

You can buy Where I Was, A Memoir from the Margins from: Amazon – and Select Books –

Meet Constance in Singapore on Friday 29 November 2013 at  AfterWords by Ehtos Book Club in Marine Parade Public Library Programme Zone



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