Up to the age of 75, Seow Peck Leng still tirelessly devoted herself to charity. She would attend meetings, call up businessmen and shuttle from hotels to offices to organise a beauty pageant for charity; just as she had since 1975. “I just feel good helping others,” said Peck Leng, “It's a vocation dedicated to God.”
Born Chua Seng Kim in 1911, Peck Leng founded Siglap Girls’ Club in 1954, which was originally intended to serve the needs of underprivileged girls. It then became the Singapore Women’s Association (SWA), which sought to play a bigger role of promoting, among others, the mental, physical, social and spiritual well-being of women and girls; cooperation and a sense of responsibility as the basis of good citizenship. Moving with the times, SWA today is concerned with providing opportunities for women to give back to the community; enhance better health, livelihood and social status for women and children; and promoting fellowship locally and globally.
Through “Miss Singapore International” beauty pageant charity shows organised by SWA, Peck Leng sought to change the image of beauty pageants by instilling into young ladies the value that true beauty lies within the inner self; and concern, care and love for others. Peck Leng wanted to encourage ladies blessed with beauty to use this gift for a worthy cause; and to inculcate a desire to help the less fortunate. To this day, the SWA sticks closely to the example set out by Peck Leng. Participants are exposed to community service and taken to the homes of the sick, handicapped and the aged.
In 1982, the late Dr. Ee Peng Liang, then President of Singapore Council of Social Service said, “The Singapore Women’s Association… merits our citation by turning beauty contests into worthy social projects.” All net profits from the pageant were donated to their beneficiaries. SWA’s beneficiaries include underprivileged children, old folks and the community.
Besides being founder president of the SWA for 37 years, Peck Leng was also a passionate educator and politician. She was the first woman vice-president of the Singapore Teacher’s Union and the first woman secretary, leading the battle for the entry of married women teachers into the new Education Service Scheme with the government.
Peck Leng cared for women in the lower strata of society. She felt that women in the upper strata, who were the educated middle class, were more aware of their rights and privileges than those in the lower strata. Peck Leng wanted to educate the latter into becoming responsible citizens who could exercise their rights and not fall prey to subversives. Flying to Bangkok, Manila, Hong Kong and Tokyo, she studied the progress of women organisations there to find out how Singaporean women could do their part to reach out to women in the lower strata.
Peck Leng was also Singapore’s first woman opposition politician, although her younger son, Paul says, “Many people see her as a politician, but she was apolitic. Her cause was the welfare of women.” As a politician, Peck Leng proposed legislation to outlaw future polygamous marriages, saying that it was “about time women were more protected.” Together with other women parliamentarians, this led to the passing of the Women’s Charter in 1961. The abolishment of polygamy had the effect of making the wife a partner in marriage with full rights to social and economic protection; liberating and empowering women in Singapore. During her time as an MP, Peck Leng advocated the organisation of centres that could advise the poor on where and how they could obtain help, as well as the formation of more youth clubs.
In 1965, Peck Leng retired from politics to devote herself “entirely to social work.”
In 1977, Lord Mountbatten, presented Peck Leng with a plaque of Life Patronage of the International Variety Club for having raised the most funds for charity. In 1978, Peck Leng was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by the Ministry of Social Affairs for “valuable services rendered to others.” She also received an award in recognition for “invaluable services” to the Singapore Council of Social Services.
Peck Leng passed away in 2007 at the age of 95 but her legacy lives on.
By Christabel Khoo