“I’m an actress by training but my work goes beyond that. My passion lies in education and engaging with the public through the arts. And while I don’t have children because I choose not to, I continue to educate the future generations through programmes like N.O.W.
N.O.W. is an acronym for ‘Not Ordinary Work’ presented by Theatreworks. It’s a three-week interdisciplinary public project where I focus on women creators, women thinkers, women change makers, women thought leaders and the work they do to make a difference in society.
I was asked why limit this showcase to just works by women, but I don’t think it’s a limitation – it’s just a focus. It’s a choice to frame the world, a commune where I, as an artistic director, can hopefully dig deep and explore this thing called the women’s voice.
On the second floor of Theatreworks, I have an exhibition called Power of Letters where I show the milestones that women in Singapore have journeyed so far in changing mindsets, particularly the mindset of policy makers and legislators. You know, those in seats of power.
The samples of letters you see in the exhibition were not only written by women who volunteered as presidents in AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), but also women from other organisations that many of us are not aware of.
I recently encountered a group of students during one of my workshops for N.O.W. and I asked them, ‘Can you name me a woman that you were taught in history to remember?’ The name that they mentioned – and a name that is often mentioned – was Elizabeth Choy.
That is the same woman I was taught in school in the 70s. Why is Elizabeth Choy still the only woman we are taught to remember in history books? Because she endured the Japanese Occupation?
If the only reason to remember a woman is to remember her for her suffering, then we have a serious problem in our society. How about those vocal women who went against the grain; the wayward and rebellious women who made ripples of trouble?
How about women like Shirin Fozdar who pushed the needle and accomplished plenty? She and other women started the Singapore Council of Women in the 1950s and their mandate then was to protect the rights of women and children by advocating for monogamy among other things.
Shirin Fozadar wanted the government to legislate the monogamy bill because without it, more husbands who practised polygamy would leave their wives and kids, leaving the women to suffer as they were uneducated and unable to secure proper jobs.
Through impassioned arguments, critical debate, writing letters to the newspapers and championing the cause for other women, they finally convinced the government to legislate the Women’s Charter in 1961 to protect the rights of women and children.
There are so many of such significant milestones if you were to take a look at the timeline presented in Power of Letters. Change is a process of time, and these changes took ages – some as long as 50 years, some as little as 30 years.
And these women who wrote letters to make people aware that a situation exists and get them riled up to support a cause have to be remembered. The Dana Lam, the Constance Singam, the Shirin Fozdar, the Nalla Tan. To me, they have to be applauded.
May their courage, persistence, resilience, resolution and commitment to fight for a just world ripple among the future generations of girls who will one day take their spots. You need to breed those women now. Otherwise, education is wasted.
Dr Aileen Wong, a second generation female parliamentarian, has a lovely quote.
She says, ‘Our younger women who enjoy so many opportunities now, so much support for education, in their careers and their lives, have forgotten that all these rights and opportunities were hard won by the women who were before them.
Having obtained all these rights that they now enjoy, the question is: Do they feel responsible for handing them over to the next generation of women? And if they do, how? How are they going to do that?’
We live in Singapore to be constantly reminded by how heartbroken we can be by legislations and policies. That is why it is so important for me to develop young people to understand that they have an ability to impact and touch others.
My work is in education and the arts, and I have to believe that it has agency. I must believe that if I impact some young people, these young people can one day impact others when they grow up. It is my way of believing there is hope for the future.” – Noorlinah Mohamed, 51
Interview: Arman Shah
N.O.W. is the first female-centric project by TheatreWorks. Part of a three-year plan, it is the first all-women project in Singapore for an entirely Singapore-run and operated project. Be sure to check it out before its 2019 run ends on 28 July.